gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Maecenas”

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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