gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Music in American Life

Between editing anthologies like his Pleasures of Music (1951) and The Delights of Detection (1961), Barzun also managed to produce two influential bestsellers, a volume of his critical essays, a research-and-report handbook (still in print with a sixth edition), and a little survey that’s easily overlooked:  Music in American Life. His essay of 117 pages was written from January–July 1955, soon after publication of his other American panorama, God’s Country and Mine.

Rereading Music in American Life after “Berlioz and Barzun” recalled my initial expectation that the work would be insubstantial.  I found instead that it is fundamental, an ear-witness account of “Music Unlimited”, as an early section title sums up the effects on daily life of ubiquitous broadcasts, canned music, and the mass production of vinyl records.  His attitude remains central: “Music shares my devotion with the other arts as well as with ideas and concerns remote from art; so that my aggressive passions and my lust for rationality disperse themselves (harmlessly, I hope) over a wide territory.

That passion for Reason shows how Barzun made his own the Enlightenment’s driving force.   Yet his defense of Romanticism led some to call him a Neo-Romantic.  Rather than seeing them as irrational worshipers of emotion, Jacques championed the Romantics for making ‘an intellectual point about the emotional life.’  (Please forgive the paraphrase and lack of a citation; I may add them later.) When first reading Music in American Life, the recognition of Barzun’s Modernist ways prompted this marginalia:

If Shaw’s generation got into the habit of using the inversion trick, it may be said that JB’s talent for showing many sides simultaneously belongs with the Cubists, helping the reader to move from the dogmatic single vantage where truth has a vanishing point and use the mind to hold multiple perspectives in a single pulse of thought.

There are many examples throughout his work of the long sentence or paragraph rapidly assembled from disparate elements that Jacques chose not to break down into a rat-a-tat-tat of simple declarative sentences.  There are better examples, but here is the Music in American Life paragraph (p. 82) on LP records (“discs”) that reinforced my view that Barzun is altogether Classic, Romantic, and Modern:

“The moral is simple:  any musical addict ought to make a point of balancing his diet. Discs sustain the musical life, but the vitamins of live music make it flourish.  To vary the image, the disc is to the amateur an introducer and a reminder; to the performer it is an aid to study; to the critic, a means of comparison and judgment; and to all a source of recreation and refreshment akin to a library of plays.  But its auditory and intellectual rigidities are esthetic limitations to be mentally corrected, just like the bad acoustics of a given hall, the bad fingering of a member of the string ensemble, the bad tempo of a manic conductor, the bad mood one may be in from a stomach ache.  Music is never perfectly heard or rendered, which is why it has to be ‘monitored’ by the receiving mind, even and especially after it has been monitored in the studio.”

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This post marks the 105th anniversary of Jacques Barzun’s birth.

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giving thanks

Twenty years ago I had no inkling of all that I would have to be thankful for in 2012. The thought of writing to my hero was daunting.  The prospect of meeting Jacques Barzun seemed impossible.  I have wondered since May whether to write about that culmination.  I now choose to do so as a way of giving thanks.

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Prior to the concert I stood up to take photographs of the Majestic Theatre’s interior and of the great man sitting across the way.  I also may have been the first to rise in a standing ovation as Jacques came forward to say a few words in lieu of the planned video tribute.  When the symphony’s performance concluded, the applause faded, and the audience started to file out, I stood by my seat and turned to savor the occasion.  I saw two smiling women headed my way.

Mary Jane Howe and Diana Hamner wondered who this stand-up character might be, ‘a Berlioz expert’ perhaps?  I told them of my enthusiasm for Barzun and touched on a few areas of his expertise, including the life and music of Berlioz.  My Barzun train of associations might have become a runaway if not for the impending reception. I listened to the charming ladies describe San Antonio’s attractions, including other handsome theaters.  Our delightful chat was cut short as an usher asked us to move to the lobby where Eric Morse waited patiently.

