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.
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.”