Music at its highest and best.
Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music
By Jan Swafford
(Basic Books, 323 pages, $28)
In fairness to potential buyers of Language of the Spirit, Jan Swafford does not reveal why classical music is, or at least can be for those open to it, the language of our spirit. In fairness to Swafford, it’s doubtful that anyone could, so mysterious yet accessible is our greatest music. Instrumental music is, after all, a non-verbal art. The sounds can suggest things. But they can’t say them. Even so, those who’ve heard and loved the music from this tradition have no trouble understanding why it is indeed the language of our spirit.
In my own case the light went on one inoffensive morning in a general education requirement course in the humanities at the state U I attended slightly after the earth cooled. In the front of the class that morning sat a record player (remember those?) on which there was an aged vinyl of Beethoven’s C-Minor Symphony. It’s no exaggeration to say that my life was never the same after that day. (As is so often the case in life, important things happen when you least expect them.)
As Swafford discovered, at a somewhat earlier age than I did, pop tunes can amuse, make the toe tap, even in some cases lift the spirit. But most lose their power to charm, even become boring after a few hearings. OK, OK, listening to Louie Louie after you’ve had two beers is still fun. (I don’t recommend it stone sober.) But the general point stands. By contrast, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, et al. can nourish and sustain for a lifetime. In fact, as the years go by and it’s hoped one matures and brings more to the music, the music gives more back. While the top 40 is quickly exhausted and exhausting, there almost always being less there than meets the ear. No human life is long enough to exhaust the treasures to be found in the baroque, classical, and romantic repertoires (some less flattering things will be said later about the modern and post-modern misdirections and cul-de-sacs).
Even though Professor Swafford does not answer the question suggested in his book title, his primer, history of, and love song to classical music is worth the time of readers, ranging from those with little or no exposure to the tradition to those who’ve enjoyed the music for a lifetime. His history of the forms, the instruments, the events, the trends, the composers, the music, and the cultural backgrounds to all of these puts things in order and context. On top of this, the book is a pleasure to read. It’s suitable for those with little exposure to classical who wonder if they’re missing something (they are) and for the many people like me who’ve enjoyed the music for decades but have no musical training and so retain our amateur standing. Even very savvy classical hands could enjoy Swafford’s charming big-picture treatment. (This is Swafford’s first survey book. Previously he published three long and well-received biographies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Charles Ives.)
And by the way, don’t be put off by the honorific “Professor.” Yes, Swafford has advanced degrees from both Harvard and Yale and has taught at Boston University, Amherst, Tufts, and the Boston Conservatory. Such items have been listed in the charges and specifications against many an obscure, pompous, or just plain boring writer. But Swafford doesn’t write like a professor or, at any rate, not like those dusty dons who contribute to the on-campus epidemic of narcolepsy. His prose is clear, lively, theory-free, anecdotal, only technical where necessary to illuminate a point about a period, a trend, or an advancement in musical instruments.
Swafford divides his book into the accepted periods of musical evolution — Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and modernism. He parses the elements that define these periods and then presents short profiles of the major composers and the major works of each period. Swafford suggests, to which suggestion I give a hearty second, that readers stop and listen to the works being discussed. In my case it was on YouTube, but Swafford suggests other sites as well where classical music is available. I’ll admit to cherry-picking what I listened to. Had I not, I would have gotten through the book sometime in early 2018. Swafford treats many composers and many pieces of music in an economical 303 pages of text.
Swafford’s bios are short but informative, focusing on the importance of the composer to the period, his major compositions, and in some cases just some interesting and humanizing tidbits. I am not sure if I’m the better for knowing that Haydn’s marriage was so toxic that his wife cut his music manuscripts into bits to roll her hair. This doesn’t help me more appreciate his many symphonies, a form he practically invented, but it does make me feel for the guy. (C’mon, admit it. We all like gossip.) And those who doubted that Wagner was more kinds of a cad and bounder than can be counted and a political grotesque on top of it will have no more doubts after reading Swafford’s profile of a composer and public figure who thrived in the considerable controversy he created. He prospered, Swafford tells us, because “he was a tougher and meaner son of a bitch than any of his critics.” Not to worry, this is Swafford’s only resort to barracks vernacular in Spirit, and truth remains a defense.
There’s much in these bios I already knew, including that Milos Foreman’s Amadeus of 1984, while an entertaining movie, played fast and loose with the facts of the life of Mozart, who was not the shallow air-head Milos presented, was not buried in a pauper’s grave, and certainly was not murdered by a wildly jealous Antonio Salieri. But there’s a lot more that I didn’t know. The bios will leave many readers wanting to know more. And this is to the good, as plenty of further reading exists out there.
In the period profiles, Swafford instructs readers on the florid grandeur, the all-around bigness of the baroque, around 1600 to around 1750, to be heard in Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel. The Enlightenment — with its emphasis on reason and restraint and through the agency of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — gave us the classical period, about 1750 to about 1830, when music was based more on humanity than religion, compact, and more restrained. The periods and their attendant styles aren’t absolute, of course. It’s hard to miss the romantic elements in Mozart and Beethoven, and music savvy Vienna audiences of his day hardly found Beethoven restrained. These two giants helped ease the way into the much esteemed romantic period, about 1830 to the end of that century. Composers such as Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak gave us much more emotion, more emphasis on the personal over the universal. Optimism about the human project was in. Restraint was out.
When the romantics had exhausted their aesthetic possibilities by the end of the 19th century, more than just restraint left the concert hall. Many who are devoted to the grand tradition that stretches back to the Medieval Church, include me in this, believe that absent a few outliers — Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, et al. — the wheels came off after the death of Brahms in 1897.
Swafford finds merit in much of what travels under the names of modernism and post-modernism (I have a couple of other names for it, which need not detain us here.) He instructs us on the techniques and intent of the composers of the daunting, dissonant, and atonal music that appeared in a bloody and tragic century. He’s quite right that this incoherent music reflects an incoherent time. And I listened to many of the examples provided. But even with Swafford’s able guidance I’ve found no reason to modify my long-held conclusion that the 20th century was to serious music what the Indians were to Custer. How anyone moved by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms could likewise be moved by the atonal hairballs coughed up by Arnold Schoenberg will remain for me a mystery even the estimable Swafford can’t crack.
But considering his love of and deft treatment of the entire treasure that is Western classical music, we can allow Swafford his eccentricities in finding merit in compositions so many consider to be train wrecks (and, prosecution must stipulate in fairness, others don’t). Heck, he might even win over some readers to music I’m convinced not even the composers’ mothers could endure.
Language of the Spirit is a worthy contribution to understanding and appreciation of the gift to humanity that is classical music. If Spirit can nudge a few readers toward music that can give for a lifetime, and I believe it can, then Swafford and this fine book will be doing the work of the angels.