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“What can be done about the state of classical music?” Lawrence Kramer asks in this elegant, sharply observed, and beautifully written extended essay. Classical music, whose demise has been predicted for at least a decade, has always had its staunch advocates, but in today’s media-saturated world there are real concerns about its viability. Why Classical Music Still Matter “What can be done about the state of classical music?” Lawrence Kramer asks in this elegant, sharply observed, and beautifully written extended essay. Classical music, whose demise has been predicted for at least a decade, has always had its staunch advocates, but in today’s media-saturated world there are real concerns about its viability. Why Classical Music Still Matters takes a forthright approach by engaging both skeptics and music lovers alike. In seven highly original chapters, Why Classical Music Still Matters affirms the value of classical music—defined as a body of nontheatrical music produced since the eighteenth century with the single aim of being listened to—by revealing what its values are: the specific beliefs, attitudes, and meanings that the music has supported in the past and which, Kramer believes, it can support in the future. Why Classical Music Still Matters also clears the air of old prejudices. Unlike other apologists, whose defense of the music often depends on arguments about the corrupting influence of popular culture, Kramer admits that classical music needs a broader, more up-to-date rationale. He succeeds in engaging the reader by putting into words music’s complex relationship with individual human drives and larger social needs. In prose that is fresh, stimulating, and conversational, he explores the nature of subjectivity, the conquest of time and mortality, the harmonization of humanity and technology, the cultivation of attention, and the liberation of human energy.


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“What can be done about the state of classical music?” Lawrence Kramer asks in this elegant, sharply observed, and beautifully written extended essay. Classical music, whose demise has been predicted for at least a decade, has always had its staunch advocates, but in today’s media-saturated world there are real concerns about its viability. Why Classical Music Still Matter “What can be done about the state of classical music?” Lawrence Kramer asks in this elegant, sharply observed, and beautifully written extended essay. Classical music, whose demise has been predicted for at least a decade, has always had its staunch advocates, but in today’s media-saturated world there are real concerns about its viability. Why Classical Music Still Matters takes a forthright approach by engaging both skeptics and music lovers alike. In seven highly original chapters, Why Classical Music Still Matters affirms the value of classical music—defined as a body of nontheatrical music produced since the eighteenth century with the single aim of being listened to—by revealing what its values are: the specific beliefs, attitudes, and meanings that the music has supported in the past and which, Kramer believes, it can support in the future. Why Classical Music Still Matters also clears the air of old prejudices. Unlike other apologists, whose defense of the music often depends on arguments about the corrupting influence of popular culture, Kramer admits that classical music needs a broader, more up-to-date rationale. He succeeds in engaging the reader by putting into words music’s complex relationship with individual human drives and larger social needs. In prose that is fresh, stimulating, and conversational, he explores the nature of subjectivity, the conquest of time and mortality, the harmonization of humanity and technology, the cultivation of attention, and the liberation of human energy.

30 review for Why Classical Music Still Matters

  1. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    The first decade of the new millennium saw several books published on declining interest in classical music even among cultural elites, among which one could mention Julian Johnson's Who Needs Classical Music and Fineberg's Classical Music, Why Bother. Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters is an extended essay on the virtures of classical music by a professor of English and Music at Fordham University. Published in 2007, it shows an awareness of Johnson's earlier book. As an enormou The first decade of the new millennium saw several books published on declining interest in classical music even among cultural elites, among which one could mention Julian Johnson's Who Needs Classical Music and Fineberg's Classical Music, Why Bother. Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters is an extended essay on the virtures of classical music by a professor of English and Music at Fordham University. Published in 2007, it shows an awareness of Johnson's earlier book. As an enormous fan of classical music, especially composers of the 20th century and beyond, I'm always interested in arguments that might convince some of my peers to try the genre out. Kramer does not argue for any superiority of classical music over other, popular genres. Instead he tries to focus on a few aspects of classical music that he believes unique to the genre and rewarding, such as melodic development and the relationship between the unchanging score and the rich differences between individual performances. However, Kramer writes his defense of classical music in such longwinded, highfaultin' prose that the only people likely to keep up with him are people already committed to the genre. To offer one representative quotation, here's how he describes the Brahms Clarinet Quintet: If nothing else, the hope is to amend the sense of loss, even if it cannot be rememied, by saying an appropriate farewell. So the music goes systematically rummaging around in memory or fantasy (unable, really, to tell them apart) until it finds what it wants, which may or may not be what it has so long sought. The bliss is the music's secret, a secret kept even from the music itself that in the end it can be discovered, blurted out, confessed. Yet when it appears at last the blissful melody smothers the desire it rewards. It collapses one last time -- really, the last, this time -- into a gloomy, dark-tone B-minor close on the strings. The long search has only reconfirmed the transformation of a once-present hapiness into an eternally lost object of desire. What the quintet learns from that transformation is the hard necessity of resigning oneself to it. Imagine reading such ecstatic reveries of one man's personal experience of the music (which may not reflect other people's interpretations at all) for a couple of hundred pages. I would say the only real audience for this book are readers who are already interested in classical music and who want to expand their collections. Kramer's inclusion of some great 20th century tonal repertoire is to be commended. He writes passionately about Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and Ligeti’s Piano Etudes, noting that they maintain longstanding concerns of classical music and offer many delights, so hopefully he will encourage some conservative listeners to give these works a chance. As an book for to get the general public on board, this is a failure.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joe Eidson

