Sun, Dec 19, 2010 - Page 14 News List

Music makes the world go round

Tim Blanning writes that music has become the religion of the modern world, with people turning on iPhones to listen to their favorite idols rather than kissing icons or fingering rosaries

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Although Blanning discusses these technological advances and agrees they’re important, he discusses a wide range of other things as well, and without always commenting on their significance. Indeed, sometimes you lose track of the book’s argument and it approaches becoming a mere compendium. The old jokes and quotations he wheels out become predictable, even if, with such a vast subject on his hands, he still doesn’t have room for everything.

Even so we hear about opera-houses and recording techniques, music-halls and cinemas (10 in Paris in 1906, 87 in 1908), Moogs and Fenders, national anthems and serf orchestras, jukeboxes and Fatboy Slim (real name Norman Cook).

We learn that Wagner originally wanted entry to his Bayreuth theater to be free and that the Paris Opera cost 70 times as much to build, that John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme in a single session and Bono’s life was changed when he heard it 23 years later, that the Austrians were actually rather easy-going when it came to censoring Italian operas in the 1840s, and that the Eurovision Song Contest is “notoriously disfigured by nationalist prejudice.”

We read of music and sex — Shaw defining dancing as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, Flea, bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, asserting that “We try to make our music give you an erection,” and popular music’s role in promoting the acceptance of gay lifestyles (“arguably the greatest social change to have occurred in the developed world during the last half-century or so”).

But The Triumph of Music isn’t really a book of ideas at all. There are more startling ideas on any page of Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera than in the whole of this book. What it says, and tends to repeat, is that whereas Haydn was the servant of a rich aristocrat with almost no freedom of action, today pop stars are lords of the universe, as well as widely believed dispensers of popular wisdom.

But this long book’s range is great, and its numerous nuggets of information amusing and instructive. It may seek to teach you a lot of what you know already, but there is plenty more to feed even the best-read musical omnivore.

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