For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening
by John Mauceri
In his new book, For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening, prolific American conductor and teacher, John Mauceri, attempts “to sum up a life of feelings” on the subject of music. His is a life in music that has spanned five decades as a conductor of opera, film scores, and classics from throughout the canon of Western music, from Wagner to Shostakovich. In this, his second book after his 2017 Maestros and Their Music, an exploration of what it is to be a conductor, he takes on the equally ambitious task of teaching the reader to listen to music.
Alas, the reader will learn little that is concrete about music in this book. While this book masquerades as a text intended to instruct the reader how to appreciate music more deeply, much like Aaron Copland’s 1939 classic, What to Listen for in Music (a passage from which Mauceri uses for his epigraph), it reads more like a transcription of what Mauceri might talk about over dinner if he had a (very) patient guest with a lot of time on his hands. Each chapter has a heading suggesting a main topic—“Time: Real and Imaginary,” “Invisible Structures,” “Pay Attention!”—but those are not organizing principles so much as starting points for Mauceri to run with any tangent that’s remotely related to the ostensible subject of the chapter. Yes, the reader gets an uninspired explanation of the sonata form, the single most important musical form in Western music; mechanical run-downs of the various different kind of classical music concerts—chamber music, opera, symphonic, and so on—one might attend and the categories of instruments in an orchestra; and a cliché description of the work ethic it takes to be a classical musician. Even here, though, he has difficulty staying on-topic, seeming to forget, for example, that any instrument other than the piano is featured in solo concerts, and the prose in these sections leads one to believe that the author merely included them out of a sense of obligation.
Aside from a few pieces of information, Mauceri seems to write on what he pleases, drifting from one issue to the next with little sense of direction or discipline. Is music “about anything,” or is it simply a series of abstract aural metaphors that the listener must allow to affect him subconsciously? Must a listener have an understanding of musical structure to appreciate classical music deeply, or can he allow the music to affect him intuitively? Should a composer’s music be separated from the composer as a person? He touches on these and dozens more questions that have been brought up hundreds of times in the past, and one could hope that he would at least be engaging while providing what is supposed to pass for an expert’s insight. But he continually fails do more than introduce each topic and then briefly offer some commentary that one might expect from an amateur blog post. This is what he has to say about that last question:
In general, we would like them all to have been “nice.” They were not. Reports of dinner with Mozart make it seem like something we would all find disappointing: he could be quite vulgar and was seldom really paying any attention to the people around him, appearing to be thinking about other things. . . . I have worked with many living composers, and the question “What was he like?” is really difficult to answer—and, ultimately, irrelevant gossip. When Stravinsky wrote that he hadn’t really composed his Rite of Spring but, rather, was “the vessel through which The Rite passed,” he was not kidding.
So, whether or not a person has a good personality has no bearing on his artistic talent. Great. Did we really need this author to tell us that for the hundredth time?
Where Mauceri does excel is in his all-too-brief and all-too-few discussions of famous pieces of music. How surprising that Richard Strauss’s Elektra, an opera about matricide and vengeance portrayed in cacophonous modernist music, and Strauss’s very next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, known for its nostalgic tone and catchy tunes, are in reality so musically similar. Who would have thought to look for the implicit “river of grief” that Mozart poured into Don Giovanni—as exemplified by the use of a “descending chromatic scale” in many of its melodies—in the wake of his father’s death? How could anyone have thought that Beethoven’s Fifth, a piece of music so ubiquitous that it would be hard to write about in anything but clichés, could have its four movements described in a way that makes it sound so fresh? And these are nothing compared to Mauceri’s thrilling and lengthy depiction of his own experience first listening to and later conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. These sections are full of eloquence and insights that will have the happy effect of sending the reader straight to the music.
It is tragic that these must merely be islands of gold in a sea of lazy writing. Also, even given his inspired discussions of certain pieces, readers who do not know the difference between a major and minor chord, a chromatic and a diatonic scale, and do not know what a time signature is, may on occasion be mystified by Mauceri’s writing. Ironic that that should happen in a text supposedly designed to instruct. While the reader may be sent running to listen to some new pieces of music, or look at old favorites with a new ear, they will find little to learn in this self-indulgent and undisciplined book that does not have a discernible purpose.
—Karel Carpenter is a graduate student and writer living in the United States.