Jonathan Bellman

Yesterday I took out a favorite record of my youth: French Dances of the Renaissance, an old Nonesuch record by the Ancient Instrument Ensemble of Paris. Now, to my friends, colleagues, and cognate scholars in the Performance Practices sub-disciplines who cringe whenever they hear Old Early Music of whatever kind, let me just say: pace. (Recte: STFU!) Decades ago, I would barricade myself in my room and listen to recordings like this, and recordings by the New York Pro Musica, and various other things, and these were sounds unlike anything else in my environment. Maybe they aren’t even my favorite recordings of this repertoire now, but it’s like the pop music of one’s youth; even if no longer completely relevant, they take you back youthful feeling of doors opening wide, musical terra incognita. Medieval and Renaissance music? In my early college ears, it was just mind-blowing, regardless of the quality of recordings and performances. So, now, I take out my old vinyl, with Renaissance dances played on modern harpsichords and some vibrato in the vocal pieces and so on. Throw on that certain recording, and all the youthful electricity is back coursing through the veins, and the Southern California Santa Ana winds whip across my face, and the delicate beach zephyrs of Santa Barbara waft in dorm window and caress the skin. Really.
Seems unjust that this privilege should only be accorded to a few, I know, but those of you who opted instead to become filthily dishonest politicians from Alaska have other rewards. In hell, too, I hope.
Where was I?
So, out of the record jacket falls an advertisement. “All Nonesuch releases are $2.50 each, both mono and stereo.” Oh. Interesting. Of course, in my local record store I guess they weren’t selling that well; I remember an entire couple of bins of Nonesuches going for 97¢. Yes, 97¢!! I would love to tell you that I dumped all the money I had on Morton Feldman’s Silver Apples of the Moon and French Baroque Music and Lukas Foss and Schumann and Mendelssohn partsongs and everything else I’d never heard but…no. Like any other idiot, I only bought, even at prices that obscenely low, what I thought I’d enjoy. To wit: Baroque Trumpet stuff (ensemble, trumpet and organ, etc.—I no longer listen to these much because I don’t like piccolo trumpet, and now that my son plays real Baroque trumpet and I know what a bigger instrument should sound like), Renaissance Xmas music (well, how can you resist it?), Scott Joplin etc. It wasn’t until later that we got Paul Jacobs recordings of Bolcom, Busoni, Stravinsky…
Actually, French Dances of the Renaissance was one of the recordings from my parents’ library that I presented to them with the announcement that I was filching it. With their blessings, they said. Odd that Jonathan likes this stuff, but that’s OK. And Peter Frankl playing the Chopin Ballades too? Sure! Take it!
A digression: Nonesuch will ever be, in my mind, in a kind of Righteous Corporation category. There was a triumvirate: Nonesuch, Penguin Books, and Dover. Impossibly obscure stuff reprinted and made available to you—you! The impoverished student with bizarre interests! You have friends and benefactors!—for a song. Penguin: Bede, Celtic Miscellany, Chaucer (that one wasn’t a very good translation, actually), Dante, Virgil, Pliny the Younger, Adam Smith…for a song, folks. The stuff you only see cited elsewhere is yours! Dover: music availability, old books, Debussy’s M. Croche, Jamews Huneker on Chopin… Surely they’re taking a loss on this stuff! I worked fast food jobs for a while, and would bring Penguin classics to get me through. Remember Macchiavelli’s account, from his exile from Florence, about dressing in his best clothes every evening and dwelling among the Ancients and conversing with them? That was me at 19, minus the good clothes—Virgil and Pliny on my break, and the miserable Burger King on Holt Avenue in Pomona would fade into invisibility around me. I mean, come on! Pliny was talking about aqueducts!
When I was in London in the mid-1970s, there was a Penguin Bookshop. All Penguin books! No lie. It was like walking into heaven. All in one place. Sweeter than any candy store.
For what it’s worth, Penguin is still around—not so obscenely low-priced, but sic transit gloria mundi—as is Dover. I look forward to receiving my Dover catalogues. Now, Borders and, I think, Barnes and Noble also have cheap editions of Great Classics. I don’t know how good the editions are, but—damn it—blessings on their heads. I won’t start hectoring about how Youth Today ought to read this stuff, because I don’t think Youth ever did, but I applaud those companies that at least make it available.
To return to old recordings: I find I listen to favorite classical recordings like I do rock recordings: with loving familiarity, humming along, pausing for the best bits. Maybe it’s a lazier kind of listening, because I don’t necessarily have to focus every last moment and be challenged and so on. But it is a wonderful feeling to listen to my old recording of, say, Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, and remember lying wide-eyed in my room, late at night. My God, do you suppose there’s more music like this? Then, after that, I could put on the Renaissance records (Du Fay, Obrecht) I would drive into Tower Records in Los Angeles to get…
I have more money now, and much less time. I try to hear new things, but revisiting the old is important too—it’s like a tune-up. It is true that listening to new things is more challenging and that repetition is most likely a sign of a less mature listening practice, but there are times when only the familiar will get you through.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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12 Responses to Nonesuch

