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Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value [Paperback]

Julian Johnson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 Sep 2011
During the last few decades, most cultural critics have come to agree that the division between "high" and "low" art is an artificial one, that Beethoven's Ninth and "Blue Suede Shoes" are equally valuable as cultural texts. In Who Needs Classical Music?, Julian Johnson challenges these assumptions about the relativism of cultural judgments. The author maintains that music is more than just "a matter of taste": while some music provides entertainment, or serves as background noise, other music claims to function as art. This book considers the value of classical music in contemporary society, arguing that it remains distinctive because it works in quite different ways to most of the other music that surrounds us.

This intellectually sophisticated yet accessible book offers a new and balanced defense of the specific values of classical music in contemporary culture. The paperback edition includes a new preface from the author, re-contextualizing the debate ten years out. Who Needs Classical Music? will stimulate readers to reflect on their own investment (or lack of it) in music and art of all kinds.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA; Reprint edition (1 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199755426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199755424
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.2 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 506,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"You will often cheer out loud! I did...more profound than can be communicated in a book review. I read this twice. Like all my favorite books, I will read it again and again. Nothing is more relevant to classical music devotees."--American Record Guide"[A] heartfelt and finely reasoned appeal....wise, perceptive and inspiring book."--The Economist"[A] soberly argued defense of classical tradition as uniquely valuable in its own right, and hence worth sustaining as a cultural option open to all. Who Needs Classical Music? is neither a last-ditch lament nor an aggressive counter-attack....Every page -at times, every sentence-is loaded with implications for further thought deserves the widest attention." --BBC online"[A] sophisticated yet accessible defense of classical music's value."--Choice

About the Author

Professor of Music, Royal Holloway University of London, author of Webern and the Transformation of Nature, (Cambridge, 2000), Who Needs Classical Music (OUP, 2002), and Mahler's Voices (OUP, 2009), and composer. Winner, Dent Medal (2005) from the Royal Music Association.

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A tough read but very worthwhile. 13 Aug 2009
By John Ferngrove TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My initial impression of this book was that it was presenting various, rather standard arguments about the particular values of classical music in relation to other musics, and the threat posed to those values by the modern culture of immediate gratification. Johnson was preaching to the converted and not seeming to tell me anything I hadn't already thought for myself. Furthermore, this was all couched in the overwrought academic language of modern cultural criticism, and so was making it rather hard work to get at ideas that, once boiled down, came to nothing very new.

But then, just about the half way mark, the book started to deliver the kinds of things that I'd hoped to find when I made the purchase. Namely, ideas about the nature and value of classical music, both with respect to the listener and to wider culture, that helped me to articulate some of the more inchoate thoughts and feelings I myself have on these matters. As such, it went on to really help me clarify some of my aesthetic judgements around, not just classical music, but music of all kinds, and the contradictions that it highlights within modern democratic culture. This is not to say that it brings me to doubt for a moment, that liberal democracy is the best of possible worlds, in a world of difficult social and political choices. It is just that all such choices have their downside, and one of the downsides of the choice our culture has made is that Art (with a capital A) must struggle to be heard above the din of righteous pluralism. In a milieu of aesthetic relativism art must compete in an uneven marketplace if it is to retain what its lovers know to be its special value.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
74 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh insights here, a different perspective 24 April 2002
By The Man in the Hathaway Shirt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a courageous book to write in the current anti-intellectual climate. Julian Johnson flies in the face of the prevailing winds, not just in popular culture, but in much academia today as well. What Dr. Johnson says, essentially, is that the trend of seeing so-called "high culture" and particularly classical music, as elitist, as exclusionist, is itself actually elitist. He reasons that people or organizations that set themselves up as today's cultural arbiters are in fact exclusionary, because they are determining what is right for the public, what they desire. It's far more than just a clever contrarian argument. Johnson gets to the core of classical music, its essence, what makes it different from any other music in history, by discussing how it is put together, how it develops, how it works through time, and then shows how these techniques are not present in today's popular music, which rely instead on simple, short repetitions to create and reinforce a mood, a moment, a feeling. Thus, he argues, pop music is more about feeling, about gratification of the senses, about "taste" and subjective preference, while classical music, from a musicological point of view, has traditionally measured greatness by how the individual work exceeds the expectations and limitations of the form in which it is set. Classical music's tension is (generally) in this structural conflict between the formal and the individual, whereas pop music's (generally) is from the personal reaction the listener has to the textures, sounds, and lyrical message, conveyed through repetition, circular (non-developing) structures, and novelty of sound conveyed through electronics more often than not. And there is a difference, as he points out, between novelty and originality.

