Seriousness

So, I was listening to some clips of the Bavarian State Opera’s Don Carlos very kindly provided to me by TD. Never fear, I am not about to launch into another over-wrought attempt to figure out why I am obsessed with this opera. I think it’s best to consider it as analogous to Princess Eboli’s obsession with Don Carlos himself. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and often it’s borderline unconvincing in terms of characterization, but there it is and there is no getting around it.

What these clips did make me think about was excerpts. Specifically, they made me remember a conversation I had years ago about a recital CD. I think it was one of Magdalena Kožená’s, but I am not sure and it doesn’t matter. The point is that I was excited about this recording, whatever it was, and I was explaining why. The response I got was “well, I prefer to buy by composer rather than performer.” This communicated to me very clearly that I was Unserious and should probably shut up. This was about eight or ten years ago. I was about twenty-three at the time, and back then when it was intimated to me that I should shut up, I usually did.

What I should have said in reply, of course, was that performers give recitals all the time in which material from a variety of composers is offered, and that recital CDs fall neatly into this category, and what is the problem? Certainly it’s true that bits of operas pack more wallop when you see them as part of the whole rather than as isolated pieces, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying isolated pieces now and then.

image via The Muppet WikiThis accusation of being Unserious also reminded me of a phrase I occasionally see in reviews, something along the lines of “every serious record collection should contain X” or “no serious record collector can be without A and B.” The assumption seems to be that somewhere out there there is a sort of Platonic ideal of a Serious Record Collection which we are all intended to approximate. By this standard, my own collection is profoundly unserious. There are all kinds of gaps in it. I am fond of it nonetheless.

But the whole serious/unserious thing points to this assumption that with music there is a Right Way to listen to it and a Wrong Way. I think this is based on a false equivalence between taking music seriously and being Serious About Music. The latter involves having a Serious Record Collection that contains All the Right Recordings and, evidently, avoiding certain recital CDs by Magdalena Kožená.

12 thoughts on “Seriousness

  1. For quite a long time I bougt into, to a degree, the Serious Record Collection thing based on things like the Penguin and Gramophone Guides. I had my doubts. I was rarely convinced that something recorded, badly, in 1935 was THE one to have. Performance standards have improved enormously in anything I’ve been involved in. Why should music be the one big exception? Then they started reviewing DVDs as well. Some of the opinions are so utterly perverse and others soundiscriminating about things like videography that I lost all confidence. And don’t get me going on “music critics” who write for the Toronto papers.

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    1. I had my Penguin guide moments as well. What led me away from it was the sense I got that in order to be really serious, one should be equally familiar and equally excited about all forms and time periods of music — I found myself trying to like Bruckner and Mahler, for example, and failing, when what I really wanted to listen to was obscure baroque chamber music.

      And I definitely get a sense that the ‘recommended’ recording often tells you more about the age and disposition of the critic than it does about the value of the recording itself.

      I suppose one could make the argument that having the Serious Record Collection phase and following recommendations of Serious Critics serves a useful purpose in that in general, the recommendations are usually not totally weird or bad, and you end up training your ear and learning stuff (I did, at least). But it’s not a good long-term strategy for really enjoying music.

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      1. Serious Record Collections might have made sense when there were five recordings of the Beethoven 5th and no one had ever heard of a “Mahler cycle”. These days you might as well stick with what you can listen to in one or two lifetimes, otherwise it’s not so much Serious as Pathological.

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          1. That’s just reminded me of someone. The guy who taught me Applied Maths in Sixth Form was just that. He bought the entire Dorati Haydn cycle for instance. He also introduced me to a lot of terrific music.

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            1. So there is a place for Pathological Record Collections/Collectors after all! There is probably a pattern with this – I have noticed that many people who have an ear for good performances are also a little bit obsessive about collecting.

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              1. This guy was decidedly odd. Alcoholic for sure. He had wanted to be a barrister but back in the days when that took money there wasn’t enough. He read one year of law at Cambridge before switching to maths. On the basis of his one year of law he got appointed “prisoner’s friend” in a rape/murder court martial in Egypt in 1941. His only legal client was convicted and executed. He had taught at some fairly prestigious public schools but drink had done for him and he’d ended up at my, not especially distinguished, establishment. His knowledge of music significantly exceeded his mathematical ability.

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                1. Sounds like an interesting character — although probably frustrating if one actually wanted to learn math. I never had a teacher like this, but I imagine they are not rare.

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                2. I think a degree of eccentricity is not at all unusual in masters at English public schools. My housemaster, a classicist, spent much of his time writing learned essays for the Journal of the Sherlock Holmes Society. They were invariably rejected because nobody could read his hand writing.

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