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Why Classical Music Still Matters (Simpson Book in the Humanities) [Hardcover]

Lawrence Kramer
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

11 May 2007
'What can be done about the state of classical music?' Lawrence Kramer asks in this elegant, sharply observed, and beautifully written extended essay. Classical music, whose demise has been predicted for at least a decade, has always had its staunch advocates, but in today's media-saturated world there are real concerns about its viability. "Why Classical Music Still Matters" takes a forthright approach by engaging both skeptics and music lovers alike. In seven highly original chapters, "Why Classical Music Still Matters" affirms the value of classical music - defined as a body of nontheatrical music produced since the eighteenth century with the single aim of being listened to - by revealing what its values are: the specific beliefs, attitudes, and meanings that the music has supported in the past and which, Kramer believes, it can support in the future. "Why Classical Music Still Matters" also clears the air of old prejudices. Unlike other apologists, whose defense of the music often depends on arguments about the corrupting influence of popular culture, Kramer admits that classical music needs a broader, more up-to-date rationale. He succeeds in engaging the reader by putting into words music's complex relationship with individual human drives and larger social needs. In prose that is fresh, stimulating, and conversational, he explores the nature of subjectivity, the conquest of time and mortality, the harmonization of humanity and technology, the cultivation of attention, and the liberation of human energy.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (11 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520250826
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520250826
  • Product Dimensions: 21.5 x 14.2 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 417,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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About the Author

Lawrence Kramer is Professor of English and Music at Fordham University and editor of 19th-Century Music. His many books include Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss (2004), Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (1995), After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture (1997), and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (2002), all from the University of California Press.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why musical meaning still intrigues us 28 Jun 2009
By Roochak
Format:Paperback
Sure, we enjoy listening to classical music, but why should the music really matter to us? Lawrence Kramer has set himself quite a challenge trying to answer that question, and understanding his argument in this brief but difficult book is no less of a challenge for the reader.

The latter is partly a function of Kramer's prose-poetic style: you're invited to negotiate 226 pages of such passages as "Regardless of the specific analogies involved, thinking about the performer or performance in the sense of creative reproduction and worldly activity takes us into the wider field of human performances, both symbolic and material, and therefore into the realms of action, desire, social condition, and the vitality of experience." Philosophical arguments about aesthetic value are notoriously difficult to follow in any event; it comes with the territory.

While Kramer has only good things to say about jazz and pop music, he locates a reflexive, ambivalent individualism -- the product of Enlightenment values and a fundamental condition of modernity -- in "classical" music, here identified with European art music from Bach to Ligeti. If the burden of creativity in jazz and pop lies almost entirely within the power of the performer (or arranger), the classical score is a symbol, a notional concept of music; the actual music is created by the subjective listener, in close collaboration with the composer and the performer(s). Far from being "timeless", classical music is provisional; it exists only in the hearing of the listening subject, and so the music has different meanings in different contexts, from the concert hall to the movie soundtrack.
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2 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Hard work 19 Jan 2008
Format:Hardcover
This is not an easy or enjoyable read. It's very academic and is unlikely to appeal to anyone who doesn't enjoy a somewhat high-flown, pretentious style of writing.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why musical meaning still intrigues us 27 Jun 2009
By Roochak - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Sure, we enjoy listening to classical music, but why should the music really matter to us? Lawrence Kramer has set himself quite a challenge trying to answer that question, and understanding his argument in this brief but difficult book is no less of a challenge for the reader.

The latter is partly a function of Kramer's prose-poetic style: you're invited to negotiate 226 pages of such passages as "Regardless of the specific analogies involved, thinking about the performer or performance in the sense of creative reproduction and worldly activity takes us into the wider field of human performances, both symbolic and material, and therefore into the realms of action, desire, social condition, and the vitality of experience." Philosophical arguments about aesthetic value are notoriously difficult to follow in any event; it comes with the territory.

While Kramer has only good things to say about jazz and pop music, he locates a reflexive, ambivalent individualism -- the product of Enlightenment values and a fundamental condition of modernity -- in "classical" music, here identified with European art music from Bach to Ligeti. If the burden of creativity in jazz and pop lies almost entirely within the power of the performer (or arranger), the classical score is a symbol, a notional concept of music; the actual music is created by the subjective listener, in close collaboration with the composer and the performer(s). Far from being "timeless", classical music is provisional; it exists only in the hearing of the listening subject, and so the music has different meanings in different contexts, from the concert hall to the movie soundtrack.

Kramer's summary chapters on musical value bookend the essay, whose individual chapters focus on melody, which enacts a journey through experience; on score and performance, or the musical expression of emotions that we can't, or won't, put into words (Kramer's examples drawn from Hollywood movies are persuasive here); on art songs of loss and defiance, and the life-affirming process of finding meaning in them; on the paradox of classical piano music, which centers on a machine designed for players to embody mind and spirit, both their own and the composer's; and finally, a chapter on how art music creates a sense of cultural memory, a critical and reflexive sense that transcends mere nostalgia.

This is by no means an easy book to read, but I finished it with a richer sense of what this music has to offer to the engaged listener: the stimulation of a wider imaginative freedom, with which to better grasp the relation of [musical] work to world. And if classical music still matters, that's not too much to ask of it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND MUSIC ARGUES THE "FOR" CASE 9 April 2013
By Steven H. Propp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Lawrence Kramer is Professor of English and Music at Fordham University, and has also written books such as Interpreting Music, Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History, Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss, etc.