We met and walked up to the mezzanine’s Starlight Lounge.  Thanks to Leo Wong’s surprising initiative and Marguerite Barzun’s kindness, we found our names on the guest list.  Just inside we were offered champagne.  I sipped from the flute and scanned the room.  Our benefactor, Charles Butt, stood over in the middle section greeting appreciative guests.  Not far from him more people gathered around the center of attention, a smiling Jacques Barzun.  It looked to be a while before we might enjoy an audience.

Remaining on the periphery, Eric and I talked about the amazing reality of our presence there, our impressions of San Antonio, and the books I carried:  the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century and A Stroll with William James.  The focus on conversation resulted in my losing track of the author’s living presence. Then “suddenly” he was rolling near and the gentlemen pushing his wheelchair said, “There’s someone here with books for you to sign.”

The question of how to address him could be put off no longer.  How to express reverence and friendship at once? “Professor Barzun … Jacques,” came out as I managed to say, “I’m your amateur bibliographer, John Adams.”  I made something like a bow to lower my eyes to the level of his own. “Oh, John …” he responded with warmth and surprise as he reached out for my hand.  Having known for some time of the pain writing often caused him, I clasped his hand gently and found that his hands were as large as mine.

Taking a step or two back, I turned to my compatriot, “May I introduce your newest neighbor?  This is Eric Robert Morse, direct descendant of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame, a painter like his ancestor and a published author with several books to his credit.”  As Eric stepped forward I added that though a newcomer to San Antonio, he had already formed a reading group, the first Jacques Barzun Book Club.

There were hundreds of questions that I would like to have asked Barzun, most arising from an intimate knowledge of his works.  Somehow I skipped them all and landed on an inconsequential detail, his portrait on the “Berlioz and Barzun” program.  Lionel Trilling’s photograph of Jacques wearing a summer suit had first appeared on the dust jacket for God’s Country and Mine.  Showing Barzun wearing a watch on his right wrist, I had wondered whether he was left-handed.  During a rereading years later it occurred to me that the image had been reversed.  Of all the foolish words that have passed my lips, the most ridiculous were those that informed my hero, “You never parted your hair on the right side.”

The gracious gentleman overlooked that blunder and our short conversation continued.  I noticed Eric crouch so that he too would see eye-to-eye with Barzun.  Recognizing his good sense, I gave up my stooped posture and took a knee.  (If I had brought my sword I might have asked Jacques to knight me.)  Soon thereafter he was answering a question when his throat began to catch.  A few moments later his eyes started to water.  He managed to collect himself, but the discomfort may have diminished his acuity.

I mentioned something from our letters and he asked, “Have we corresponded?”  I could have reminded Jacques of my occasional missives from California, New York, and Alaska, or gifts ranging from smoked wild salmon to a James Agate book of theatre criticism that was new to him.  Instead, sensing another admirer standing by to greet Jacques, I simply said, “Maybe a sample of my handwriting will remind you.” I reached into my coat and pulled out a card that I had written that afternoon, thinking that if he was too tired to attend the reception I might find someone who could deliver it to him later.

Barzun opened the envelope then and there.  A last small tribute dropped into his lap – a 1921 silver dollar.  The grandfather for whom I am named had given it to me on the day I was born – a birthday shared with my father and, as I learned just this year, Barzun’s father, too.  Jacques arrived in America the year before the coin was minted.  The Liberty head design reminded me of his arrival by steamer in New York harbor, under the welcoming gaze of that other gift from France.  I mentioned those connections in my note.

Whether my handwriting jogged his memory I do not know, but he asked whether we might have met before, “perhaps without the beard?”  Despite his love for William James, I had noticed over the years a half dozen or so disparagements of beards in Barzun’s writing.  Replying to one of my infrequent letters (sent at a longer than usual interval after a move from Kodiak to Juneau), Jacques expressed relief that I hadn’t fallen into a crevasse.  My humorous answer included the adjacent photo as proof of life and explained this Alaskan’s preference for facial insulation from the cold.  Jacques wrote back: “Do not labor under the misapprehension that I have any objection to beards.  Yours shows excellent topiary work.  My distaste is only for paucity and straggle when flaunted.”

