Julius Jacobson: The Classical Music Experience

Jacobson, Julius. The Classical Music Experience, Second Edition (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008)

I was premature in writing of Copland's What to Listen for in Music that "I can't think of another volume so accessible for an orchestral neophyte," as The Classical Music Experience is indeed more appropriate for that audience. Unfortunately, I found it to be a little too light-and-fluffy for the rest of us; Jacobson sometimes tries too hard to be endearing, as when he writes such biographical asides as, "I think you will agree with me that Bach was quite a fellow, twenty children and all." (p. 25) Additionally, the author (an MD by trade) inserts far too many surgery-related digressions into the text, which adds little if anything to understanding and appreciating the music. I would have appreciated fewer biographical details on the composers and a correspondingly larger emphasis on their music.

One highlight of this book is access to more than forty hours of streaming audio from the Naxos website. (It's annoying to have to login again after each piece finishes playing; one wonders if this is a deliberate inconvenience designed to sell more CDs.) The book's previous edition (2005) included a pair of CDs, but they could barely scratch the topic's surface. Forty hours of music is a vast improvement, but it's still a long way from comprehensive; I suppose that one can only expect so much for $40.

Several passages that were apparently carried over unedited from previous editions really should have been updated, such as Jacobson's occasional references to the Schwann Opus catalog. The Schwann website disappeared at the end of 2003 after being acquired by Alliance Entertainment, and the Opus catalog appears to have gone missing in the process. (The Gramophone or Penguin guides would appear to be adequate replacements.)

Jacobson's omission of some composers is occasionally bothersome--there are no chapters on Ginastera, Holst, Khachaturian, or Respighi, for example--but it is in the last fifty years where the gaps become especially glaring. After a nice chapter on Schoenberg, there are no modernist composers. Adams, Cage, Glass, Ligeti, Reich, Riley, and Stockhausen--at least--deserved chapters of their own (or, failing that, a single chapter on modern music as a whole). For listeners whose idea of classical music doesn't end with Bernstein, these absences are a serious drawback.

There are several (non-musical) comments that grated on me, such as Jacobson's parallel to AIDS when discussing Smetana's death (at age 60) from syphilis:

"It is sobering to think about biographies of future artistic greats where AIDS may well replace syphilis and cut off productivity at even younger ages." (p. 129)

AIDS has, of course, already affected far too many lives, and the issue of AIDS in the artistic community has been well-discussed (e.g., Newsweek's "AIDS and the Arts: A Lost Generation" cover story from 18 January 1993, pp. 16-20; Andrea Vaucher's 1993 book Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists, and Art.). As Wikipedia notes, medical advances are enabling HIV-positive individuals to live longer and more productive lives than they were able to in decades past:

In areas where it is widely available, the development of HAART as effective therapy for HIV infection and AIDS reduced the death rate from this disease by 80%, and raised the life expectancy for a newly-diagnosed HIV-infected person to about 20 years.

In light of safer-sex education, more comprehensive healthcare responses to AIDS, and improved longevity for HIV-positive artists, Jacobson's comment seems rather outdated in addition to being a digression.

"Commercial sex worker is a term I learned recently at an AIDS conference held at the Harvard School of Public Health. At first I chuckled, thinking that a prissy professor was trying to avoid the use of offensive words in public. But as I thought about it further, I realized it as a better term than the usual synonyms because, particularly in the context of AIDS, it can refer to either sex." (p. 162)

Without doing extensive research, I found that the phrase "sex worker" has been in use for three decades; I agree with Jacobson that it is superior to the common vulgarities, but his entire anecdote was a waste of space.

"There is a new computer language named Apache, amusingly so because as it matured, so many program patches were added to it." (p. 265)

First, Apache is a web server, not a language. Second, it is hardly new--at least not in Internet years: Apache has been the most popular web server almost constantly since its first release in 1995. (See Wikipedia for more information.)

Jacobson's second edition of The Classical Music Experience is a useful primer on the subject, but hardly an essential acquisition for the home library. I would suggest that classical tyros borrow this book from a local library instead--along with a stack of the recordings that Jacobson mentions in the text but were not included in the online selections.


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