[JPL] Sunday Book Review By PETER KEEPNEWS THE TRIUMPH OF MUSIC The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art

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Sat Jan 3 13:00:30 EST 2009


January 4, 2009
A Love Supreme


The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art

By Tim Blanning

Illustrated. 416 pp. The Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press. $29.95

Here are some of the many things I learned from reading ³The Triumph of

The tension of violin strings was increased in the late 18th century ³to
produce a louder and more penetrating sound²; as a result, the pitch of most
orchestras rose by a half step.

In the course of a single battle in 1792, the singing of the ³Marseillaise²
by French soldiers ³was given credit for turning the tide on three separate

The Paris Opera House originally contained an area known as the Foyer de la
Danse, ³in which members of the corps de ballet could be approached during
the interval and assignations made.²

Some audience members at a performance by the violinist Niccolò Paganini
³claimed to have seen the Devil directing his bow, thus allowing him to play
at super human speed.²

Tim Blanning, a professor of modern European history at Cambridge
University, explains in his introduction that ³The Triumph of Music² is
meant to be ³an exercise in social, cultural and political history, not
musicology.² I¹d characterize it more as a grab bag of anecdotes and trivia.
Whatever you want to call it, it¹s very entertaining.

Blanning¹s central point is simple: less than three centuries ago, musicians
and composers occupied an insignificant place in the Western world; today,
things are very different. While ³Europeans² ‹ and by extension all
Westerners ‹ ³have always cherished music,² until relatively recently
³individual performers were quite a different matter.² He probably didn¹t
need 400 pages to make this case, but he makes it with grace, humor and a
mountain of fascinating detail.

Rather than telling his story chronologically, Blanning divides it into five
the matic chapters. ³Status² traces the changing nature of musicians¹ place
in society, from servants to superstars. ³Purpose² looks at the function of
music in people¹s lives. ³Places and Spaces² and ³Technology² examine how
music has been made increasingly accessible through the emergence of the
opera house and the concert hall and advances in instruments and in delivery
systems, from the Edison cylinder to the iPod. ³Liberation² views music in a
sociopolitical context, beginning with national anthems and ending with the
civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements.

All this information is marshaled in support of the thesis not just that
music is more important than it used to be, which is hard to argue with, but
also that it has become the most important, or at least the most dominant,
of all the arts, which is more debatable. At any rate, Blanning has not
entirely convinced me ‹ especially since one way he supports his claim is by
noting the impact of music videos and the ³winning formula² of MTV, an
argument that would carry more weight if MTV hadn¹t spent the last few years
systematically removing music programming from its schedule.

As his evocation of iPods and MTV indicates, Blanning brings things all the
way (or almost all the way) to the present. But while he can be dazzling
when his focus is the European concert tradition ‹ which understandably,
given the scope of his narrative, is most of the time ‹ the facts have a way
of eluding him when he turns his attention to subjects like jazz and rock.

Take his discussion of ³A Love Supreme,² John Coltrane¹s album-length
declaration of religious faith, which Blanning cites in addressing the
transformation of jazz after World War II from entertainment to something
³more ambitious, both in theory and in practice.² His examination of this
justly celebrated recording and its ³powerful and enduring appeal,² which he
attributes to Coltrane¹s ³ability to combine deep introspection with a
transcendental vision,² is thoughtful. But while every jazz aficionado
surely knows that the pianist on ³A Love Supreme² was McCoy Tyner ‹ an
indispensable member of Coltrane¹s quartet for many years, and one of the
most influential musicians of his generation ‹ Blanning inexplicably says it
was Wynton Kelly, a talented if considerably less influential player who was
Coltrane¹s fellow sideman in Miles Davis¹s group and did participate in one
recording session under Coltrane¹s leadership, but who is nowhere to be
heard on ³A Love Supreme.² To someone who doesn¹t know jazz, this may seem
like a small mistake; to those who do, it is roughly equivalent to saying
that Mozart wrote the ³Ring² cycle, or that Vladimir Horowitz was a cellist.

Further evidence that Blanning is out of his depth when navigating these
waters: He includes Celine Dion, few people¹s idea of a rock ¹n¹ roller, on
a list of female rock stars, and identifies Harry Weinger, a Caucasian music
journalist and record producer, as a member of the Platters, the
African-American vocal group. And he has a tendency to overexplain some
things, perhaps because he needed to have them explained to him. As cogent
and detailed as his analysis of the rise of radio may be, he insults our
intelligence by telling us that the word ³deejay² comes ³from ŒD.J.¹
standing for disc jockey.² Even if you never listen to the radio, you
probably figured that out on your own.

Then again, overexplaining is better than underexplaining. And Blanning¹s
occasional stumbles, though annoying, are ultimately a small price to pay
for a book that covers as much ground, with as much passion, as this one

Peter Keepnews is a staff editor at The Times.

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