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A Brief Visit with David Hurwitz

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A Brief Visit with David Hurwitz

A commentator alerts me to this editorial over at Classics Today by David Hurwitz, author of several books on classical music. The essay itself combines some rather odd ideas with some good common sense:
Considering how culturally valuable and self-evidently important classical music is supposed to be, its proponents are a surprisingly defensive group. At performing arts organizations, press departments fret that the slightest negative comment about an artist might attract public notice. What little marketing that takes place with respect to recordings always assumes that the latest issue is necessarily “the best,” or at all events of earth-shattering importance. Classical music, we are assured, is really “good for us” intellectually, spiritually, and even physically, the aural equivalent of cod liver oil.
That's in the first category. This immediately shows itself to be one of those defences of classical music that Taruskin, in a scathing essay, regarded as being in the "with friends like these, who needs enemies" category. The problem is that this is a gross exaggeration. Yes, classical music people can be a bit defensive, but that is because, in North America, the art form is under threat of simply being erased. When he simply advocates critical judgement he is on solid ground:
I propose a radical new idea: Tell the truth! Stop insisting that the classics consist of an unbroken chain of perfect masterpieces of equal worth, and let people compare, judge, and even (gasp!) dislike some of them.
But when he goes on to list examples, categorizing them as "ten of classical music’s dirtiest secrets" he shows how unreliable his own judgements are in practice. Let's have a look:
  • Mozart really does all sound the same.
  • Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is just plain ugly.
  • Wagner’s operas are much better with cuts.
  • No one cares about the first three movements of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.
  • Schoenberg’s music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it.
  • Schumann’s orchestration definitely needs improvement.
  • Bruckner couldn’t write a symphonic allegro to save his life.
  • Liszt is trash.
  • The so-called “happy” ending of Shostakovich’s Fifth is perfectly sincere.
  • It’s a good thing that “only” about 200 Bach cantatas survive.
It's like Charles Ives fused with Wilford Brimley and weighed in on classical music!

  • Mozart sounds the same in that it is all in Classical style, but someone who thinks that the Requiem and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik sound the same should not be allowed to go to concerts unattended
  • The Grosse Fuge has its intense moments, yes, but nothing about it is "just plain."
  • Even with this incitement it is hard for me to defend Wagner--but lots of others would!
  • Well, Berlioz... Still, there are some good bits.
  • Schoenberg is an acquired taste like pickles or olives or single malt. Perhaps Mr. Hurwitz should start with the Gurrelieder?
  • Ok, I agree with him re Schumann's orchestration. He tends to be obsessive about rhythmic patterns sometimes too
  • Bruckner has other qualities
  • Saying Liszt is trash is like saying Hungarian cuisine is trash--you obviously are oversimplifying
  • Ah, Mr. Hurwitz is engaging in a bit of mind-reading--not only of Shostakovich, but also of his audiences.
  • As for dismissing all the Bach cantatas so cavalierly, now I am sure Mr. Hurwitz is going to hell!

 


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