The Most Intimate Symbol: Jan Swafford on Classical Music

THE MASSACHUSETTS-BASED writer, teacher, and composer Jan Swafford is famed for his biographies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Charles Ives, as well as his beloved Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Basic Books has just published Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, a clear and lively book that does exactly what it promises, in a series of chapters built on historical periods and individual composers. 

The following interview was conducted over email, shortly after Language of the Spirit was released.


SCOTT TIMBERG: There have been, over the decades, numerous tomes on classical music. What kind of gap does yours fill?

JAN SWAFFORD: My old Vintage Guide was aimed at adult music lovers or potential ones, and also at schools. Language of the Spirit is mainly aimed at schools, secondly at adults. I imagine there have always been books for music classes — the old Joseph Machlis book, The Enjoyment of Music, went through several editions and, modified by other hands, is still around. Aaron Copland did his bit with What to Listen for in Music. I wanted to write a similar kind of thing in a more lively, humanistic, and entertaining way. At the same time, the book is written by a practicing musician and composer who looks at the profession from the inside. My basic assumption is that this music is not some grand abstraction, not an adjunct to a lifestyle, but a special and profound kind of communication among people; its main impact is not intellectual but emotional. If the book has a central message, I suppose that’s it.

Decades ago, books, courses, and television programs on “serious” music, visual art, and the like were plentiful — Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and so on. Has that approach dropped out of the mainstream in a world of postmodern niches, the demotion of high culture, and constant digital “connection”?

I’ll reply with a story. My mother was a high school English teacher much involved with poetry and literature. When I was cleaning out the house after she died, I found stacks of articles on major literary figures — Eliot, Frost, et al — that were mostly torn out of Life and Time magazines, which, at the time, were enormously popular, omnipresent. Every week Time had a classical music piece. People like Hemingway and Eliot were regularly on the cover. What’s on the cover of magazines in print and online these days? Rock stars and movie stars. TV began in the ’50s with vastly ambitious ideas about public education — featuring people like Bernstein on the networks, before public television. Clark was later, on the BBC and PBS, but PBS doesn’t really do things of that scope anymore. The reasons are obvious, all having to do with money.

So yeah, there’s been a gigantic dumbing-down of the culture. In the United States, it’s moving toward the point where pop culture may be the only culture left, with everything else having to suck up to it. I think that’s a bad situation, obviously. On the other side of the coin, orchestras still exist, even if they aren’t exactly thriving (partly because the players are getting paid better). But they’re still there. Mozart still sells out Boston Symphony Hall, there are hundreds of chamber concerts, and millions are listening to classical music on Spotify and YouTube, in unpredictable ways. Classical music is a lousy profession, but it always has been. And it has always needed some kind of subsidy to exist — just like railroads.

Can you tell us about a composer who demonstrated not just a long, but a protean, multichaptered career, on the order of a Miles Davis or Bob Dylan? What personal talents and social conditions made that possible?

Somebody who had a long, strong career, from beginning to end … Certainly Ives was multichaptered and protean, but he was largely felled by illness in his 40s. Saint-Saëns was a prodigy who had a gigantic career — born in 1835 and died in 1921 — and I think he wrote books on science, but he was basically a brilliant second-rater. I guess the best answer is Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who both got started early, were prolific through long lives, and went through significant evolutions within them. And they both wrote first-rate stuff into old age. But maybe the champ was Bach, brilliant from his teens, writing lasting work from his early 20s, and ending with his most profound music — the B-minor Mass and Art of Fugue.

By contrast, is there a major composer with a very brief heyday — not someone who died young like Schubert, but someone whose genius seemed to come and go quite quickly? What happened to him?

I wonder whether the answer here isn’t Mendelssohn, who wrote some of his best music in his teens and, from that point, gradually ran out of inspiration until his death, mostly from overwork, at 38.

From your perch amid the ancient forests and verdant river valleys of New England, how vital does the classical music in Southern California and on the West Coast seem in the 21st century?