    As a composer and fellow academic it absolutely pained me to read this book, and it even stings to post such a negative review. I had hoped to read why our chosen field does matter in the contemporary landscape; instead I ended up reading a very academic essay that offers nothing in the way of the promised title. While the author does make no apologies for his academic style, all of the self-flagellating over one clarinet entrance in the Brahms clarinet quintet only reinforces the "snobby / irre As a composer and fellow academic it absolutely pained me to read this book, and it even stings to post such a negative review. I had hoped to read why our chosen field does matter in the contemporary landscape; instead I ended up reading a very academic essay that offers nothing in the way of the promised title. While the author does make no apologies for his academic style, all of the self-flagellating over one clarinet entrance in the Brahms clarinet quintet only reinforces the "snobby / irrelevant" stereotypes that plague contemporary art music circles. I wanted an honest discussion geared toward making art music relevant and instead found yet another bland academic essay that would not be out of place on JSTOR.

  3. 4 out of 5

    June

    A violinist playing a Bach sonata in a busy, noisy New York subway station at rush hour creates a magical space where people listen attentively as if in a concert hall. Some even choose to stay and listen, missing their train. How can that be? Lawrence Kramer’s series of essays in this book try to answer that question, teasing out the relationships of listener, composer, and performer, of emotion, attention and imagination; the differences between classical and popular music; some different form A violinist playing a Bach sonata in a busy, noisy New York subway station at rush hour creates a magical space where people listen attentively as if in a concert hall. Some even choose to stay and listen, missing their train. How can that be? Lawrence Kramer’s series of essays in this book try to answer that question, teasing out the relationships of listener, composer, and performer, of emotion, attention and imagination; the differences between classical and popular music; some different forms of classical music, and a little about places classical music has turned up in TV and film. It’s a challenging and dense read. Also, some essays go into detail about specific pieces, and most readers will need to seek these out in order to understand those portions.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bryan

    Gave this book a quick read. Yet it is a book that should be savored in small bites with time out to listen to the music and watch the movies that are described so beautifully. Imagine the best concert program notes that you have ever read and you have in Kramer’s book something several orders of magnitude better. Kramer describes the experience of listening to specific pieces of classical music that is summed up in his quotations of philosophers from Kant to Wittgenstein and the poet T. S. Elio Gave this book a quick read. Yet it is a book that should be savored in small bites with time out to listen to the music and watch the movies that are described so beautifully. Imagine the best concert program notes that you have ever read and you have in Kramer’s book something several orders of magnitude better. Kramer describes the experience of listening to specific pieces of classical music that is summed up in his quotations of philosophers from Kant to Wittgenstein and the poet T. S. Eliot, who wrote: Music heard so deeply that you are the music while the music lasts.

