"For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening," by John Mauceri, (Alfred A. Knopf: New York), $25.95, 199 pages.
John Mauceri tells of an experience a friend had while waiting for her daughter to take a test. She had had to park on a trash-covered street amid graffiti-covered buildings in a desolate section of Los Angeles. As she waited, with car windows rolled up, doors locked, she turned on the radio and began listening to KUSC, the local classical radio station, and to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, "Eroica." She said, “There was loss and decay on the outside and Beethoven on the inside”. Such is the effect of this music.
Where did what we today call classical music begin? It will come as no surprise to many that we can trace the origin of Beethoven symphonies and Mozart operas to the Greeks, to Pythagoras, sometimes called the father of music. The Greeks learned from their fascination with mathematics and physics that if you pluck a taunt string it will produce a sound. If you then shorten the string by one-half, the sound produced is one octave above the previous sound.
Similarly, if you blow across a hollow reed in a certain way, it too will produce a sound. Tympani had, of course, been around for quite some time. So here we have the beginnings of the symphony orchestra. Verdi tried to imagine how the music of ancient Egypt would sound for his, arguably, greatest opera, "Aida." How successful he was, we don’t know. For sure, humans have always tried to make music. Paintings on ancient cave walls even show what many believe are crude musical instruments.
Generally, music that predates 500 AD is referred to as Ancient Music, and music from then forward as Western Music, of which classical music is one component. Most of us tend to think of classical music as the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Brahms, and then closer to the present time, Mahler, Prokofiev, Copland, Kurt Weill and Bernstein, generally music from the 1700s to the present.
However we go about this chronological process, the ultimate question we are always faced with is, do we like what we hear? Every listener cannot be expected to like all classical music, of course. Mauceri suggests that if you know something about the music — when it was written, why it was written, what it is about — you might hear it in a different way.
Beethoven had planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but when he heard Napoleon had declared himself emperor, in a fit of rage, he tore up the first page, and the Third Symphony became "Eroica." Mauceri says, “A bit of history about a piece of music we are hearing for the first time invites us to enter its world by overlaying context onto its sounds.”
Much has been said and written about whether the life of the composer should be a consideration in listening to his/her music. Hitler, for example, was a great admirer of Wagner, and used his music for funeral music for high-ranking Nazi officials. Does this then somehow detract from Wagner’s Ring operas, considered by many to be the greatest single artistic work ever created by one person? Mauceri’s answer is a resounding “no.” Wagner will always be a part of classical music.
John Mauceri is a widely recognized conductor, author, and musicologist. He has the distinction of being mentored by Leonard Bernstein for 18 years. His unique perspective on classical music will truly be appreciated by readers of this book. Mauceri assures his readers that, “Classical music will never let you down.”