Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music?

Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical ValueJulian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value (Oxford 2002).

This is an important book.  Johnson is a lecturer in music at Oxford University and a composer.  This book is an apologetic for classical music and its continued support.  Johnson argues against viewing music as merely entertainment, or viewing its purpose as merely pleasure.  He contrasts the non-immediacy of classical music with the music of today’s dominant culture.  Reading Julian is something like reading Richard Weaver, and something like reading David Wells.  I have chosen a few swaths of representative material to whet your appetite:

He discusses at one point the implications of musical notation — not at the level of which sort of musical notation ought to be used, but in terms of the practice of setting music down  on paper in the first place.  I’ve read of the implications of (aurally) recorded music as opposed to live performance (and Johnson goes on to discuss that), but this is the first I recall reading about the implications of notating music. Johnson avers that the advent of printed music

“fundamentally altered the way music was conceived. Prior to that, the performances would have been thought of primarily as music-making–as a social practice attached to social gatherings such as religious services or communal celebrations. Since many musicians played or directed performances of their works, music had a very limited life beyond live performance. The widespread printing of sheet music and musical scores allowed music to become a tangible object like a book and thus a commodity whose use extended far beyond the sway of the composer. . . . This change had several consequences. It liberated the listener from the authority of the composer-performer. Sheet music made the work available anytime one cared to play it. Moreover, it could be used however one pleased. . . . And one could skip the difficult or less interesting passages and play the easier or more interesting moments again and again to oneself. As music became a thing, it became a private possession; the demands of the composer and of the musical work could be subordinated to the pleasures of the possessor.” (52)

“From the perspective of global musical cultures, detailed notation is both rare and slightly odd. But it is a defining factor in several classical traditions beyond Western classical music. And for better or worse, it has exerted a profound effect on the development of musical languages and forms within the traditions that depend on it. It is in no way simply a means of fixing music after the event, but rather a tool that allows for an extension and development of musical ideas that would not have been possible in an entirely oral culture.” (55)

Johnson has a worthwhile discussion on “elitism” and music. Here’s a snippet:

“The [recent] attempt to popularize classical music . . . is undermined by the fact that music-as-art refuses to be appropriated solely in terms of the immediacy demanded by popular culture. if this makes the music elitist (and for many people it does), then it is elitist in the same way and to the same degree that philosophy or mathematics is elitist, that learning a foreign language is elitist, that astronomy, nuclear physics, and space exploration is elitist. it is a historical peculiarity of contemporary society that we seem to think of music exclusively as the source of immediate pleasure, akin to our attitude toward food or clothes or sex, rather than as one of the most sophisticated forms of human discourse by which we represent and negotiate our understanding of ourselves and the world.” (85)

And a parting word: “individually and collectively, we often allow a significant disjunction between our moral, political, and spiritual values and our cultural choices. One objectively contradicts the other, a fact of which we are blissfully but dangerously unaware, because we no longer think about art and music.” (123)

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