  5. 5 out of 5

    King Haddock

    I actually did not finish this book. I made it to page 122, halfway through the "But Not For Me" chapter. Reasons for not finishing the book include a rapidly approaching library due date, an inability to check the book out again, and a general disinterest for how the book had been progressing. What I got most out of this book was Kramer's "fate of the melody," which made me think deeply as a serious music composer. However, as far as the rest of the book is concerned... The start of the book cont I actually did not finish this book. I made it to page 122, halfway through the "But Not For Me" chapter. Reasons for not finishing the book include a rapidly approaching library due date, an inability to check the book out again, and a general disinterest for how the book had been progressing. What I got most out of this book was Kramer's "fate of the melody," which made me think deeply as a serious music composer. However, as far as the rest of the book is concerned... The start of the book contains some interesting, thought-provoking comments or questions, such as in page 37 when Kramer asked "How is it possible to enjoy melody?" and then trying to answer the question through connection to the human voice. I also like how he states that performers "get to know through their playing" (p. 71). "The music must be the same, the performances not" - that comment on page 82 was really intriguing to think about, and I think I agree with Kramer on that. I was also glad to see his relationship to classical music's unattainable but no the less present ideals compared to Plato's forms. And, lastly of all for my quotes stage of the review... "Music cannot be impersonated." (p. 88). I liked that, too. However, I do not think that Kramer fully addresses the problem proposed on the title of the book: Why Classical Music Still Matters. Sure, sometimes Kramer pointed out what he LIKED about classical music, and sometimes he also distinguished it from other pieces - but not much more than vaguely, at least in that which I read. Nevertheless, even if he DID ever define more distinctions of classical music beyond its treatment of melody, its usage of the score and the performance, and his emotional connotations to it, that still does not fully answer the question. I know he circulates around the question, but it still does not feel like an answer to me. Especially chapter three, Kramer took forever to even state what he wanted to argue here. In the introduction, it seemed as though Kramer did not specify his audience - whether they would be academic or casual readers, or whether they would be classical listeners or not. I think that hurts his writing. He toggles between intimate phraseology and eclectic diction, a careful assignment of musical terms and assumption that readers have heard ALL these songs that he listed (and in the first two and a half chapters, that is not few: Bach's Cell Prelude in G; Beethoven's Eroica, Pastoral Symphony, and String Quartet No. 12 in E Flat, Opus 127; Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, Clarinet Quintet, and Violin Concerto; Chopin's Ballade in G Minor and Raindrop Prelude; Dvorak's New World Symphony; the German Lied; Gershwin's An American in Paris; Janacek's Sinfonietta; Mahler's Resurrection; Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; Mozart's Piano Concerto in D; Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto; Ravel's Bolero; Schubert's Piano Sonata in A; Schumann's Dichterliebe and Die Wintereise; Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 in B minor and Sixth Symphony; and Wagner's Die). What was I supposed to do - listen to ALL of those songs? Yes, I know quite a few - I am a classical music junkie myself - but it is impossible for a reader to know ALL those songs. Considering that it makes more sense to listen to those songs before reading Kramer's description of them, it takes forever to read this seemingly small book. It just does not work well - even less so if Kramer actually was trying to reach out to a large or unknown audience! Therefore, it seems this book is best fit for the musically trained. I know that a few of his descriptions, while making perfect sense to me, would mean nothing to people less learned in theory and composition technique. "Art, being formed from imagination and addressed to the imagination, needs to be answered creatively," Kramer says. However, it also needs to be addressed logically enough for readers to follow what you mean. Half the time the author fumbled to try to get what he means, but cannot find good enough words to get his point across to anyone except fellow classical music listeners. I sympathize with Kramer. To me, it makes sense for him to say that the classics "render emotional tangible" (p.29), that there is a "bit more effort from the listener," (p.31), that "classical music does not relax you. But it can transfix you, perhaps even transform you." (p.34). But such statements hardly help his argument. The people who understand those comments already understand why classical music matters... and so Kramer's thesis seems to get him nowhere. That being said, I will give this book the benefit of the doubt. Some parts were interesting, some were not, some arguments were more valid than others... but in the end all I can say is that I never finished it. Maybe there are some more interesting points later on in the book. However, I have run out of time, and it's back to the library this book goes.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    I spent a lot of time on this book--I had to read it for my required writing seminar this year. Therefore, I feel somewhat qualified to give my opinion on it. (: We had to write logical and rhetorical outlines for each chapter, in which we outlined Kramer's argument, supporting reasons, and evidence supporting those reasons. It was a struggle, because Kramer's thoughts and points are so disjointed. His reasoning doesn't really flow in a way that's easy for the reader to follow. He has some very i I spent a lot of time on this book--I had to read it for my required writing seminar this year. Therefore, I feel somewhat qualified to give my opinion on it. (: We had to write logical and rhetorical outlines for each chapter, in which we outlined Kramer's argument, supporting reasons, and evidence supporting those reasons. It was a struggle, because Kramer's thoughts and points are so disjointed. His reasoning doesn't really flow in a way that's easy for the reader to follow. He has some very intriguing points, about how classical music affects people emotionally, but he does not connect those points overall, and they are lost in the general academic sludge that makes up the majority of the book. He does not do a good job supporting his argument about the relevancy of classical music in today's world. I play the piano, and am interested in classical music. However, I had a lot of trouble figuring out what Kramer was attempting to describe about many pieces of music. His language was vague, and oftentimes he states something that I thought could have used more elucidation. For example, in the chapter "But Not For Me" he writes: "By shifting the emphasis of the song from the expression of meaning to its creation, Schubert puts the oracular text at a distinct critical remove." I read that statement several times, but I still found it hard to understand. That made it even more difficult to figure out the validity of the reasons he put forth to support his proposition. In the beginning of the book, Kramer states that he is attempting to write about classical music without being "condescending and authoritarian...pompous and moralistic." Kudos to him for his attempt at not being stuffy, but his casual use of words like "strophic" left me feeling out of my depth, despite the fact that I have at least a small working knowledge of classical music. Also, his reasoning is frequently tangential and it's difficult to see a clear connection between what he is trying to argue (obviously, that classical music still matters), the statements he makes, and the examples he gives. Overall, I disliked Why Classical Music Still Matters because of its vague, often difficult-to-interpret reasoning, and lack of concrete examples. I salute Kramer's attempt, because writing about music is extremely difficult, but I do not think he produced a clear or effective argument. The book isn't even fun to read. In my opinion, Kramer did not prove his argument, which left me feeling dissatisfied as a reader.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Penny

