Opening the ears, Ross Somerville

How to Hear Classical Music 
Davinia Caddy
Awa Press, $26.00,
ISBN 9781877551000

At the end of June this year in Wellington, Michael Houstoun presented the centrepiece of his Beethoven Recycled series of piano recitals, in which he was playing the 32 piano sonatas written by Ludwig van Beethoven in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To many people this is the pinnacle of classical music for the piano: that instrument that brought a wealth of art music as well as popular repertoire into the drawing rooms and the parlour, the hub of social and artistic life for two centuries, before the radio and recordings democratised the consumption of art music, at least among the swelling bourgeoisie of Western societies.

Houstoun’s carefully crafted programme spanned a selection of these remarkable works, from the early two-movement op 49 no 2, to the much later two-movement F-sharp minor sonata of op 78, and culminated in the tremendous, virtuosic and exciting Appassionata, op 57. The other works were the early op 2 no 3 C major sonata, in which Beethoven pushes the limits of the Mozart and Haydn sonata model, and which almost sounds like a reduction of a work for full orchestra, perhaps a concerto, complete with cadenza, the instrument almost straining to be more than the sum of its strings, felt and ivory. The third was the G major sonata from op 31, an almost non-pianistic work incorporating radical rhythmic effects and a slow movement like an operatic aria with guitar-like accompaniment. In the Appassionata, the climax of the programme, with overwhelming emotional effect, the instrument seems to be an orchestra in itself, and the pianist becomes the invisible agent of the composer’s stormy inspiration.

One could get as abstruse as all heck about the construction and subtlety of all this, and indeed many have, but in the end, how amazing is this experience? How many of the attentive and appreciative audience were aware of the art and artifice of the composer and the performer, or who thought of the technical complexities of the compositional forms? We were simply appreciative of the pianist’s athletic powers, and moved by the emotional force of the combination of form and sound. The pianist himself was quite overwhelmed by the impact of the music, turning away from the audience for a moment to compose himself before he could receive the standing ovation he so richly deserved.

The occasion was testament to the power and emotional universality of the diatonic harmonic environment in which Beethoven, while stretching its boundaries, worked and eked out a precarious living.

We now take for granted the richness of the repertoire to which so many have access through recordings and performances. We have become jaded to the point where audiences are aging and dwind-ling, and cynical about the reverent atmosphere of the concert hall, a relatively recent invention, which allows the privileged to inhale and savour the fruits of a tradition of almost inexhaustible variety and sophistication.

Sure, the classical music industry is as compromised and corrupt as almost any of the commercialised enterprises which derive their sustenance from human pleasure. The human capacity to derive pleasure and emotional rewards from certain combinations of pitches and rhythms which the eardrum can transfer to that amazing processing engine, the brain, is no random organisation of sounds that engenders in us such immense reactions of emotion. The universality of human response to certain pitch relationships and harmonies is scientifically established. The seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness of those brave enough to continue to amaze and surprise us with new combinations of these basic building-blocks is one of the wonders of what we call art. “The present-day composer refuses to die,” said Edgard Varèse, as he pushed the boundaries of music into what the ear, overwhelmed by the density of pitch combinations, perceives as “noise”.

Davinia Caddy’s fascinating little book renews our appreciation of the vastness and variety of what we now call classical music. Like others in the Awa Press Ginger series, it’s not a Kiwi do-it-yourself guide, but a personal account of an individual’s experience of and response to the matter in hand. It is not just a book for the classical-music neophyte, introducing basic terms and concepts, but will enrich anyone’s appreciation of a very wide range of music.

Has there ever been a period when classical music has not been in crisis? And yet, it endures, and continues to find new audiences. Caddy challenges us to be open-minded about the locations in which we may hear music, as well as the rewards we may find by attention to something we didn’t even suspect we might like. (I don’t think I’ll ever want to hear 39 Pages by Paul Whitty, but I’m intrigued by the idea of deconstructing a classical masterpiece like César Franck’s violin sonata, and will certainly hear it differently from now on.)

She gently goads us to extend our willingness to “hear” – it’s a well-chosen word, in the end, even if it wasn’t the author’s original choice of title.

It’s a commonplace to observe that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Caddy’s frankness and charm disarm any cynicism. There are a few recent titles which similarly enrich and enlarge one’s appreciation and, more importantly, enjoyment of this wonderful, if in some ways ineffable, genre, notably Alex Ross’s award-winning account of 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise, and Listen to This in which Ross convincingly connects the ancient forms of the lamento and ciaccona with Ray Charles and the walking blues. Honestly.

But, over and above any technical or historical knowledge, it’s primarily about being open to truly hearing the music. The feelings and changes of mood that assail and overwhelm us as the result of a musical experience are not merely cultural constructs or something that has to be learned. The basic language of music is truly universal. Perhaps Caddy occasionally protests too much about the deadening effect of the precious audience and the concert hall, but she convinces us to clear out the earwax of tradition, and hear the music with an attentiveness that will reward our senses and revitalise our spirits.


Ross Somerville is a Wellington editor. He loves all sorts of music.


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Posted in Music, Non-fiction, Review
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