• Gregory Loselle

The past just ain't what it used to be, part one

A while ago--during a nightmarish experience pursuing a useless graduate degree funded with the bureaucratic caprice of an island dictatorship (I'm looking at you, University of Michigan's Financial Aid Department)--I landed myself a job in retail, working for a local record store, when there were local record stores, tending the classical music selection. It was one of the great learning experiences of my life, since serious music requires serious study, and the packaging of compact discs (an ancient form of sound encryption, now in decline) included a great deal of printed material on the history, performance practice and critical background of the works on display. This was just about the time that Peter Schaffer's Amadeus made its jump from drama to film, and an entire boutique industry, led by a demand for more of the Mozart shown in the movie--a creature who never existed, let us be clear, and a demand founded on the silly notion that the purchase of his music, in commodity form, was not only a sign of education and refinement, but of a certain improving chic--briefly elevated classical music sales. The sour and entertaining critic Norman Lebrecht wrote a catty book about it.

But the bubble burst soon after the execrable Three Tenors album, which caused a vogue of its own, and proved that, even among classical listeners, bad music could be phenomenally successful, and even a mediocre popular singer like Andrea Bocelli (once he was suited up in a tux and filmed in close-up by PBS to emphasize both his good looks and his blindness--a perverse selling point--could be a star, if not an estimable artist. (Bocelli, lest I be misunderstood, is a video star, packaged for those who don't much listen to--or even much like--opera, and a sure-fire programming choice during public television fund-drives. I wasted an evening hearing him on tour in his one staged appearance as a dramatic singer, fumbling Massenet's Werther, after which he was booed off the stage by those of us who had sat out the whole sad and embarrassing spectacle.) In the mean time, we also endured a fad for Gregorian chant, popularized by the runaway and wholly unexpected success of a group of monks simply and roughly singing their daily fare, which was then marketed as a new-age aid to secular meditation for those who didn't understand the Latin, (At least one great comedy album--out of more than half a dozen I encountered at the time--came from this climate of fatuous self-satisfaction.) But while I reshelved the stock and counted the decreasing number of bins devoted to Mozart's oeuvre in the next few years, I came by accident to find myself drawn to reissued discs of older recordings, and what they taught me, one way or another, about the performances of classical music a century earlier.

Future historians of culture will mine this particular vein of nearly-lost history: throughout the generation I've been teaching--which is to say, for the last three decades in which my students have inadvertently kept me abreast of popular music--a strange and, to my mind, unprecedented pattern has emerged. Instead of music arising generationally, with artists serving as avatars of a particular cultural moment, young people (at least) have increasingly gravitated toward past material--performers and recordings of another generation--that would have struck my first students as antiquated and, could they but use the word, recherché. While we've continued to produce new work, we've also patronized the music of our parents' eras, creating a long shadow of past performers and styles across the contemporary scene. This isn't like my long infatuation with the Beatles, for instance--who were still releasing new material in my early childhood (and who experienced their most profitable year, somehow, in 2014, two generations after breaking up); nor is it like my grandfather's fondness for the big band era of his youth. (We heard the Glenn Miller Orchestra once, still on tour in the 1980's, and he was surprised, not pleasantly I have to think, to note that not a single performer was of his age.) Instead, as I taught and as the tendency grew to ripeness, my students were as likely to express excitement at a school dance at the disco hits of my own adolescence, perhaps, as the more-recently-released music of their own generation.

I cannot imagine this happening in my high school years: no live band (for we had live bands at school dances then, my children), or later, disc jockey, would have deliberately chosen even an Elvis Presley classic as anything but an arch and knowing joke. But as a teacher in mid-career, I joined a group of students on the dance floor to show them what I could do to "Let's Twist Again (Like We Did Last Summer)" sometime in the late 90's. The trend continues today. (Play the video--which, weirdly seems to include a cameo by Mickey Rooney?!--next to the Bee Gee's "Stayin Alive" for comparison. By the time I was a teenager, we were so much more advanced, you'll understand. Or course.)

What does this have to do with classical music? Thank you for asking.

The connection comes through technology. As compact discs--the flat, tinny-sounding and largely monaural 'improvement' over vinyl LP's came to dominate music in all genres, consumers replaced their record collections. First, it was for the supposed clarity of the digital medium, with recordings simply reissued on silver discs. Then, as it became apparent to critical listeners that the improvements in sound quality were not, in fact, all that they were cracked up to be, engineers began to re-engineer source recordings (on that best of all possible sonic media, the reel-to-reel tape) for release on CD. As a result, the stock in the music outlets of the 1980's and the decade or so after--including the store in which I worked--was superseded by several generations of ever-better-sounding digitally-remastered reissues of works dubbed important (or commercial) enough to merit the expense of refurbishing. Simply put, the past came roaring back--not as nostalgia, exactly, but as a fresher and more relevant seeming version of its same old self. Add to this the classical music cult of Great Performances, and its search for a definitive rendition of any particular work, and it's small wonder that the kid who learned the Beethoven symphonies from Karajan's 70's cycle would eventually seek out the 'legendary' Toscanini recordings of the 50's. And I did.

The reissues of Toscanini's RCA recordings are beside my desk now, in a dusty custom cabinet (another commodification, available on the occasion of their resurrection) specially designed to hold them for display. But I haven't opened it, much less played any of its discs, which I painstakingly collected over several years, in months. Though I became a nebbishy expert in the repertoire on older recordings, even seeking out CD versions of Fritz Kreisler's performances transferred from shellac discs and sometimes even cylinders, which I listened to closely with my grandfather, who had heard him at the end of his epochal career, it was eventually apparent that, no matter how great they may have sounded in the studio, and no matter how vital they seemed on stereophonic living room consoles, these were not the performances of our time. I remember reading the death-blow that Joseph Horowitz, in his Understanding Toscanini dealt to the phenomenon: like Lebrecht, he cast an unsparing eye on the circumstances that had shaped the famous Toscanini performances--particularly the cycle of Beethoven symphonies that had helped to define the way a generation heard them--and pointed out the obvious: recorded in the unforgiving acoustic of NBC's Studio 8-H (later the home of Saturday Night Live), the sound was harsh and the tempi rushed. Even listening to the maestro's earlier, better recordings, Horowitz made an assertion that has since strayed with me: these are recordings of their time--and at the time, they sounded modern. Nothing could have become more dated.

I started this entry, nonetheless, in enthusiasm for a new reissue of the (same, old) Toscanini Beethoven, and I will conclude here with the promise that I'll convey my genuine pleasure in it subsequently. For the moment, I am sitting at my desk, the outdated Toscanini unused beside me, thoroughly explored and eventually set aside, as I write and listen to a recording of Brahms' Third Symphony, recorded by Willem Mengelberg in 1932. It is vital and authoritative, but it comes packaged with seven other recordings--two of each of Brahms' symphonies--all historical reissues. Here are Toscanini, and Stokowski, Monteux and Walter (who conducted the recording of Beethoven's Seventh that I regard as my first genuine love in this realm). They are, all of them, beautiful and strikingly different--but I have listened to them for the purpose not of experiencing a performance alive in the present, but for the sake of comparison--and not like "Stayin' Alive." They are a great pleasure, if that's the sort of pleasure one seeks, but they have already said all that they can, and say no more.

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©2019 by Gregory Loselle

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