I assured Jacques that this was our first meeting – one that I had hoped for since at least as early as my first letter to him in 1993 – and expressed my gratitude viva voce and in the note:  for the chance to meet him, for permission to work in his Papers at Columbia, and for all that his works have meant to me.  I picked up the unsigned books, then Eric and I stepped aside.  We moved toward the back of the room where we thanked Marguerite and talked with her briefly.  She asked Jack Jackson to join us, made the introductions, and soon excused herself to go check on Jacques.

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Jack delighted us by describing his informal conversations with Jacques.  I thank him here again for sharing those experiences and his interest in family histories.  It was Jack who urged me to write of the trip to San Antonio and include the ridiculous details of my pilgrimage.

This website’s 11-month beginning, my first public attempt to broadcast Barzun’s merits, has brought unexpected pleasures.  I hope that there will be more exchanges like Bill Sweetland’s freewheeling appreciation of Jacques.  (Thanks, Bill, for the encouragement to reveal more of myself.)  I was glad to see an instance of the tags I provide helping someone to discover what Barzun said on a particular subject, in that case the orchestral poet Sebastien Voirol.  The details can be found in the post “father and son” and in the comments below “What’s next?

Sending a “Berlioz and Barzun” program  to Leo Wong was the least I could do to show my gratitude for his support.  It seems that the instant a gentle rereader post appears Leo has planted a link in the Jacques Barzun Fan Club on Facebook.  I imagine that he was the one who added this site to the Jacques Barzun page on Wikipedia, as well.  Best of all, his occasional comment (see after “Barzun’s women“) and frequent emails supply Barzun conversation that I have missed for much of my life.  Thank you very much indeed, Leo, especially for the gift of how Jacques first greeted me.  I would not have been present without your intercession.

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Henri Barzun

Jacques Barzun

John at Columbia, 1980
On liberty from Navy Officer Candidate School, with a haircut Jacques would approve.

John at Columbia, 2004, hirsute.
First visit to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

musical expression

San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastien Lang-Lessing asked guest of honor Jacques Barzun whether he would like to say anything about the evening’s Berlioz selections.  Barzun drew applause from musicians and audience alike by deferring to the orchestra’s imminent performance.  Jacques made way for the music as he rolled from front-and-center to wheelchair space along the left aisle.

Anyone there unfamiliar with Barzun’s criticism might suppose that the response to music he advocates – even after the last bar has been played – is silence.  Thanks to Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun Reader, his answer to the question “Is Music Unspeakable?” can be heard in full (pages 323–337).  Barzun begins with the elemental: “After a concert there is a natural urge to talk.  Music is a strong stimulus that calls for outward release.  But there is also the wish to be safe, the fear of saying the wrong thing.  This awkward relation of words to music is what I hope may be made clearer by considering some neglected facts.”  Jacques inoculates listeners against the “snobbish and fallacious” malady of critics and musicians who treat music as “pure” or “mathematical” and beyond the help of words.

I know Barzun much better than Berlioz, so what I have to say about the concert may sound foolish.  Though I was attending the same performance as Jacques, his experience of “Berlioz and Barzun” must have been much richer.  His keen musical perceptions and profound knowledge of the composer would resonate throughout the performance.  The distance between our seats made a difference, too.  Jacques saw the back of Concertmaster Ertan Torgul who faced the orchestra; my view from the third row right showed Mr. Torgul in profile.  Barzun’s eyes and mine were below stage level so that we could not see many musicians beyond those downstage.

From the first beat of Le Carnaval romain overture I saw the truth of Barzun’s assertion, “That the response is visceral is vividly shown when we look at players and conductors in action.”  Lang-Lessing’s baton gamboled along with his entire being.  Torgul moved with vigor despite being constrained by the violin under his chin and confined to a chair.  Between the two I could clearly see Associate Concertmaster Bonnie Terry whose spirited playing showed both through her bodily motions and the expressions flashing across her beautiful features.