  1. That was one of my favourites, too, when I was young and had strange sort of musical taste. The Renaissance stuff, a record with “The Enchanted Forest” by Francesco Geminiani and “Il pianto d’Arianna” by Pietro Locatelli, and a Nonesuch/Explorer series record with Ritual Tibetan chants… Those Nonesuch records were bargains also in music shops in Stockholm!

  2. This brings back memories of the musical awakenings in my own teen years. Once on a vacation, my dad and I went through the bargain bin in a music store. He let me pick out about 20 two-dollar cassette tapes. I was in heaven. Sure, they were second-rate orchestras on those recordings, but I didn’t know that, and the beauty of the music transcended the occasional sour note from the oboe section. I listened, for the first time, to the Mozart horn concerti, the Rodrigo guitar works, the Brandenburg Concerti, and a collection of “romantic adagios” that made me realize just what music can stir in the soul.
    Those tapes are long gone–destroyed by overuse. These days I wouldn’t choose those particular recordings, even if I could find them. Nor would I want to hear an entire collection of slow movements out of context. But when I hear the 2nd movement of the Rodrigo, I’m 17 years old again and driving through a national park in a rusty old Suburban with a bunch of my high school orchestra friends. And I have a bunch of two-dollar cassettes to thanks for that.

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    Yes! I win!
    I bought Silver Apples of the Moon, and The Nude Paper Sermon,and practiacally ANYTHING Nonesuch and Turnabout (including an ancient Musica Reservata disc of John Dunstaple, yes, with David Munrow). It would actually be quite unfair to dismiss anything pre-1800 performance parcticem etc. recorded before 1980 as embarrassing. Boston Skyline has re-issued numerous PHILIPS, ARCHIV and ARGO recordings from the 60’s and 70’s that were the must-haves of their day, and they still hold up well. Proof that performance practice is as good as the last performance.

  4. Kyle Lynch says:

    NB: Silver Apples of the Moon was composed by Morton Subotnick.
    Nice post, though.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Oh, for pete’s sake. Yes, of course: SUBOTNICK, not Feldman. Chalk that one up to my failing memory and ignorance at the time I was seeing those names for the first, or first few, times.
    I’m enjoying the personal anecdotes. We all have these experiences, and I have kind of a fixation about keeping faith with mine, and remembering the intensity, because any kind of institutional life with a variety of musical and nonmusical tasks (not blaming my job; just commenting on the unavoidable) pushes one toward the habitual and controllable, not to Ives’s “rocket ride to heaven.”