    I skimmed this book rather than reading it carefully. It's pretty academic, and I don't have the time or energy to read academic prose outside my field for fun. Given that, I'm not sure that this book is going to change anyone's mind about classical music. The person who needs to be convinced of classical music's value is unlikely to plow through this. I do like some of his ideas, though I'm not sure they would hold up to intense scrutiny. For example, he makes a nice analogy between music and vi I skimmed this book rather than reading it carefully. It's pretty academic, and I don't have the time or energy to read academic prose outside my field for fun. Given that, I'm not sure that this book is going to change anyone's mind about classical music. The person who needs to be convinced of classical music's value is unlikely to plow through this. I do like some of his ideas, though I'm not sure they would hold up to intense scrutiny. For example, he makes a nice analogy between music and visual image, saying that popular music is a photograph that captures a moment in time, while classical music is the film that explores an emotion as it changes over time. If you are comparing a typical 3 minute popular song to a 40 minute symphony, I think that analogy works quite well. But there are classical pieces that are very short, and jazz and blues tunes that stretch to 10 minutes or more, with long well-formed improvised solos. Is Debussy's "Girl with the Flaxen Hair" still a film, while a 10 minute Eric Clapton solo with Cream merely a photograph? Is classical versus popular really the thing that maked the difference here? Interesting food for thought.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Margareads

    I started reading this book because I wanted to know more about classical music and its cultural role since its beginning until today. I know nothing about the genre and I thought this could be a good way to start understanding it. What I got was a super boring and academic book that gave me absolutely no additional knowledge about this type of music nor the will to comprehend why it is currently still important. I couldn’t finish it. I read 2/3 and then I had to DNF it, which I never do. I was I started reading this book because I wanted to know more about classical music and its cultural role since its beginning until today. I know nothing about the genre and I thought this could be a good way to start understanding it. What I got was a super boring and academic book that gave me absolutely no additional knowledge about this type of music nor the will to comprehend why it is currently still important. I couldn’t finish it. I read 2/3 and then I had to DNF it, which I never do. I was so bored and felt so demotivated that I thought it was not worth my time. However, if you like and know classical music this might be a good book for you because I thing it was primarily written for people who know the genre well. Not for people like me who don’t know a thing about the subject.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nathanial

    Loosely-connected essays, mostly referencing "the fate of melody" in a tightly-defined field of music. Kramer surveys tightly-prescribed orchestral and instrumental music, 1770s through early 20th, which was originally intended to be heard under certain "ritual" conditions of attentive listening, silence and approbation. Chapter topics include music in film, piano works, lieder, and symphonic scores; Kramer's main concern seems to be asking how an ephemeral medium pose and premise questions of m Loosely-connected essays, mostly referencing "the fate of melody" in a tightly-defined field of music. Kramer surveys tightly-prescribed orchestral and instrumental music, 1770s through early 20th, which was originally intended to be heard under certain "ritual" conditions of attentive listening, silence and approbation. Chapter topics include music in film, piano works, lieder, and symphonic scores; Kramer's main concern seems to be asking how an ephemeral medium pose and premise questions of memory, expectation, hope and community. Big ideals, sure, but beautifully written with close attention to the differences between composition, performance, and reception, especially how meaning changes under different conditions--without discarding the claim that there could be an absolute purpose inherent in a piece.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Firda

