In the summer of 1981 when I was sixteen my grandfather came visiting and found a copy of Donald J. Grout’s A History of Western Music sitting on the desk in my room. “Don Grout!” he exclaimed. “I know Don Grout.” It turns out they’d been fraternity brothers at Syracuse University, both graduating in 1925. My grandfather had had no idea that Grout had written the most influential English-language music history ever, one that traversed the entire European corpus up until a couple of decades before 1960, the year the book was published.
In June of 1981 I had won the American Guild of Organists regional playing competition for the Northwest, after having similarly come through the Seattle round on top earlier that spring. Apparently I was then the youngest organist ever to reach the finals of that contest.
My grandfather promptly wrote a latter to his old fraternity brother bragging about me, and within a couple of weeks I received a typed letter from Grout on stationery printed with the name of his country house “Cloudbank” (his quotes) on Rural Drive 3 above Lake Skaneateles, about thirty miles from where I now live in Ithaca, New York. Grout’s home phone is on the letterhead; beneath it his “study” phone is X-ed out. In his late seventies at the time of the writing of the letter, Grout had retired from the Cornell music faculty some ten year before, having served as chairman there from 1945 to 1970. The disused hotline to the great man himself seemed emblematic of his emeritus status as he himself receded into the same music history he’d written about.
The letter is dated 24 July 1981:
It is really great news, exciting news! That your grandfather sent me, saying that you have won the two preliminary competitions in the 8th District Organ Competition, qualifying you for the National Competition in Washington, D. C. next year.
Let me congratulate you and of course we expect even greater news in a few months.
It gives me pleasure to hear that you have a copy of my History of Western Music on your bookshelf. I hope it has proved helpful to you in your studies. A great many students are reading it and I hear from many of them.
With all good wishes for success in your organ competition,
Donald J. Grout
The letter was typed without the slightest error, a fact I remember my grandfather commenting on when I showed it to him. My grandfather appreciated good typing. He had been in typing champion of the state of New York, having gotten an astounding 120 words-a-minute out of a Royal typewriter in 1915, at least according to the solid gold medal still in my mother’s possession.
Grout had come to Cornell in 1945 as both University organist and as chairman. Aside from having an encyclopedic knowledge of music history, he was an excellent keyboard player: he had a great mind and great fingers. The faultless history survey and the super meticulous index — handwritten in immaculate, perfectly slanted and curly-cued cursive — of the hundreds of microfilms of the sources of European music that he acquired for the Cornell library with the proceeds from A History say much about his dedication to scholarship. Grout poured much of the money made from the hugely influential book back into the Cornell music library, helping to make it one of the best in the world.
As chance would have it, I ended up joining the Cornell music faculty in 1996 about a decade after Grout’s death. This summer I’ll play at the Skaneateles music festival not far form Cloudbank. Many were — and are — the stories of Grout retailed by his then-younger colleagues who are now themselves on the verge of retirement. According to these local informants, Grout maintained the highest standards from his students not only with regard to historical knowledge, but for practical skill such as reducing giant orchestral scores at sight at the piano, abilities that have almost completely disappeared among would-be professors of music history, not to mention current professors.
By all accounts, Grout was a deeply conservative man and was disgusted by the student protests of the late 1960s when he was still chairman of the music department. I’ve heard it said that his retirement in 1970 was at least partly motivated by these upheavals. He would be heartened to return to campus these days to take in the complacent atmosphere, even if he would likely be less enthusiastic about the robust hedonism, especially of the fraternities. I can’t image my often-austere grandfather getting up to college hijinks with his fraternity brother, Don, but even these mythic figures were young once.
Grout’s A History of Music (and I note now that his letter to me omits the contingent opening article of the title in order, I suppose, to preserve the flow of his prose) is now in its 8th edition. The emendations have been enacted by various co-authors brought in by the publisher Norton after Grout’s death: the cycle of new editions increases in frequency in a now-rampant ploy of publishers to prevent students from buying used copies. In whatever edition, that book is still a stalwart of college music survey courses, though there are far more competitors than in 1960 when Grout stood alone on that field. Through Grout’s widow, who died about ten years ago, the money kept sluicing into the music department coffers.
Given my relationship with this famous book, I took immediate notice when a 2002 issue of the London Review of Books arrived at my mailbox in Ithaca with a poem by August Kleinzahler entitled A History of Western Music. The poem begins in a favorite mode of Kleinzahler—an outlook shot through with something that is almost irony, but not quite. This is mock nostalgia but not mocking:
April of that year in the one country
Was unusually clear
And with brisk northeasterlies
“straight from the Urals.”
Their ancient regent at long last succumbed
And laid to rest after much ceremony.
Sinatra was everywhere that spring,
In the hotel lobbies, toilets, shops—
“Fly Me to the Moon,” “You Make Me Feel
So Young,” name it.
On TV a computer-generated Weimaraner
Sang “I Did It My Way”
In a gravelly barroom baritone.
—He only weighed 130 lbs.,
Ava Gardner was to have remarked,
But a hundred of those lbs. was cock.
The crude, hilarious line at the end of the first stanza made me laugh out loud, and all the harder because I was already imagining Grout and my grandfather reading over my shoulder.
As for Kleinzahler’s italics and quotes: they are not just winking flirtations with cliché, but a kind of conversational emphasis that draws the reader graciously in—at least this reader—rather than putting him off with excess cleverness.
