Book review: History of music sings with interesting anecdotes

By Graham Reid

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Book cover: 'How to Hear Classical Music'
Book cover: 'How to Hear Classical Music'

At the height of Beatlemania, when they realised the earning power of their songs, John Lennon and Paul McCartney would, according to the latter, sit down and say, "Let's write a swimming pool."

And when Sammy Cahn (1913-93), lyricist for scores of Broadway and Hollywood songs, was asked which came first, the words or the music, he always quipped, "The phone call".

Such pragmatism when it comes to money is perhaps to be expected in the world of the jobbing songwriter.

But who said, "My sole purpose is to make as much money as possible, for after good health it is the best thing to have"?

That was Mozart, and this apparent heresy in the rare air of the classical world is dropped casually in this insightful, funny and frequently provocative little book by Caddy, a senior lecturer in music history and theory at the University of Auckland School of Music.

With a populist touch and musical examples to make you curious, Caddy takes a personal journey through classical music, asking questions as she goes. Why do we need concert halls that force us to sit unmoving in our seats? Where does classical music exist in the real world today? (Answer: when you're on hold and the phone plays Vivaldi endlessly.) What's wrong with the Hooked on Classics album from 1981 that added dance beats to some of the old favourites?

In search of answers, Caddy takes readers down interesting byways and music history, explains that the ritualisation of the concert hall experience - off-putting to so many - only began in the 18th century, and that there is more interesting on-hold music than Vivaldi. Her own historically inclusive selection, with pithy explanations, includes Copeland, Puccini, Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West and Stravinsky's Study for Pianola.

Along the way she leads the reader on a lively dance through concert programming and how even the dullest can be listened to creatively (she gives tips); composers, performers and ensembles that have reinvented classical music for new audiences; why she listens to certain music when doing yoga; and how often-bewildering modern classical music can be explored and enjoyed, even if some of it does sound like an endurance test.

Caddy writes about all this and more in pages sprinkled with references to the world beyond the lecture theatre or concert hall - Britney Spears, YouTube, Dire Straits and Dallas ("I'm a child of the 80s"), the sensation that is Fifty Shades of Grey, the current trend for gloom-doom pop culture - but always comes back to the rich world of classical music, with its heroes, heroines, troubled souls and gifted innovators.


How To Hear Classical Music
by Davinia Caddy
(Awa Press $26)

Graham Reid is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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