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Musical Chairs

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By Michael Dirda


 

Last week I mentioned a visit to the Prevention of Blindness thrift shop in Kensington, Maryland. Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, let’s just say that the attentive students of this column, men and women of intelligence, refinement, and exceptional good looks, will recall that I had escaped from the local farmers’ market to seek out more substantial treasures than good bread and organic vegetables, just the kind of treasures, in fact, that St. Matthew warns us against storing up on this earth and that are prey to moth and rust. Somehow this led to a column about Charvet shirts and thrift stores.

As it happens, I didn’t buy any clothes at the Prevention of Blindness shop—oh, okay, I couldn’t resist a green Richel tie with ducks on it—but I did pick up a dozen compact discs. Each was a dollar, and many were obviously the former property of a Maria Callas fan. But why had he—Callas fans tend to be he—divested himself of the diva’s repertory? Was he (or possibly she) now worshipping at the feet of Renee Fleming or Angela Gheorghiu? There was Maria Callas: Live in Milan 1956 and Athens 1957, as well as several operas: Madama Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen.

While I left a good many other CDs that I already owned, I still brought home Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater (with The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers), Leonard Bernstein conducting Favorite Russian Spectaculars, Puccini’s Turandot with Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling (my favorite tenor), an album of Elizabethan songs called Shakespeare’s Kingdom, featuring mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker and pianist Graham Johnson, Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing and Let ’em Eat Cake.

Good music, all of it, and cheap. Which is the disturbing part. Compact discs are clearly on the way out.

It wasn’t so long ago—25 or 30 years—that CDs first appeared and began to oust vinyl records and audio cassettes as the preferred medium for serious music. For me, this development was a real boon. In my younger days I used to visit record shops and covet boxed sets of Beethoven symphonies, Wagner operas, Bach cantatas, Mozart piano concertos. Only rarely was I able to find the money for such luxuries. I do know that the first opera I ever owned—I still have it—was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the classic performance with a star-studded cast under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini.

But once CDs—supposedly unscratchable and permanent—entered the market, collectors began to dump their vinyl. You could buy an opera for a few dollars, readily pick up multiple versions of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique or the Brahms violin concerto, even find spoken-arts rarities like Charles Laughton reading stories from the Bible and the original Broadway cast performance of Waiting for Godot. As my old car’s sound system only played cassettes, I also snatched up lots of cassettes—usually for a quarter apiece. I found taped lectures from The Teaching Company de-accessioned at the local library, collections of Patsy Cline, Lorrie Morgan, Reba McEntire, and Bob Dylan, and Lolita read by Jeremy Irons.

As a result, the LPs soon overflowed their shelves, and the cassettes filled up plastic bins. Worse still, I began to be lured into acquiring compact discs. Used bookshops sometimes stocked secondhand CDs, and I began to trade boxes of hardbacks for irresistible boxed sets of Ella Fitzgerald singing the American Songbook and Mitsuko Uchida playing the Mozart Piano Sonatas. When the CDs needed more space, more and more of the vinyl and tape migrated into the basement.

And then one day my kids began to download music from the Internet. Before long they wanted iPods and iPod docks as Christmas gifts. As usual, I didn’t notice the writing on the wall and blithely went on buying cheap records, tapes, and CDs. Champagne culture on a beer budget—what could be better?

Still, when music that once cost 20 dollars a disc is selling for a buck, you shouldn’t need an angelic hand to write “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin” to realize that the days of the CD are numbered.

Which they obviously are. But I’m not sure I’ll be making the switch to downloaded music (or downloaded books, for that matter). My much-missed Book World colleague Reid Beddow used to say, “The old ways are best,” and part of me certainly believes this about records. If you bought Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto or Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, it came in a substantial box, with a full libretto in multiple languages. Sometimes there was even a score, as well as a booklet with an essay on the opera and its composer, pictures of the performers and conductor, brief biographies and discographies of everyone involved. The cover of the boxed set might reproduce a painting, perhaps something by Fragonard or Watteau. Every aspect of the set announced that this was an important work of music, deserving one’s care, attention, love, and money.

No more. Audiotape and compact discs started to reduce this extra-musical richesse. But now we’re down to the bare bones: You simply press a button on your MP3 player and the music begins. It’s easy, it’s convenient. You want more information—look online. But hasn’t just a bit of the magic, something of the beauty and aura of the performance disappeared? I think so.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Even now I keep a few vinyl albums in frames, and not just for the gorgeous covers. One features a portrait of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf looking more glamorous than Greta Garbo, another, of Korngold’s music for The Sea Hawk, reproduces a scene, in glorious black and white, showing two great sailing ships closing for combat in glorious black and white. Most of all, though, I still play the records and CDs in my collection, and sometimes even my audio tapes. The old ways may not always be best, but they work for me.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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