    It is actually a very interesting book! Covering as much themes as it can, it also approaches the themes (and questions) rather differently, unlike the way any other theorists in classical music might do. The responses to the themes (and the logic behind it) are also highly interesting. I can't stress enough how interesting this book actually is (so interesting I can actually give the rating five stars!) Except that I won't, why? Because the language (word choice, ahem) is much too flowery and mu It is actually a very interesting book! Covering as much themes as it can, it also approaches the themes (and questions) rather differently, unlike the way any other theorists in classical music might do. The responses to the themes (and the logic behind it) are also highly interesting. I can't stress enough how interesting this book actually is (so interesting I can actually give the rating five stars!) Except that I won't, why? Because the language (word choice, ahem) is much too flowery and much too complicated, it feels pretentious. Such a shame for a book with such an idea. *is this the problem with all American essays? it seems like that to me ._.*

  11. 5 out of 5

    Eli

    It is an interesting book, indeed, but I'm not sure stepping into music metaphysics or theodicies about performing techniques is what we needed. Maybe the title is a little misleading. However, it does provide interesting "apologetic" points; I just think the book is not for the general public. Someone that hasn't studied music AND philosophy will find it tedious to read. This book is for a mature professional audience that already has an interesting in philosophy on aesthetics and music (or art It is an interesting book, indeed, but I'm not sure stepping into music metaphysics or theodicies about performing techniques is what we needed. Maybe the title is a little misleading. However, it does provide interesting "apologetic" points; I just think the book is not for the general public. Someone that hasn't studied music AND philosophy will find it tedious to read. This book is for a mature professional audience that already has an interesting in philosophy on aesthetics and music (or art in general). I think he could have discussed the premise of the book without recurring to such difficult narratives, but I guess it was just a disagreement between writer and publicist.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Stefanie Lubkowski

    Less of a persuasive, debate-team style argument or polemic, and more of a philosophical look at how classical music creates meaning, how that process and outcome is different from pop music, and what role it has in modern life. I liked how he didn't resort to cultural hierarchies to make his point, and how he explorations of the significance and value of classical music was expansive enough to include all styles and eras, all fusions of culture, etc. I wish that this kind of thinking about musi Less of a persuasive, debate-team style argument or polemic, and more of a philosophical look at how classical music creates meaning, how that process and outcome is different from pop music, and what role it has in modern life. I liked how he didn't resort to cultural hierarchies to make his point, and how he explorations of the significance and value of classical music was expansive enough to include all styles and eras, all fusions of culture, etc. I wish that this kind of thinking about music and art had more prominence in journalism and discourse.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Matt Beckmann

    Disappointing on all counts. Kramer is clearly preaching to the choir here; all his points require a vast understanding of music and music history, while proving nothing. As a musician myself, he shows me why some people view classical music as insular and elitist; he does not appeal to the "layperson" but alienate them. If you're inticed by the title, don't read it. Just listen to a Beethoven symphony and you'll get it. Disappointing on all counts. Kramer is clearly preaching to the choir here; all his points require a vast understanding of music and music history, while proving nothing. As a musician myself, he shows me why some people view classical music as insular and elitist; he does not appeal to the "layperson" but alienate them. If you're inticed by the title, don't read it. Just listen to a Beethoven symphony and you'll get it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rlhubley

    This book sucks, frankly. In fact, I would have rather given it less than one star. Kramer's writing is pompous and does absolutely nothing to support the thesis at hand. Rather than connecting "classical" music to today's culture, he further alienates it. Of course, it may get better, I had to put it away after reading two-thirds of this rather lame text. This book sucks, frankly. In fact, I would have rather given it less than one star. Kramer's writing is pompous and does absolutely nothing to support the thesis at hand. Rather than connecting "classical" music to today's culture, he further alienates it. Of course, it may get better, I had to put it away after reading two-thirds of this rather lame text.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ed

    Despite its succulent title, it never really delivered on the promise. It was more a mish-mash of discourse on threads of varying relevance adding up to a less than overwhelming conclusion. It wasn't a fun read, I must say. Recommended for eggheads. Despite its succulent title, it never really delivered on the promise. It was more a mish-mash of discourse on threads of varying relevance adding up to a less than overwhelming conclusion. It wasn't a fun read, I must say. Recommended for eggheads.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Peter J.

    Kramer claims not to write in academic style, but he does and never comes to the point, a delusion and certainly not the way to convince

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn

    I utterly disappointed, there are some interesting topics throughout the story, but not well executed.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Henry

    An interesting Essay, not an easy read unless you have the music lingo, I would think.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rachael

    deeply insightful, poetic, and relevant.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jay

  21. 5 out of 5

    Marek ChoronZone

  22. 4 out of 5

    Lindsay

  23. 4 out of 5

    Holly Harrison

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  25. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Walsh

  27. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lois

  29. 4 out of 5

    Steve Mossberg

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bettina Swigger

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