Classical Notes


Who, What Why

Years ago I began writing occasional feature articles and reviews about classical music for Goldmine magazine. treble clef I'm not sure why – perhaps I was working through a mid-life crisis of sorts. I just felt compelled to try to share some of my enthusiasm for something that's consistently meant so much to me. Keeping yellowing copies of that material in a file drawer seemed pretty useless. Hence this web site.

For over a decade I wrote regular columns for Goldmine and Legal Times, but their limited length never seemed sufficient to cover a prolific artist, a timeless masterpiece or a substantial edition. So I began posting expanded versions of most of the printed columns to provide graphics, further information and updates. Eventually, Goldmine reoriented its focus away from the eclectic inclusiveness that had attracted me and Legal Times merged and effectively eliminated its lifestyle features. So I severed my former print tethers to float freely in cyberspace.

The rest of this introduction is not intended as a matter of ego; it just seems appropriate that readers know something of the filter through which my views emerge – full disclosure, as we say in my trade.

Until my recent retirement, I was a partner in the Washington, DC office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, where I concentrated on broadcasting regulation and transactions. Me! (very rare pose in a suit, minimal retouching, and not all that long ago) As a full-time attorney I readily admit that I have no formal credentials or professional ties to music. But I consider my lack of insider status a boon, as it enables me to listen and write with full independence from the Powers That Be.

In my profession I was an advocate, and here, too. It really upsets me that so many people shun classical music for fear of the unknown. Whether consciously or not, anyone who likes music should like classical – it's everywhere, and not just in "Eleanor Rigby" types of arrangements. Its tonality, melody, harmony, texture and form permeate all the music we routinely hear. (And, please – this stuff isn't all quaint retro; avant-garde classical music is far more "progressive" than anything you'll ever hear on the radio or in a jazz club or rock concert.)

But advocacy entails responsibility. I truly believe that the highest calling of an arts writer is to inspire by trying to convey the wonder of significant work that might otherwise be overlooked. It's entirely proper to censure lax performance, shoddy production, marketing hype and, especially, hypocrisy in all its forms. Cultural snobbery, though, is wrong; art is far too personal for such things. Different strokes for different folks. as they say. Genuine, inspired artists (as opposed to commercialized hacks) pour their souls into their work; it's a critic's obligation to understand and share appreciation of any art produced with commitment, care and feeling.

So what's so great about classical music? Well, for one thing it's stood the test of time. Trends come and go but this stuff endures. So I buy my son Harold this gorgeous violin and do you think he ever practiced? Instead he's a sports writer! Monteverdi madrigals, Bach cantatas, Mozart concerti, Beethoven symphonies, Verdi operas, Stravinsky ballets – the core repertoire has held the fascination not only of its own generation but of every one since. No one has fully succeeded in explaining this phenomenon, but one thing is clear: there's something here of permanent value. Pick your favorite pop Grammy nominee this year and ask yourself: will anyone still emote over it in a hundred years? I guarantee you, though, that generations yet unborn will still respond to Bach and Beethoven.

Needless to say, I love classical music, but not exclusively. Beyond my thousands of classical LPs and CDs, I collect old 45s and 78s. Beyond classical music, I also dote on doo-wop, R&B, world music, jazz, folk, blues, rock, gospel, old pop and even some country (although, admittedly, that's my weakest spot). I like to think that I'm not atypical – many of us love all music and have chosen classical as the object for our special devotion. After all, excellence knows no artificial distinctions of genre and it's wrong to draw judgemental lines across such arbitrary boundaries. Whether it's Mozart or Miles, Schubert or Shankar, Bach or the Beatles, all music is equally fine if the skill and sincerity's there (and if not, then it's all crap).

Three more things you should know. First, I've always cared far more about the quality of a performance than the fidelity of its recording. That's perhaps just as well, since whatever golden ears I once had are getting a bit tarnished. And my stereos shouldn't make you jealous. (Since people occasionally ask, my main system feeds Bose 901 Series VI speakers with NAD Monitor Series electronics (the 1700 tuner/preamp, 2100 power amp and 5000 and 5100 CD players), and, for LPs,My basement stereo system a Kyocera PL-601 turntable, Stanton 681EEE cartridge, an SSS Audio Signal Restoration Unit and two SSS Audio Pulse Swallowers; the system in my study has Advent Large speakers, an NAD 7000 receiver, two NAD 5300 CD players, a Yamaha YP-B2 turntable and an SSS Audio Pulse Swallower; my den system uses Dynaco A-25 speakers, an NAD 7020 receiver, an NAD 5325 CD player and a Thorens 160 turntable.)

Second, my approach to music has always been intuitive; I have little interest in dissecting a piece in detail to see what makes it tick. The few times I tried I only succeeded in ruining the essential mystery, like spoiling a nifty magic trick by learning how it's done. I'm far more interested in exploring the emotional impact of music and admiring the elegance of great artists' achievements.

Finally, I should mention that I neither seek nor accept free review copies. I realize that nearly all music writers do, but integrity and appearances mean a lot to me. Perhaps most critics can wallow in freebies and not be influenced, but I know my own nature. Both in my former business and private lives, I tend to treat others the way they treat me. I would never want anyone to suspect that my views might be tainted for repaying a kindness or owing a favor. So every recording I mention I either bought at retail, borrowed or (more recently) downloaded. I'll recommend a record only if I consider it genuinely worthwhile, and if I feel ripped off I'll tell you that, too. I'm a fierce consumer; my mother raised me that way.

One more matter – I'm occasionally asked why I don't write a book. While I'm truly flattered at the suggestion, I believe that, in essence, I have – several, in fact. Aside from the sheer amount of original material I've posted, I hope that the care I've lavished on text, illustrations and layout are tantamount to professional publication. It's true that traditional books have a cachet of permanence that the Web lacks, but there's a corresponding drawback in an area as dynamic as music – books are frozen and become stale once they're issued, while I can (and often do) update, expand and correct my material when I come across a striking new record, have a further thought or (gasp!) discover a mistake. Fortunately, I don't depend on my writing for income, and so I can blissfully ignore the vexing problems of securing and selling literary material over the Internet; rather, I'm truly delighted to have an efficient way to distribute my material to all who might want it, either on-line or, if they wish, in print.

So that's the deal. I hope you enjoy the material I'll be posting. Please read it, share it and above all enjoy it. Just don't exploit it commercially (and lest you be tempted, it's all copyrighted – and I am a lawyer!). If you have any feedback, please let me know at

I'd love to turn you on . . .

Peter Gutmann

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