Notes in the Key of H

A London coal dealer named Thomas Britton had a loft above his shop, reachable by ladder, where, for several decades starting around 1680, hired musicians gave weekly instrumental concerts for a paying audience. Britton’s concerts were a hot ticket; the illustrious George Frederick Handel was often in attendance. More important, they marked a turning point in the history of music consumership. Never before had concerts -- the diversions until then of invited elite audiences in a nobleman‘s estate -- been made accessible to anyone with the price of a ticket. Never before had composers been cast into a direct relationship with a public that would pay if they thought the music would be good and would stay home if they didn’t.

Three hundred years later, the situation remains basically unchanged; now comes Michael Chanan‘s From Handel to Hendrix to trace the occasional joys and frequent sorrows in that relationship. His title plays on the coincidence that the great Handel and the sublime Jimi Hendrix, centuries apart, occupied adjacent London digs -- Nos. 23 and 25 Brook Street. (Hendrix, Chanan reports, was obviously aware of the stature of his erstwhile neighbor. He regarded Handel’s music, he once said, as ”a homework type of thing.“) Separated by centuries, their worlds still often touched. Some of Handel‘s best tunes, including religious pieces, were quickly co-opted into Britain’s music-hall repertory. And that adventurous contemporary concert ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, has been known to inject one or two of their own Hendrix arrangements, best of all ”Purple Haze,“ between the more formidable works on their programs -- again effecting an at-least-momentary sealing of the gap between the ”serious“ and ”popular“ arts.

A London-based filmmaker, writer and teacher, Chanan has applied himself in previous volumes -- Musica Practica and Repeated Takes most notably -- to the ”social history“ of music both in concert and on recordings heard at home. His purpose in this new book is to survey the damage perpetrated -- by three centuries of dealing with the reality of the marketplace -- upon the psyche (and the purse) of the composers of classical music, purveyors of unreality at its most dangerously evanescent. His findings, one gratefully notes, are not entirely downbeat; compared with the lubricious mendacity of Norman Lebrecht‘s Who Killed Classical Music? of two years ago, From Handel to Hendrix peals forth like a paean of thanksgiving.

The world is well-supplied with histories of music in many shapes and lengths, most of them variants on the Bach-begat-Beethoven-begat-Brahms leitmotif. Chanan takes another tack, with eloquence and a welcome lack of academic ologies. He applies his ax to a few myths old and new: the old one about Mozart’s dire poverty (perpetuated in the loathsome Amadeus, which Chanan rightly impales); the notion unfurled by the new breed of sexist-musicologists that the imputed homosexual leanings of Handel in the 18th century, or of Schubert and Chopin (ahhh, those feminine phrase-endings!!!) in the 19th, had any bearing on their music. What is more significant in the Schubert instance is his reluctance to attend or even acknowledge those few occasions where his music was publicly performed. Whatever the scenarists might have us believe, there were other reasons for composing music than the need for the public ego massage.

Chanan‘s span is vast, from the paltry gatherings in Thomas Britton’s loft to the staggering plenitude listed in Bill Schwann‘s CD catalog. And some bridges remain standing. Right here in Los Angeles, Britton’s accomplishment achieved a resonance 250 years later, when a local hero named Peter Yates built a studio atop his house and staged the ”Evenings on the Roof“ concerts -- where, as in 1680, small paying audiences heard the day‘s latest music. (The ”Roof“ concerts continue today, renamed the Monday Evening Concerts, at the County Museum.) The emergence of music into public awareness, precisely and warmly detailed in Chanan’s splendid, valuable study -- with, however, a depressingly hit-or-miss index -- gave that public something new to think about and, more to the point, obliged the fashioners of that music to readjust their own sense of purpose.

Schubert‘s diffidence aside, that sense also included an awareness of image. What Jimi Hendrix stood for in his shenanigans at Monterey and Woodstock, Niccolo Paganini also stood for a century and more before in the concert halls of Paris and Vienna; and so did the preening male sopranos of Handel’s operas a century before that. Caught up in the spell of music, the most mystery-laden of all the fine arts, audiences could always easily swallow the notion that derangements of any sort -- the singer with his supersonic screech, the fiddler with his Mach 4 runs and scales, the rock star who smashes guitars and turns ”The Star-Spangled Banner“ into a freak show -- somehow signalized some kind of demonic possession. It sold tickets in Handel‘s time and in Hendrix’s. It still does.

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