FACE TO FACE WITH GREAT MUSICIANS: FIRST GROUP by Charles David Isaacson

A few years ago, I received this remarkable book as a Christmas present from a close friend. He had bought it in a used bookstore knowing I was devoted to opera and classical music generally. It was an incredibly kind and thoughtful gift and it has turned out to be even more stimulating than I had expected.
After presenting me with this book, my friend chatted with me a bit about music. At one point, referring to classical music, he asked “Why do you like it so much?” This is a question I’ve become very familiar with over the years. However, I should clarify that my friend was not asking this in a snide or casual manner. His question was a genuinely fascinated inquiry from an extremely intelligent person with refined tastes. He’s always respected my artistic preferences and, when I like something he doesn’t, he understands where I’m coming from. However, my classical obsession just never added up for him. He knows some classical music and has been impressed, even moved, by it. He admires and respects it. But to be genuinely besotted with it, as I am, or to insist, as I do, that the classical tradition has certain virtues that most other musical forms and traditions lack, seems strange and slightly archaic to him. I say all this not because I think there is anything incorrect or unusual about his view. On the contrary, his question was totally fair and one I’ve heard from other good friends. What was interesting was that I realized I didn’t really have much of an answer for him.
After finally reading this book, I have a few answers. First though, a few words about the book and its author. It is a series of imagined meetings with important musical figures. Twenty-seven composers are featured along with the legendary violin maker Antonio Stradivarius and the great ballet dancer Jean-Georges Noverre. There is also an almost poetic opening chapter in which the reader meets the embodiment of music itself. Many of the chapters are written in the manner of historical fiction with narrator figures having conversations with the famous musicians. Other chapters are simple biographical sketches. There is no chronological order or any other structure in the book. I have not found much information online about the author, Charles David Isaacson, beyond the fact that he was a music editor and critic with certain defunct New York City newspapers, including the Globe and the Mail. Isaacson was obviously well-established in the music world since this book contains an introduction by famed pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky who refers to Isaacson as a friend. The book also demonstrates that Isaacson was a critic of immense musical knowledge and scholarship. He writes confidently about composers like Monteverdi and Lully who were virtually forgotten by most of his contemporaries. Isaacson later wrote a sequel to this book which I would dearly love to find and read.  Face To Face With Great Musicians: First Group was enormously enjoyable. Anyone who treasures classical music should find it an affirming tonic. The prose is charmingly old-fashioned and it is fascinating to read certain out of date critical attitudes in a book written when they were alive and well. The view of Gluck as a kind of proto-Wagnerian reformer and a John the Baptist-like figure, setting the stage for Mozart, is one such example. Bellini depicted as a saccharine fop is another. While writing for the layman, Isaacson is never condescending. He manages to avoid overly technical terms without dumbing things down. Best of all, Isaacson’s passionate love of music informs every chapter. The whole book goes down quite easily as a result but certain chapters (particularly the ones on Beethoven, Brahms, MacDowell and Cherubini) contain some really fine writing.
However, there are some serious flaws in this book and they prove to be quite edifying. Some of the book’s prefatory material indicates that this project began as a series of live lectures. That would make sense since certain sections feel like they are demanding to be read aloud. Cold on the page, they fall a little flat at times. The chapter on Pergolesi is an absurd, melodramatic historical fantasy. More seriously, the relentless emphasis on personality, a stated aim of the book, leads to much woeful simplification. While Isaacson doesn’t talk down to readers, he does avoid challenging them with too many complications. This has the unintended effect of making several of the chronicled figures seem insipid. The chapter on Arthur Sullivan is a particularly risible, pseudo-Victorian fairy-tale. The problem with this kind of writing, once so common, is that it leads to an inevitable reaction. When readers don’t find the exact qualities they read in the music, they are apt to become disappointed and stop listening. Isaacson’s great musicians are too much like busts in a museum. He takes for granted that we will reverence them and hear exactly what we are supposed to. The opening chapter demonstrates that Isaacson was no snob. Still, his view of classical music admits little air. While this book is a joyride for the devotee, providing a link to a time when classical music was a serious part of American cultural life, Isaacson’s method is part of why it no longer is.
And yet, I believe Isaacson was more right than wrong. Belatedly answering my friend’s question, I would propose taking three composers chronicled in this book at random, say Bach, Debussy (the most modern composer in the book) and Liszt. What obvious link is there between such radically diverse figures? Listening to their music, a Martian might well assume they had nothing to do with each other. That Martian would probably have the same reaction listening to arias by Gretry and Verdi. But they were connected! These wildly different composers were part of the same tradition. How many other traditions have that much variety, that many avenues for creative expression, that many sound worlds? There are others but, to my mind, they are few. Also, in contrast to Isaacson’s great man (and one woman, Cecile Chaminade) theory, another nearly unique aspect of classical music is its ability to move beyond the individual feelings of the creator. While there is plenty of heartfelt emotion expressed in classical music, it is one of the few kinds of music I know that offers anything OTHER than heartfelt emotion. In most other music, friends will tell me what the song is about. It is always bound up intimately with what the artist or artists felt or believed. If there is interpreting to be done, it is within a pretty narrow space. On the contrary, in a great deal of classical music, there is no set meaning whatsoever. The listener is left to make of the music what they will, leading to all kinds of feelings and reactions. Even when there is declared emotion in classical music, there is still usually plenty of room for different shades of meaning to be found, by musicians and audiences. These shades of meaning are often nothing like what the composer expected which leads me to the biggest distinction between classical music and its rival forms. A work of classical music can move beyond its composer. One thing I’ve always had great difficulty explaining to friends is that there are different interpretations and performances of the same classical piece, several of them worthwhile despite their widely varying approaches. For the most part, other kinds of music belong to the creators. If a song is done by someone else, even if it is changed, the new version is usually seen as vastly inferior or little more than a fun novelty. Maybe this will change one day but I see little sign of it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it does reinforce my belief that classical music contains many more depths than MOST other forms of musical expression. While reminding me why classical music has declined in popularity, Isaacson’s book has also reinforced my faith in its greatness and special status.
Of course, the world feels otherwise. Isaacson is largely forgotten and obscure and the music he loved continues to recede from public consciousness. For now, the world has decided Isaacson and I are wrong. This view, the view of so many, cannot be dismissed lightly. Music ultimately belongs to the people who cherish it. Most people continue to adore music but, by and large, they don’t adore or exalt classical music anymore. Maybe the world, or the majority of its music lovers at least, is right about classical music after all…but I don’t think so.

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