Don’t know much about the SoCal scene, except that I had a gig with the LA Phil last year and they sounded splendid. I don’t actually, as it were, like Disney Hall, or any other Gehry, but the Hall’s acoustics are fabulous. And there were good crowds for the all-Beethoven series. Besides that, Disney Hall began a massive upscaling of the neighborhood around it, which I’m told was a dump but now has museums, schools, restaurants, et cetera.

Your writing is known for the parallels you draw between classical music and other fields, especially art, architecture, and intellectual history. Why do you find these metaphors useful?

They’re not metaphors to me — they’re direct connections. I believe there’s such a thing as a zeitgeist, which is a matter of something in the air that affects everybody, and artists in whatever discipline are part of the zeitgeist. I’m not particularly mystical about it, but a time has a character. Freud influenced everything, helped create the Austro-German fin-de-siècle zeitgeist, even for the people who never read him. I think Faulkner was influenced by Einsteinian relativity, though he could not have read Einstein, and by Freud, though he never read Freud.

In my early 20s, I imagined a choral piece based on vowels and their connection to the names of gods — which came to pass, not in a piece of mine but in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, which I’d never heard. It was an idea in the air. So again, the connections between the arts and intellectual and political and religious history are real, not metaphorical. Art comes from life and returns to life, and music is no exception.

In your teaching and dealing with civilians, does there seem to be a composer or historical period that serves as a gateway drug to the larger world of classical music?

No. I tend to pick out irresistible works from any period and play those — everything from Carissimi’s Jephte to Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” to Mozart’s “Elvira Madigan” slow movement to Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” to The Rite of Spring to Ives’s Psalm 67.

What writers on music, or on the arts in general, do you admire and suspect may have shaped your style and approach?

When I was first doing music journalism I primed myself with G. B. Shaw’s music criticism, which is the best inspiration I know. He’s the main reason I can’t call myself the best music writer in English. (There are other reasons.) At the moment I can’t think of much else. And when I’d developed a voice as a writer, I didn’t need to read Shaw anymore.

I read a lot of James Agee’s film criticism, too, which helped: “The picture deserves, like four out of five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry ‘Unclean, Unclean.’” Agee showed me the value of a zinger line. Likewise, Anthony Lane. The best zinger I know is from Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That line went through some eight drafts, all of which said the same thing, but only of them said it for the ages.

Is there a composer or piece that, rather than growing stale or familiar over the decades, retains and deepens its fascination?

My first choice is Bach’s B-minor Mass, because, for about 50 years, I’ve found it incomparable from beginning to end. Meanwhile, as these things do, it’s changed for me as I’ve changed. Also the Beethoven Missa solemnis, which I first got to know in high school (maybe the first score I ever owned), and is enormously complex and multifaceted, hard to take in at first, but sublime when you’ve managed to get a handle on it. Ives’s Fourth Symphony fascinated me from the beginning and has only grown since (while I’ve burned out on some other Ives pieces).

Let’s start where it all began, with the origins of music: What does it tell us that every human society, past and present, East and West, has some kind of music? (And most, I think, use something resembling the pentatonic scale.) Do you have any hunches as to why this practice, which has no clear evolutionary or territorial benefit, would arise and persist?

As I’ve said in print, I think humans are innately musical, and that music evolved with us, alongside language — and at first there may have been little difference between music and words and religion. But as I also write, single-celled animals respond to sound, so the idea that sound in itself is meaningful begins at the cellular level, and, from there, goes up to the highest brain functions. And also heart and soul functions. It’s built into us.

If Susanne Langer is right, symbolic responses are built into us too, so we innately respond to all sound, including music, as if it were a symbol of something. That means, among other things, that instrumental music, without words, is the most intimate and personal kind of symbol, because what you bring to it is what you, in particular, are. That’s true of all art, but I think more so of “abstract” music, which we don’t perceive as abstract at all.


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.