Bonnie Terry
Associate Concertmaster
San Antonio Symphony

Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink may recall his last chapter, “Listening with Your Eyes.”  He relates the story of trombonist Abbie Conant’s blind audition for the Munich Philharmonic in 1980.  A screen made her gender invisible to the judges and her ability won them over.  Her unveiling prompted pay discrimination and later demotion to second chair. Eventually vindicated in court and in concert, Conant was a harbinger of the gender balance – through careers open to talent  – evident in orchestras like today’s San Antonio Symphony.  So I dismissed the lazy conjecture that Ms. Terry had been promoted for her loveliness, or denied the Concertmaster’s chair because of her sex.

Eventually I closed my eyes to her beauty, the better to attend to the entire orchestra.  Before then, however, I saw something extraordinary, a look that combined so many feelings that I still struggle to describe them.  Seriousness was there, as it had been since tuning her instrument.  Concentration focused her eyes like lasers.  If the moment had been filmed, I could pause the replay as the crucial passage approached and identify the measure about to move her eyebrows – not into a furrow or frown, but into some configuration of recognition, comprehension, an intense understanding of the composer’s meaning.  Remembering her complex expression months later, I better understand Barzun’s assertion: “What is stirred up by music lies below the emotions, or at least at the core of more than one at a time.”

Barzun elaborated his distinction between visceral and emotional responses to music in his 1951 Elson Lecture at the Library of Congress, “Music into Words.”  There he also explained by analogy how all true arts provide reverberation beyond their daubs of paint, stone shapes, or strings … of words.  Returning to Hamlet, the tragedy that helped to save young Jacques’ life, Barzun chose passages to show how art works after preparing the ground, “… art differs from workaday communication in that it transcends the literal—not excludes or denies it, for it contains it—but goes beyond.  If this is so, then another imaginary barrier between music and the other arts disappears: no art denotes or gives out information.”  The reflections on Yorick’s skull that follow – one page of twenty-seven devoted to music – should not be missed by anyone who cares about Art, especially literate artists.

No wonder that the final piece by Berlioz that Jacques wanted to hear live was the “Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet” from Tristia (Opus 18).  The conductor gave his 21st century listeners advance warning that sounds of gunfire would come from the music – presumably not from the audience or a drive-by shooting.  Crackling like fireworks comes about two-thirds of the way through the funeral march, but I do not recall whether the selection halted there or whether the orchestra played the remaining third.

In either case, that was not the last Berlioz composition performed that night.  Lang-Lessing chose as an encore the piece that Jacques asked to be excluded from the program:  the “Marche Troyenne.”  Barzun had adopted the music as Columbia University’s graduation processional and told the conductor that he was tired of it, just as many teachers grow weary of “Pomp and Circumstance.”  I hope that this last lagniappe caused Jacques no worse indigestion than the prospect that his legacy may be boiled down to that of an “educationist.”

Barzun deserves a better fate.  He has been recognized as a Great Teacher and will remain one for as long as his works continue to be read.  That happy thought suggests that more of his works should be inscribed with digital ink.  HarperCollins may find it too great a challenge to translate From Dawn to Decadence into e-reader formats.  A Jacques Barzun Reader, however, is perfectly suited to Nook, iPad, Libre, Kobo and other devices. The Harper Perennial paperback is currently out of stock at Amazon, but we can encourage HarperCollins to digitize Barzun’s cross-fertilization of the arts by simply clicking on the “Tell the Publisher! I want to read this book on Kindle” link (right column, next to picture of e-reader).

Brief quotations of Barzun can be a disservice to reader and author alike.  The lines quoted here apply well enough to the occasion, but they are hardly nutshells of either lecture or essay.  I wish that I could link to complete texts of “Is Music Unspeakable?” (originally in The American Scholar, Spring 1996, pp. 193–202); to “Music into Words” (printed in The Score, December 1954; Music and Words: From Addison to Barzun, Jack Sullivan, ed., pp. 14–31) and to Critical Questions, pp. 3–29, as editor Bea Friedland also includes “The Meaning of Meaning in Music” (pp. 75–98; and in The Musical Quarterly, January 1980, pp. 1–20) where Barzun explains:

