What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
Most historians agree that if music started anywhere,
it started with the beating of a rhythm.
Originally published in 1937.
I used to have an old, decrepit copy that shed pages whenever I tried to read it. So I got another one from you-know-who.com. It’s been published with different people doing the forewords and introductions. Mine is the Rich/Schumann edition. I read continuously up to section four then I started skipping around. I got impatient with all the auxiliary pieces at the beginning.
Speaking of sections:
- Foreword by Alan Rich
- Introduction by William Schumann
- Author’s Note for The 1957 Edition
THEN, and only then, “What to Listen for in Music”. WTF!
For afters, there’s an epilogue by Alan Rich and three appendices. There’s also a bibliography and a good index.
EIGHT auxiliary pieces? Really? Five before you even get to the crux of the book? Seriously?
Who else wants some free publicity by throwing their dice into this crap game? Hmmm…Mr. Alan Rich? Holy Ear Drums, Batman!
But here’s the kicker: all the extras at the beginning are super interesting!
A lot of what Copland says about living and working with music can be applied to writing: the difference between a dilettante and a pro; what a musician is in the eyes of a non-musician; priorities, and my favorite so far – COMPOSING STYLES! There is such clarity in his presentation, his ideas stated so specifically, lucidly. Charming, even! I am really enjoying reading this book.
I can feel both sides of my brain working as I read. I’m analyzing his arguments, his writing style (technically, these are speeches, but they had to be written first.), yet at the same time enjoying, like I said, the expertise Copland wields so casually, comfortably. There hasn’t been even the merest hint of pomposity like you might expect from someone of his accomplishments. Alan Rich even mentions that in his Foreword. Here’s a regular guy – with a magnificent musical brain – talking to us regular folks and helping us feel a little less stupid, a little less insecure about what we know/don’t know about music.
So it’s a piquant sensation I feel when, in the midst of Midwestern plain-speak, I encounter words like sine qua non and afflatus.
I can just imagine how Harold Bloom or Northrop Frye, or maybe even I. A. Richards might handle the same topic. The pedestal-building business might be in for a bit of a surge. But with Copland, it’s more Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain, at least until he gets to the technical chapters. Then it’s Masterclass all the way. By the time you’re knee-deep in "Tone Color", the rhetoric has become seriously technical. Still plain speaking, but with Copland expertly wielding the jargon of music theory. I “feel” like I understand it even though I don’t read music.
I feel the pinch, though, not knowing how to read the diagrams in the rhythm/harmony/melody chapters or Appendix 1 which diagrams common variations. I don’t know what to visualize in my mind. Some of the pieces of music I have so I can put those on and read along. But a lot of these I don’t have, like Honegger, Hindemith, Richard Strauss and Gluck. Thank God for H&B Recordings Direct. Amazon is nice, but H&B, well, classical is their specialty! An excuse to shop! Yeah, like I’m not broke enough.
If you’ve never had the chance to hear classical musicians talking about classical music, you really should do yourself the favor. I saw James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera on Charlie Rose one evening, and not only were his ideas fascinating, but his love for music shone on his face. Sir George Martin had a 3-part (harmonious) series on Ovation Channel – each one-hour show called, respectively, Rhythm, Melody, Harmony. He included popular music and classical music and musicians. Paul McCartney and Michael Tilson Thomas. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Symphonie Fantastique”. His ideas had a lot in common with Copland’s. It’s an intellectually and emotionally satisfying series. And I felt smarter after listening to Sir George. Just like Levine, his love showed for everything that he talked about, and artists from Patti LaBelle to Brian Wilson were only to happy to spill for this guy.
As for the ability to recognize a beautiful melody when you hear one
or distinguishing between a banal and a freshly inspired line,
only increased experience as listener – plus the assimilation
of hundreds of melodies of all kinds – can accomplish that for you.
Here’s an example of some of the technical language found in the book.
…it is sufficient to find the tonic chord in order to determine the tonality of a series of chords; and chords, like single tones, are said to modulate when they move out of one key into another. (I’m an okay reader, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to visualize in my head when I read this.)
ON “TONE COLOR”
The intelligent listener should have two main objectives in relation to tone color: (a) to sharpen his awareness of different instruments and their separate tonal characteristics and (b) to gain a better appreciation of the composer’s expressive purpose in using any instrument or combination of instruments.
Now this one, I did get. Prokofiev’s “Peter and The Wolf” comes to mind. Each animal was represented by a particular instrument because of its tone color. (Prokofiev has about 1200 hits at H&B.) And I especially like this chapter because it addresses the tonal qualities/personalities of instruments like the violin, the tuba, the cello and my fav, the French horn.
If you love music — love to hear music, love to talk music, love to discover music – you should get this book. Stat!
- H&B Recordings Direct (Monthly sales by label. Good search engine for classical music and jazz)
- Ovation Channel (What A&E used to aspire to before they fell into a life of crime)
- PBS (One of the only bastions of high culture left on television – the other being Ovation Channel)
- Northrop Frye at Amazon
- Harold Bloom at Amazon
- James Levine
- Harold Bloom in THE FESTERING BLURB
- BACK IN BLOOM: SIFTING THRU THE WEEDY UNDERGROWTH OF POETRY READING
- ROOTING OUT BLOOM’S WRITING ROOTS
- ROOTING OUT BLOOM 2- The Western Canon
- ROOTING OUT BLOOM 3- Where Shall Wisdom be Found-
- An interesting Listmania list at Amazon by Stephen Williams
- Online Music Dictionary