The poem then moves from the unnamed European country in the thrall of vintage American culture to “the other country to the west” in which the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, showers “you with the debris” from the composer’s “tortured soul.” From this “anthem of the Hapsburg twilight” we soar again across European geography to County Wicklow in Ireland, to the “Sally Gap” and “Lower Lake of Glendalough,” where, in the midst of contemplating the landscape’s mystical Christian past — St. Kevin on his way to the “monastery for evening prayer” —low-brow American culture is suddenly conjured as if in holy incantation: “Unheeded, from somewhere out of the blue, / —Liberace, she said, and nothing more.” It is an odd epiphany to have in these ancient fields and churches.
This odd one-word prayer propels the poet to Vegas for the final stanza of A History of Western Music with “”Lee”—i.e., Liberace—in one of his brocaded “lamé jumpsuits / with its sequins catching the spotlights,” glowing like the gold and ocher of the sacred figures of St. Kevin’s monastery in the lines just before. Liberace smiles “coquettishly to the Vegas crowd” and has his way with the grand piano until:
somehow finding his way back
to a climactic, magnificent rousing chorus
of that million seller
and timeless classic,
Again I could hear Grout snort and grimace at the thought the charlatan Liberace pandering to the Vegas crowd under the banner of his venerable book title spreading above stage of the Las Vegas Riviera Hotel.
Kleinzahler takes us from the remnants of high-bourgeois refinement in a forlorn European state to the glitter of the Vegas strip with a magisterial ease worthy of Grout, but instead of staying within the staid confines of pre-post-modern academy, Kleinzahler rejoices in the weird diversity of our planet’s music: from its indescribable beauty to its incandescent absurdities. After reading this poem one wants to go listen both to the debris of Mahler’s “tortured soul” and to Liberace’s “thunderous glissandos.”
A photocopy of the poem is pinned to the notice board in my office. Occasionally it gets quizzical looks from students scanning a few of its lines while seated across from me at my desk.
Five subsequent “chapters”—not presented in numerical order, if there ever was one—of Kleinzahler’s A History of Western Music are collected in his 2003 volume The Strange Hours Travelers Keep. It is uncanny how the interests of these poems match my own—and I suspect those of many other music lovers, as well. Chapter 11 seems to chronicle a debauched after-concert party at the music festival in Spoleto, Italy. Who wouldn’t want to be at such a confab with its grandstanding expats, musical stars and functionaries? On second thought, maybe many would give it a miss and head back to their own hotel. But the lurid scene is redeemed when an up-and-coming a mezzo sings the devastatingly beautiful (Kleinzahler would say devastatingly beautiful) “Adagiati, Poppea,” from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Operatic excess is here vanquished by the most heartfelt of songs delivered with “tenderness, an unearthly sweetness” that makes even the libertines want to weep.
A prose-poem contribution to A History turns to the “harpsichord for the eyes”—the keyboard that so enthralled the mid-eighteenth century with the possibility of combining sight and sound, of binding pitch with color so that, as Kleinzahler puts it on behalf of the inventor, “the deaf may see and the blind may hear, and those with their sensibilities enjoy music in its fullest measure.”
Other installments find first Clifford Brown and then Thelonius Monk in Paris. The final poem follows the 18th-century musical tourist, Charles Burney on his way from Antwerp to Mannheim. With virtuosic powers of compression and an ear for the perfect phrase to lift from the ambitious Burney, Kleinzahler gets at the unique and very English perspective of this 18th-century traveler — his ambitions, prejudices, discernments, and humor.
Monk, Brown, Louis-Bertrand Castel (inventor of the “optical harpsichord), and Burney: right down the line, these are figures whose music or ideas—or both—have long fascinated me, and whose contributions to the History of Music are so enriched and enlivened by Kleinzahler’s poetry.
Kleinzahler continues to expand his History. Chapter 49 (also in the LRB from a few years back) is subtitled “McPhee’s Gamelan,”and duly crosses out the Western from Grout’s title. Kleinzahler might be as interested as I am to know that among Grout’s papers housed in the rare books and manuscript collections at Cornell is an unpublished manuscript by Grout from 1942 on West Indian Music—“West” but not as “Western” in the sense of European Classical music. It seems Grout was also interested in world music. Who would have thought? One of these days I’ll go have a look at that paper.
The range of reference in Kleinzahler’s History is vast and wonderfully willful, though necessarily narrower than that of the encyclopedic Grout’s book: Kleinzahler’s is poetry that wears its ingenuity lightly, but is nonetheless proud to be wearing it. The poems are often funny, and cruel only when they have to be. Beneath the welcoming glow of the words are sharpened edges that cut with unexpected poignancy. It is this mixture of the seemingly casual and the deeply felt in Kleinzahler’s poetry that has so often delighted and moved me since my first encounter with his History.
Around the Ides of March here at Cornell we’ll be having a Charles Burney conference and concert festival. I’d love to have Kleinzahler here to read Chapter 17 of his History of Western Music:
Having exhausted the musical offerings of Antwerp
That ruin of a once great port,
With the parlous condition of its organs
And detestably out of tune serpent,
Sounding like an Essex calf in anger,
Burney continued up the Rhine …
I could even dredge up the money for the plane ticket from San Francisco, where Kleinzahler lives, to get him to Grout’s old haunts High Above Cayuga’s Waters.
(Next week I’ll have something to say about Kleinzahler’s recent collection of music criticism, Music I-LXXIV.)
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com