gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

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.”


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

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2 thoughts on “Music in American Life

  1. Michael Mikesell left this response to “Music in American Life” at the Jacques Barzun Fan Club on Facebook:
    How, do you suppose, do the “intellectual rigidities” of a sound recording differ from those of a printed book? I can imagine Barzun’s love of the novel and unique prompting a preference for the inherent unpredictability of live music over the repeatability of a recording. But I do wonder how this would square with the highly desirable repeatability of a great work of literature. Since 1955, recordings have come to embody more a crafted ideal (akin to a novel) than a static “record” of an event. This understanding–the album as definitive Work–couldn’t possibly have informed *Music in American Life*!

    • Ah, you must read the book to find out. JB’s analogy to a book of *plays* rather than novels, tales, or non-fiction emphasizes the performance element that is bound to change even when the words spoken remain the same from night to night. And that quotation was only a small shard from the 117 pages. Another published excerpt was titled by REPORTER (17 May 1956) ‘A Kind Word for Pop, Bop, and Folk”. Barzun’s openness to all forms — without surrendering the right to preference — is ever a marvel. I fully agree with your conclusion that an album can be a definitive Work, but mainly in the case of a group with no interest in live performance like Steely Dan, rather than a Dave Matthews Band whose leader joked in an interview about the sorts of audiences who want to hear it word for word and note for note ‘like the songs sound on the album.’ That’s probably why DMB has so many live recordings.

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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