Music: A Towering Farewell

Last month I gave my take on the “best of the rest,” some very good CD releases in 2006. I ran out of space, so I will return in the next issue to review the rest of the best; but first I wanted to share some endnote observations on music, life, and CD shopping.

A very sad event was the predicted demise of Tower Records, a national chain that, whatever its ample faults, carried the largest in-store selection of classical CDs in Washington and in most other major metropolitan areas. It is a place I haunted for many years, and in which I spent endless happy hours of browsing. I will convey my anguish, and give my overwrought impressions of its passing, cinematically. Like a stricken beast surrounded by hostile villagers tearing at its flesh, Tower went down in mid-December. Or perhaps it was more like the scene in Zorba the Greek when the old French mademoiselle lies dying in her bed; and the village women, not even waiting for her last breath, descend like locusts and strip the house bare of every item. Such was the scene at Tower, at least on an emotional level, as crowds were regulated in an almost Pavlovian way by the varying size of the discounts (ending with 90 percent off at the close). The Svengali stock liquidator, who had taken over the corpse of Tower, could turn the crowds on and off like a faucet with the flick of a percentile. Two phenomena were at work: The higher the discount, the less there was left to chose from; yet the lower the prices, the more appealing became the purchase of otherwise unattractive material.

I am afraid I became one of the swarming villagers. Several times in the frenzy, I almost bought things I al-ready had—always a bitter experience (but one redeemed by the pretense of generosity when giving them as gifts to others). I recklessly indulged in a CD of early-20th-century Basque music, an esoteric item even for me, and one that left a bitter aftertaste when the CD, not surprisingly, did not divulge any masterpieces.

During the wake, predictable behavior was exhibited by what I might call classical music geeks. They come in many forms but display the same obsessive behavior, exacerbated in this case by their sense of being in on the kill—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to loot a classical music store. Bodies tensed. Voices became constricted and high-pitched. Hands shook. One became acutely aware that civilization is thinner than one’s epidermis and that the person reaching for the same version of Mahler’s Ninth might harm you if you got there first, and then it would be not only Mahler’s last symphony but your own.

I recall particularly a sweaty- palmed, middle-aged man in a suit who was determined to march inexorably through the bins in alphabetical order. I had stalled at the letter “N,” thus impeding his methodical progress. He was not willing to go around to “O” and return to “N” at a later time. The pressure from his proximity was such that I knew how George Bush must have felt when Al Gore aggressively stepped into his “space” during the 2000 presidential debates, a defining moment. As I was not a candidate, I took only a temporary stand—to show that I could not be that easily dislodged from the music of Carl Nielsen—and then reeled off back to “L” to avoid having my mediations disrupted by this manic creature again.

However, I was not innocent. My hands shook too as they closed around some otherwise unobtainable treasures. How could I afford the excruciatingly expensive 6-CD Melodiya set of Shostakovich symphonic and orchestral works, done by the very man who premiered many of them, Yevgeny Mravinsky, and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra? Well, now I could. Then my eye caught the newly issued Meridian CD of the chamber music of Hans Gal (1890-1987). Who? I knew the answer because I had visited with the wonderful Martin Anderson in London, who knows everything and had personally known Gal. This Jewish refugee in Scotland had written echt Viennese music (of the pre—twelve tone variety), including these extremely fine Quartets Nos. 1 and 4, and the exquisite Improvisation, Variations and Finale on a Theme by Mozart, lovingly played by the Edinburgh Quartet. This music in no way forces itself upon you; it has a sense of privacy. Its fineness is unobtrusive. It has seldom left my CD player and is especially close to me in the quiet night hours. This is the kind of discovery that makes hours of plowing through CD bins worth it.

I also nabbed the 2-CD Chandos set of another Viennese composer, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), containing his four string quartets, played by the Schoenberg Quartet. Like Gal, Zemlinsky never abandoned tonality, though he took his music to extremes that I doubt Gal ever visited. One last brag: I captured a 3-CD set of Joseph Jongen’s piano music on the Pavane label. I waited until the 60-percent discount because I wagered that no one else would know enough to grab it. My gamble caused some anxious moments, but now I am listening to these wonderful Belgian impressions of French Impressionism. I will write a column on Jongen’s wonderful music later.

At the same time as Tower’s demise, further progress was made in the musical lobotomy being performed on the Washington, D.C., area. NPR’s classical music programs have already been eliminated. NEA chairman Dana Gioia deserves great credit for rebuking NPR publicly for abandoning its mission. What is public radio for, if not for this? Next came news of the proposed sale of the last classical music station in D.C., the highly profitable WGMS, to the owner of the Redskins football team, who apparently wishes to turn it into an all-sports channel. (Do people actually want to listen to the Redskins? Isn’t watching painful enough?) This would leave us with only the distant strains of WBJC’s weak signal from Baltimore, with which we could then simulate the experience of captive-nations peoples, huddling in their eastern European forests to catch surreptitiously the transmissions from Radio Free Europe before being arrested for subversion.

The steady elimination of classical music struck me as analogous to what the Fairfax County libraries in Virginia are now doing to weed their collections, which proves that you cannot get only one thing wrong—it all goes down together. According to the Washington Post, if a book has not been checked out in the last 24 months, it goes on the kill list (at Tower, it was twelve months of shelf life for a classical CD). Thus certain libraries are now without Lincoln’s speeches or The Education of Henry Adams. On the endangered list are The Works of Aristotle, Virgil’s The Aeneid, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It sounds like our civilization is checking out. I always thought that public libraries were supposed to be repositories of the seminal works of our civilization, not a cesspool of popularity. However, as the Post also listed the 25 most popular books, that is what they are becoming. Can’t you go to a bookstore for Stephen King, John Grisham, and Nora Ephron? Do we have to expel Lincoln and Aristotle to make way for them?

A final discordant note. At the end of the year, I went to the wedding anniversary celebration of a very fine Catholic couple. A hotel ballroom was required to accommodate the generations of family and many close friends. All was well until the music began at the dinner reception. There, as is usual today, rock blared out its deafening roar, inhibiting conversation if not banishing thought itself. Rock is a primitive form of corybantic music, primarily designed for fertility dances. The graceless gyrations it requires seem to be demanded of everyone at such social functions in order to be part of the “fun.” Thus the inevitable, painful spectacle of older women, even grandmothers, dancing in suggestive ways that, given the ravages of time, no longer have anything to suggest. The merely demeaning becomes transformed into the danse macabre. I do not simply complain about this: I waltz. If you are in the D.C. area, you can too, at the 25th anniversary of the Committee for Western Civilization’s Evening of Viennese Waltzing (white tie optional) on February 17. Contact the committee at (202) 338-3185.

All is not lost for 2007. There is always Mozart. Last year was the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. According to the Post, the International Mozart Foundation has launched a Web site at that offers a free online database with some 24,000 pages, containing Mozart’s entire catalogue of works and more than 8,000 pages of commentary published since 1954. To prove that the lobotomists have not captured everyone, more than one million visits to the site took place in the first several days. Perhaps many of them were visitors from Washington, D.C., and Fairfax?


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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