Thursday, November 30, 2017

The High of Reading

When I first learned music history, way back in a previous millennium, my teachers and books essentially taught me about the pieces that still get sung and played in symphony orchestras and university recital halls today. Since that time, musicologists have begun to approach music history from a different angle: as a study of what musical life was like at a given time and place. One thing this change means is that students now learn about people that have mostly been forgotten. I learned nothing about Meyerbeer in my classes, for instance, and yet he was the most popular composer in Europe in the 1830s. The old method taught the 1830s by talking about what we like from the 1830s; the new approach teaches the 1830s by examining what people in the 1830s liked. The second result of this shift in perspective is that composers are no longer the only interesting figures in music history. Now we study – among others –  performers, publishers, instrument makers, concert audiences, middle-class families who bought pianos for their teenage daughters, and “waits”: medieval wind bands who roamed the streets at night ready to play a rousing tune any time they saw criminal activity. The new way is so much better!

The first book I read that follows this new approach was a book from the Music & Society series on the early Romantic era. I got excited when I read stories such as the account of how the London Philharmonic decided to have a conductor. (A guest composer conducted a rehearsal and had the orchestra stop and redo difficult passages. The group agreed that they sounded better when someone actually made them correct their mistakes. Go figure.) So I put all the the volumes of the series on my Third Decade plan, one book per year, hoping for enlightening and entertaining reading.

Sadly, though, the volume on ancient times and the Middle Ages mostly just describes the surviving music. I guess we don’t know a lot about the invisible slaves who played music at Roman parties. I was hoping to hear more about what music instruction in cathedral schools was like, but again, I suppose there isn’t much documentary evidence. The waits at least got mentioned once. Disappointing, yeah. But maybe the installment on the Renaissance, on my list for 2018, will be better.

Also disappointing this year was Sandburg’s Lincoln. My dad told me when I was, maybe, twelve that I would need to read this mammoth biography someday. Dad, I’m sorry it took 45 years for “someday” to come. But I’m not sorry I chose to read Sandburg’s one-volume abridgement of his four-volume original: even the one book was too long and not as good as other Lincoln biographies. The story read like a medieval chronicle: it told what happened without much analysis of the reasons for what happened, the rejected alternatives, or the reactions to what happened. The book got much better near the end, though; the poet found his inspiration in the death of the great President. And he found special joy in poking fun at all the bad poets across the country (thousands of them!) who sent in dismayingly similar elegaic verses to their local newspapers. Come to think of it, I wish thousands of poets sent works to local papers today. Even the bad ones might be worth the occasional gems.

For people like me, reading is an addiction – a wholesome addiction, I have to believe. But like some drug addictions, it starts when the user tries to recapture an experience of euphoria. As a youngster, I experienced the high in reading aloud the delicious rhymes of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, in finding out how different Baum’s Wizard of Oz was from the movie, in finally finding myself old enough to read all of Lanier’s King Arthur, and in discovering the complex depths of power and beauty in A Tale of Two Cities. As an adult with a ten-year reading plan, I’m partly just trying constantly to recover that high. It definitely happens sometimes, as when at last I started reading Orlando Furioso. But of course I’ll have some disappointments, as I did with the music history and Sandburg’s Lincoln.

But my other major reading for November brought no disappointment. I first read Helen Hooven Santmyer’s . . . And Ladies of the Club (how does one format this to show that the ellipses actually start the title?) when I had a fever – or at least I started the gargantuan novel in my delirium. I loved the book but felt very hazy about some of its details. So on this clear-headed reread, I enjoyed the book even more than I had before. The social forces that criss-cross through four generations of inhabitants of Waynesboro, Ohio, fascinate me: social class, economic class, religious denomination, political affiliation, intellectual level, interest in art and drama, and relative love for or suspicion of books all combine in surprising ways. The book reminds me that a human being isn’t simple or predictable even if some overt personal characteristic is, and it challenges me to find common ground with people who seem incompatible with me on the surface.

Ladies of the Club
actually mirrors and comments on my reading for November and my thoughts about it today. (It’s just too weird to start a paragraph with ellipses and a conjunction.) Some of the women in the Waynesboro Ladies Club share my addiction to books; others meet every other Wednesday afternoon mostly for the socializing. Some find occasional disappointment in the readings assigned by the group's vice president; one or two find their lives drastically challenged and altered by books given to them by a friend or passed down by a parent. One character even writes a rather bad poem and submits it to the town newspaper.

As I think about it, Santmyer wrote the kind of history I was hoping to find in the Music & Society Series. I know the books from the late nineteenth century that our college classes like to teach and our bookstores tend to sell. But Santmyer tells me what books they liked in the nineteenth century, who was reading them, and what they thought of them. Santmyer’s picture of the time and the bookstore’s picture of the time are quite different.

Except for Dickens. Of course, they liked Dickens.