What all this means is that classical music has a unique value as a cultural artifact that today's musics, no matter how different they try to be on the surface (with new synthesized sounds, new volume levels, new extraneous gimmicks such as costumes and props), cannot convey. He insightfully points out that often the most advanced technology is used (under the banner of progress) to create the most rudimentary of song forms and structures, and that people are responding to the surface "lust," the sheen of the sound world, rather than intellectually to the construction, the stretching and reevaluating of boundaries. We come to the ironic realization that technologically-crude music made hundreds of years ago is actually more "cutting edge" than the most advanced pop manufactured on synthesizers and computers, because (although he does not quite say this) technology does not replace the human intellect, but it *can* allow it to hide behind a curtain, much like the old man at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

The overall excellence of the book doesn't stop Johnson from making some serious missteps. Like many pro-classical writers, Johnson sees all marketing and image in pop music but misses the considerable marketing and image-making in the classical music industry. Such passages as "The emphasis on the surface of things [in pop music] is essentially inhumane. It is pornographic because it fetishizes the materiality of human existence and denies the spiritual personality that vivifies it from within. Perhaps my use of the term 'pornographic' seems inappropriate and sensationalist in relation to music." In a way, though, there is a *little* bit of a distinction between the fetishisation found in pop music vs. that of classical. As a general rule, the objectification in the latter tends to be imposed on the performer against their will by the recording or promotions company. Of course one can point to the Karajans and Pavorattis, but on the whole classical performers have been dragged into the marketing aspects of classical music--at least, until very recently. Pop music, on the other hand, has thrived on the packaging from day one, with plants in the audiences to scream and jump up and down for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. And while the portrait of the artist as a hipster of sorts goes back at least as far as Franz Liszt, it has been taken farther by marketers in the last 30 years than any classical artist ever dreamed possible.

Still, Johnson keeps trying to tie classical music's value to some sort of humanitarianism (both unnecessary and naive, in my opinion). On p. 8 he makes one of the book's oddest statements: "Those who devalue art today point out that only in the last few hundred years has our society privileged certain works and activities as art and promoted them to an almost sacred status. But it is no coincidence that this has taken place at the very time that the rationalization of human life--both private and public--has severely threatened the idea of individuals' value by making them dispensable units in a quantitative system." Despite the admitted evils of modern mechanization, I've never read anything in history to indicate that we valued life more in the past than we do now. And I feel the author gets carried away in the "commoditization" of classical music, making the silly statement that packaging has made all music "the same size and shape," i.e., a CD jewel box. How is this different than 60 years ago, when Glenn Miller and Arturo Toscanini were "commoditizised" by identical-looking 78 records?

Johnson isn't completely against today's pop music (I won't call it contemporary or modern music because it is not, except chronologically, as Johnson shows). As he says at one point, "We need to dance as well as be still." But the culture that promotes only dancing, that views any dissent as to the value of dancing as elitist, that condemns that which it does not understand, has never taken the time to sample, and is hostile towards because of imagined cultural baggage, is elitist, closed-ended, and tyrannical--ironically, the very things many of today's young people consider classical institutions to be.

Johnson's discussions about the obsession today with the surface sheen are curious and interesting. Of course, as anyone will quickly point out, superficial populist music has always been among us, and for that matter has always been dominant, at least in terms of sheer number of listeners. The difference, I think, which I don't feel he hit hard enough, is that prior to mass consumption of recorded music, made possible by changes in technology, sociology and psychology that today's listeners only dimly grasp if at all, this populist music was recognized for precisely what it is, diversion with a surface-sheen. Today's popular taste-makers have held this simpler, less-developed music up as Art, or at least serious cultural material. Most of today's taste-makers in the mainstream industry, which boils down to marketers, really (most of whom are in their 20s, and regard The Beatles as ancient music--my injection, not his) say music evaluation is at best "a matter of opinion," and at most, classical music is a despotic artifact of an age no longer relevant. And he says that's nothing more than willful ignorance, one that media outlets and even academic institutions are willing to go along with, for the sake of the all-mighty dollar. Although I would have liked to have seen a deeper examination of this capitalist viewpoint, I am still pleased that books are starting to deal with this obvious-but-ignored issue at all. The same liberals (and conservatives for that matter) who find all sorts of objectionable matter in TV programs, newspapers, and billboard ads give rock music pretty much a free pass. Somehow Calvin Klein underwear ads damage our youth's fragile psyche, but music whose themes and images involve rape, bestiality, murder and mayhem do not. Hmmm...

So why am I withholding the final star? Because in the last few pages he blows it, lapsing into the very sort of subjective rationale for his musical preferences I was cheering him for avoiding. I agree the best of what we call classical music is more complex, more subtle, more existential, and of greater value than "popular culture" for those reasons. However, he then starts giving analogies between the smooth intricacy of the string quartet and the intricacy and smooth functioning of a democracy. He sees direct parallels between one's advanced musical and one's advanced political and civic choices, and argues implicitly that classical music is good for civic harmony. Well now, some of the most fervent classical artists and audiences who ever lived were in Hitler's Nazi Germany. 'Nuff said. Here and throughout the book Johnson seems to think that good art makes for good human beings. Obviously it's never that simple, much as we would like it to be.