Music—and every other art—is expressive in the same sense as a cry or a gesture.  We say to the same effect a ‘facial expression’—it has no name, but it means.  Music is of course far more complex than cries, faces, or gestures, but like a brilliant pantomime its consecutive intention is immediately perceived and understood.  No need of mentally guessing, translating, converting its passing forms into another realm of abstract or concrete perceptions.  The better word for this power is not expression but expressiveness, which—to me at least—gets rid of the imagined second term that cannot be named but would be tacked on to ‘of’ if one could name it.”

a few words before the concert

Maecenas

The Express-News report on the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert came close to accurately quoting the honoree.  Jacques compared San Antonio Symphony benefactor Charles Butt to Horace and Virgil’s patron Maecenas, the “wealthy Roman who thought that his compatriots ought to have a more elevated pleasure than having gladiators kill each other.”

Whether an editor snipped column inches or the reporter chose to turn a deaf ear to Barzun’s next remark is impossible to say.  Jacques did go on: “I was trying to think of an equivalent of gladiators killing each other and I finally hit upon it,” then he paused before delivering a punchline.  He didn’t refer grimly to the UFC’s caged combatants locked in their bloody mixed martial arts. Instead, Barzun made the orchestra and audience laugh with his musical analog to a Colosseum spectacle: “rock and roll.”

Why not rap?  Public Enemy’s Chuck D claims that music education budget cuts in New York City during the 1970s deprived youth of Barzun’s “more elevated pleasures.”  The musical instrument vacuum was filled by hip-hop and rap.  Barzun named rock, though, and the Express-News may have left that out to avoid controversy.  Not Jacques.  Nor will I.

Free tickets to the Majestic Theatre performance drew a varied crowd, from blue jeans to suits, and from elders to kids.  Seeing children in the foyer before the concert reminded me of Jacques’ first public music experience, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps.  I have since recalled my own – another free concert – outdoors during the Strawberry Festival in Orange County, California, when I was around ten.  A band played the opening electric guitar melody of “Get Together” by the Youngbloods and I felt reverberation for the first time. Songs on the little plastic radio at home did not do that.  Popular music was all that I really knew until Barzun’s words opened my ears to Berlioz.  Then it was on to Furtwängler’s Beethoven and more.

Having grown up with rock, though, I can imagine how easily others might dismiss Barzun’s joke – especially in print – as the cranky humor of an elitist curmudgeon. JB’s jabs can startle, shove aside timeworn ideas, and create an opening for the unexpected.  His barbs are sometimes meant to serve that purpose, as suggested in an epigraph to his Energies of Art from John Jay Chapman:  “So long as a man is trying to tell the truth, his remarks will contain a margin which other people will regard as mystifying and irritating exaggeration. It is this very margin of controversy that does the work.”

Barzun achieves surer results when the occasion allows him to better develop his thoughts.  When rock-and-roll’s golden oldies were still recent releases, Barzun delivered “A Request for the Loan of Your Ears” (1961) to an audience about to hear for the first time compositions from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  His listeners in the McMillin Theatre included lovers of classical music and, among the students at least, some fans of rock as well. Strangers to the new creation, Jacques first invited them to take pleasure in the effort to comprehend unknown works, but

“To understand in this fashion does not mean to accept passively because someone says that the stuff is new and therefore good, that many believe in it, that it’s going to succeed anyway, so it’s best to resign oneself to the inevitable.  This kind of reasoning has gone on about modern art for some thirty years and nothing has been more harmful to the arts. It is an inverted philistinism, which eliminates judgment and passion just as surely as did the older philistinism of blind opposition to whatever is new.”

Then by combining critical and historical insights with Jamesian psychology he alerted his listeners to their minds’ natural conservatism.  Openness and equipoise become the way to discover richer pleasures – old and new.

Barzun’s double-action thought reveals unknown art, delivering democratic access to the best that he’s discovered.  The Majestic Theatre audience – almost everyone hearing for the first time at least some of Barzun’s favorite Berlioz marches – included a cross-section of class and culture.  I thought of Maya Angelou’s complementary line, “No less to Midas than the mendicant.”  Then I heard the music.

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