He wrote in the "In Lieu of a Preface" to this 2007 book, "few have asked forthrightly why and how classical music should still matter. That is exactly what this book does... [It] looks for answers that can appeal both to lovers of this music and to skeptics... It affirms the VALUE of classical music by revealing what its VALUES are." (Pg. vii) He adds, "This book... springs from an effort to ... ask for simple answer to a simple question: What's in this music for me? In other words, why does classical music still matter?... The idea is simply to suggest by example how classical music can become a source of pleasure, discovery, and reflection tuned not only to the world of the music, rich though that is, but also to the even richer world beyond the music." (Pg. 4, 6)

He suggests, "Classical music finds its special character in a sustained encounter with this dimension of melody." (Pg. 38) Later, he adds, "So rooted, so culturally fraught, is the principle of melodic return that its own return is virtuallly irrepressible. It seems like the force of nature itself, of a piece with traditional conceptions of cyclical time." (Pg. 69) He states, "The [musical] score is like a map that traces a route while erasing its destination... What makes a score 'classical' is the particular relationship between the way it is written and the way it is treated. The classical score has to project a conception of the fate of melody (or a credible alternative), and it has to endow its details with meaning and drama." (Pg. 81)

He says, "The history of the piano might be written as the gradual discovery and development of its ability to create an intimate space in which playing and listening meet, touch, part, and meet again. This ability... allows the piano to become a microcosm for the whole enterprise." (Pg. 137)

He summarizes, "Classical music still matters because we can now openly recognize something that has always been true of it but little heeded: that performance is a way to live with music, and even a little to live through music, and that anyone and everyone can play." (Pg. 87) He argues, "All classical music is designed to be heard attentively... More 'popular' types of music are more attuned to movement; they are something one moves to, not something one grows still for. People in the subway can literally take such music in stride. With music like this Bach, one can only stride away." (Pg. 210)

This is not a book particularly analyzing/critiquing the current classical music outlook (see books like Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics and Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall for such analysis), and reads more like a series of general prose essays, than an attempt to present a progressive argument. Nonetheless, for anyone who wants an intelligent commentator on classical music in general (that's less "negative" about popular music than, say, Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value), this book will be of much interest.
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible! 9 April 2014
By Sarah T. Donner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Book came in timely fashion and was, if not brand new, one would never know. Thanks. It is always amazing to me that the books we order are delivered in such good shape, often brand new.
3.0 out of 5 stars A good advertisement 30 July 2013
By kristella - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Kramer is, undoubtably, an accomplished scholar and a well-respected intellectual in his own realm with a lot of work going on for him. I highly support the idea of nonacademic (in lieu of anti-academic) writing; I think that's fantastic. His reasons for why classical music is still relevant today is descriptive, emotional, purple-prose that loses me as a classical musician. The first chapter seems like 34 pages of him defending himself and the subsequent essays. The fate of melody reads too much like someone trying to tell me a summary of an epic saga. While I admire the tone he sets in accordance with his audience, I think it reads too much like an advertisement for the genre, pointing out some cool shiny fixtures that have a tradition and is constantly changing, rather than its relevancy in contemporary culture.

It's a long preface to reading Aaron Copland's "What to Listen for in Music."
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Are any "non-believers" ever actually convinced by such a book? 20 Jan 2014
By Christopher Culver - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The first decade of the new millennium saw several books published on declining interest in classical music even among cultural elites, among which one could mention Julian Johnson's Who Needs Classical Music and Fineberg's Classical Music, Why Bother. Lawrence Kramer's WHY CLASSICAL MUSIC STILL MATTERS is an extended essay on the virtures of classical music by a professor of English and Music at Fordham University. Published in 2007, it shows an awareness of Johnson's earlier book.

As an enormous fan of classical music, especially composers of the 20th century and beyond, I'm always interested in arguments that might convince some of my peers to try the genre out. Kramer does not argue for any superiority of classical music over other, popular genres. Instead he tries to focus on a few aspects of classical music that he believes unique to the genre and rewarding, such as melodic development and the relationship between the unchanging score and the rich differences between individual performances.

However, Kramer writes his defense of classical music in such longwinded, highfaultin' prose that the only people likely to keep up with him are people already committed to the genre. To offer one representative quotation, here's how he describes the Brahms Clarinet Quintet:

"If nothing else, the hope is to amend the sense of loss, even if it cannot be rememied, by saying an appropriate farewell. So the music goes systematically rummaging around in memory or fantasy (unable, really, to tell them apart) until it finds what it wants, which may or may not be what it has so long sought. The bliss is the music's secret, a secret kept even from the music itself that in the end it can be discovered, blurted out, confessed. Yet when it appears at last the blissful melody smothers the desire it rewards. It collapses one last time -- really, the last, this time -- into a gloomy, dark-tone B-minor close on the strings. The long search has only reconfirmed the transformation of a once-present hapiness into an eternally lost object of desire. What the quintet learns from that transformation is the hard necessity of resigning oneself to it."

Imagine reading such ecstatic reveries of one man's personal experience of various pieces (which may not reflect other people's interpretations at all) for a couple of hundred pages without any prior attraction to classical music.

I would say the only real audience for this book are readers who are already interested in classical music and who want to expand their collections. Kramer's inclusion of some great 20th century tonal repertoire is to be commended. He writes passionately about Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" and Ligeti's Piano Etudes, noting that they maintain longstanding concerns of classical music and offer many delights, so hopefully he will encourage some conservative listeners to give these works a chance. As an book for to get the general public on board, this is a failure.
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