Saturday, October 2, 2010

Irwin Edman; A Philosopher Listens to the Radio

Irwin Edman (1896-1954)was a music lover. He was also a philosopher who wrote more than 20 books and taught for many years at Columbia University.

"I grew up in the years 1900 to 1910 in simple Manhattan," wrote Edman, "through which one could cheerfully ride a bicycle from the farms in outlying Harlem to forty-second street and fifth avenue, and I saw it transformed into megalopian New York. There could really be some charming sketches of the open-air trolleys--of shouting 'Get a horse!' to goggled automobilists in rare and precarious automobiles."

In his book "Philosopher’s Holiday," written in 1938, he reflects on growing up in a generation when access to music changed regularly as technology made private listening possible, and as media made music available upon demand.

"It is a great boon, doubtless, to be able to hear the symphonies time and again," wrote Edman, "interrupted by the telephone, by visitors, by a sense that one doesn't have to listen at all, by the consciousness that this is not a major event."

"Music has ceased to be something sacramental and eventful," he writes with regret, "and has become the familiar staple, the carte du jour, of our lives. The young music-lover of today knows all the themes far better than his predecessor of twenty years ago. He hears Beethoven at four, at five, at midnight, on cigarette and bank programmes; he does not need the announcer to tell him it is a Bach concerto or a Schumann sonata. But he also does not have the sense of a high and signal occasion that music meant to us in the days before the phonograph and the radio put it as casually as a news bulletin in our homes."

Early in his essay called "For the Love of Music" from Philosopher's Holiday he relate and experience created from that relatively new technology called radio:

"It was midnight. I had been working all evening and found myself suddenly with that hunger for music which often at inconvenient hours assails the long-habituated lover of it. Heaven knows, one has enough music in New York. And now with that aristocrat among radio stations, WQXR, broadcasting the choicest records five hours a day, one need not even go to Carnegie or Town Hall.

"I could have put on a record; but I was lazy and tuned in on the radio instead, hoping against hope that at this unlikely hour there would be something worth listening to. WQXR was silent; the major stations were sending various swing bands into the midnight air.

"Suddenly, I could scarcely believe my ears: there was the sound of a symphony orchestra:

"I hesitated to turn on the volume very loud; after all it was midnight and the neighbours had once, at an earlier hour, complained when I had played quite loud (in a desperate desire to get the last barbarous violence over the loudspeaker) Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps.)

"I listened scrupulously. The low volume made careful listening necessary. The orchestral harmonies had a remote clarity, like music remembered in solitude or heard in a dream. But the dream was precise and steady now, and the details of orchestration clearer than I ever managed to hear them in memory, my musical recollection centering on themes that it is possible to hum or whistle. What could this be, Eighteenth century surely, Mozart or Haydn. One could not always be sure. There was one crude test. If it were Haydn one could be fairly certain at most given points what was going in essence to happen next. But that unexpected turn, that felicity, surprising but inevitable, like Aristotle's requisite for tragedy, that was Mozart, surely.

"But wait now. A long rising line [3:51], a deep musical exaltation, a sudden sharp descent [3:58], an inelegant, almost barbarous breadth and intensity [4:08]; a phrase here that neither Haydn nor Mozart would have thought of [4:14], a modulation [4:44] that suggested a range of consciousness and feeling in tone that could have been only one thing.

"'You have been listening,' said the announcer, 'to Beethoven's Second Symphony. It is part of a musical jamboree presented each night at this time by the Music Shop.' I went to bed not unpleased with myself for having identified a style, and not sufficiently displeased for having failed to remember a symphony had so long known."

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