Musical Musings, by Petr Beckmann, Boulder, Colo.: The Golem Press, 197 pages, $8.00
Read this book. Whether you are an expert on classical music, a sometime listener, or just capable of recognizing Mozart's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at first hearing, Musical Musings will make you think and chuckle, though not necessarily in that order.
Petr Beckmann's survey of "classical music"—which for him means European music from the baroque composers to Antonin Dvórák—is not intended as a treatise in music theory or forms, or as a sustained, structured history of composers. The book truly is a series of short musings, some giddy with ribald tales and others sobering with insights into music, social order, and politics.
But through it all, the personality of Beckmann, so evident in his other writings on science and energy, delights and fascinates. Who else would comment, when discussing the lack of a precise "starting point" for classical music, that "like other processes, history does not move in leaps. It oozes up on us, and no one knows from where"?
I left Musical Musings on my nightstand for about six weeks, reading two or three musings a night. I highly recommend convulsive laughter as an exhausting tonic for insomnia. Beckmann suggests, for example, that Franz Schubert's famous Unfinished Symphony remained so because one of Schubert's friends lost two of its movements: "And when Schubert was told, he would most likely have just laughed it off over a jug of wine." Beckmann also confides that over a lifetime of serving in positions of power, in World War II and on faculty tenure committees, he never felt more important than when he "bashed the cymbals in the Poloveian Dances." Chapter titles include "Oink, Oink, Oink," "Untangling the Russians," "Tchaikovsky and Glasnost," and my personal favorite, "Harpsichord and Honkytonk."
He makes music and its composers come alive in a way I have never experienced before—by bringing the exalted lives and works of musical saints down to our level to be, well, mused upon.
Beckmann's discussion of German music and Nazism is especially revealing. Wagner enthusiasts have too long tried to obscure the music's intended link with what was to become German racism and totalitarianism, much as fans of 1960s psychedelia try to do vis-à-vis the drug culture. (I'm guilty on both counts.) I'm afraid Beckmann won't let you get away with that. He contends that it was "sheer will power" that allowed Hitler and Nazis to sit through hours of Wagnerian opera, "clearly not to enjoy music, but to pay homage to the rituals of Germanic supermen with Germanic super-names brandishing their Germanic swords to nourish the attending worshipers' Germanic superiority complex."
For modern, post-Dvórák music, Beckmann has nothing but contempt. He tells the story of a friend back in Prague who was made to memorize a particularly jarring Josef Suk piece for piano. After performing the piece, the poor boy collapsed with a nervous breakdown; he was taken to a psychiatric clinic, doped up, and grilled on "how often he masturbated." If not for the intervention of the boy's brother, he would "probably have been crazy for the rest of this life," Beckmann concludes. "That's music?"
Read this book.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".