But despite a few blemishes, the book is very worth reading. It's refreshing to see anyone tackling these issues at all, and Dr. Johnson tackles most of them with considerable insight.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughts of an age 25 white male 19 Aug 2004
By John White - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
First off, this is not a an academic or musicological book. But it is a very thoughtful one. It felt like a grouping of essays from which one could base discussions.

During this last paragraph of this book I was reminded of Wynton Marsalis' comment in the Ken Burns Jazz documentary that, Beethoven does not come to you, you have to come to him. Johnson seems to be expressing that classical music requires determined effort to truly appreciate.

I personally came to classical music from the standpoint that a good deal of effort is put into creating it and much of it require virtuosity, so surely a good deal of insight can be gained from it, as long as one puts forth the patience and can maintain some modesty towards it. At the very least, it should be respected. Classical music requires that you don't use it as mood music, but that you earnestly devote your attention and immediate focus to it.

In the final chapter, Johnson goes on a bit more of a modern society rant. e.g. Television being the antithesis of classical music in that only the most minimal involvement is required to absorb its full meaning.

Although he makes some decent arguments for setting classical music apart as mindful art music, there are errors in his logic/proofs. Surely some Satie, Chopin, Schubert lieder, and works of Bach are no different from our songs (lieder) of today of a similar ABA structure. Though he used Beethoven's Fifth as a example of the discursive quality of classical... it would be hard to lose the argument if all classical music were as potent!

Self-referrentiality, also, was a component of his argument for classical, yet Jazz and Hip Hop are loaded with it. Jazz has its references to bop, dixieland, cool jazz, free jazz, etc. I think it is hard to see some Hip Hop being respected 50 years on when every other line makes a soon-to-be-outdated pop culture reference. (But then Beethoven and Mozart used Janissary music references - pop culture in their time, yes?)

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great morsels in here, like his reference to the popularity of the fade-out as the "solution" to the lack of denouement in pop songs. I also appreciated his reference of the polarity of modern life: think hard at work so you can come home and turn off your brain via TV or the Spice Girls. Rarely do we budget our meager free time towards leisure activities requring mental effort.

While his overall argument has its foibles, myriad directions are delightfully taken that would otherwise be ignored in a less thorough and less entertaining survey.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes this is good 31 Mar 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Johnson embarks on what is actually a very challenging subject. This is a stimulating and a provoking text, in which a sensible and cohesive argument is set out (very occasional slightly silly parodies aside - i think the other reviewers may not understand the slight toungue-in-cheek nature of some of these). I would very definately reccomend this book for anyone interested in music, culture, art and people!
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling argument for classical music 6 Dec 2003
By Henry Fogel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Julian Johnson confronts the complex issue of the value to society of art music -- and the differences between art music and popular music. Although densely written (this is not a book for skimming, nor for light reading), I found the book compelling and cogently argued. Johnson tries to define the relationship between art music and our human qualities -- and argues convincingly that there are real differences between popular and serious culture, and that those differences should not be minimized in the name of political correctness. It is not easy to summarize the book, because of the complexity of its subject and the depth of his argument. But anyone with an interest in the place of classical music in our society today should read this.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, though rather short and incomplete 27 April 2006
By Sekais - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As someone who stands out for having no interest in popular music and a love of classical music, I was overjoyed to discover this book. Finally, someone out there who finds current trends in music as depressing as I do, someone who is willing to defend classical music from the myriad of charges against it (and there are certainly many).

I was surprised by Johnson's approach. I was expecting something comparing the complexity of classical music to popular music when I first heard about it. Nonetheless, I was surprised and pleased to see that Johnson followed a more philosophical approach, focusing on the purpose of classical as compared to pop. Specifically, Johnson argues that classical music is important because it represents art rather than mere entertainment.

Although I found it to be a very good book, I withheld a star because it does have some shortcomings. It is a very short read and I think it would have been better if it went into more depth on issues it only touched on. Johnson notes that rock music is quite rhythmically impoverished and that popular music relies on decidedly archaic harmonic language, for example. These are very good points, but he does not elaborate on them as much as I hoped he would.

I would have also liked to see his take on the various forms of jazz and progressive rock that I often see cited by those arguing in favor of popular music. Many seriously argue that they constitute art on the same level as classical music. Given that, it seems unlikely that a staunch fan would find this case for classical music particularly convincing. Though Johnson makes a good case that there is more than taste at work, I fear that alone will do little to save classical music.
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