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    As I understood it at the time, the name ‘Nonesuch” was chosen to signify a policy of releasing music that wasn’t available in any other recorded version. At the time, this meant a lot of Baroque and pre-Baroque stuff, as well as recent work by Subotnick et al. It also gave us two LPs by a wonderful women’s vocal group, the Pennywhistlers, who were doing Balkan choral singing long before Les Mystères des Voix Bulgares were heard of, and who–having met and begun singing together at Camp Kinderland–also threw in some Southern Mountain ballads and settings of Yiddish verses like “Mayn Ruhe Platz” by Moritz Rosenthal, the Sweatshop Poet

  7. glen says:

    I had several of these records as well, nonesuch has always been a favorite label of mine. I think you’ve hit it with the “righteous corporation” idea, to me nonesuch and the other labels of that ilk seem to be following in Moe Asch’s Folkways model – the idea that all music should be recorded and documented regardless of its (forcasted) commercial appeal. It’s a wonderful thought, and thankfully it has played out very well for those of us who live in the future.

  8. glen says:

    oh, and since you’ve been talking a lot about lp covers…nonesuch had some of my favorites. Unfortunately the cd reissues seem to have opted for a different style, using more photos. It’s still beautiful, but look at the difference between these two:

  9. ben wolfson says:

    Everyman’s Library was I guess never a selfstanding corporation in its own right (and titles have gotten more expensive), but is arguably the forerunner of Dover’s thrift editions and the penguin classics.

  10. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I’ve got Silver Apples of the Moon and a bunch of other Nonesuch LPs, maybe not the French Renaissance Dances, but…..I’d have to look.
    I’ve also got Joshua Rifkin’s Scott Joplin recordings, and I bet Jonathan does as well.

  11. Rick says:

    Jon, reading your post doesn’t make me 17 again, but rather 20 — since I didn’t discover the Nonesuch bin until my second year of college. I would come out of the Chicago cold, into an over-heated to spend an hour in the student book and record coop, flipping through the obscure recordings and not believing my incredible fortune — that I could take all this cool stuff home for a mere $2 per disk, and sometimes even $1. Bliss.
    At those prices I could go out of my way to find music that stretched my tastes. I could experiment with the singing twins from Bulgaria (wow!), or folk music from the Karakoram mountain region of Pakistan (not so wow), or Charles Ives (wow).
    I could also go deep at low cost. When I “discovered” Bartok, I sprang for a boxed set of his complete piano works for only $5 (on the Vox label), and a near-comprehensive box of his orchestral recordings for the same price. Similarly for all the Kodaly string quartets. Of course, we’re drifting away from obscurity, though in the late 1970s Bartok was still under-appreciated. Vox also specialized in obscure performers of famous composers — the complete Brandenburgs in a box, for only $4.
    After each spree I’d still have change in my pocket, and I’d listen to my treasure haul over and over, and bless the folks at Nonesuch and Vox who made it possible to expand my sonic horizons on a tight budget.
    In the early 1980s, as a married grad student in Urbana, a similar tactic enabled an expanding jazz collection. The jazz labels weren’t all priced as amazingly low as Nonesuch, but the record shop on Green Street often discounted a significant portion of its jazz inventory. We’d troll through the alphabetical jazz section, searching for bargain prices. With a small but steady income, we could afford a slightly larger budget for music and entertainment, yet it was more interesting to spread $30 over 12-15 new recordings, than to bet it all on 2-3 high-priced albums by the currently famous and fashionable.
    In the realm of books, you’ve already mentioned Dover and Penguin, to which I say “amen.” It’s also worth mentioning Harry Abrams, a specialist in fine art reproductions — many at low cost. I recall reading (years later) about Abrams’ business strategy, seeking out art with zero or low royalties (often public domain images), so he could print and produce many high-quality art books that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. My arms and legs still thank him for a fine volume of M. C. Escher.
    Later still, I learned about the publishing industry concept of a “back-list” — that is, a cache of perennial titles that always sell at a steady trickle. Back-listers might have been best-sellers at one time (maybe even in the 1700s) — or maybe not. Now they sell a few thousand copies a year. The copyrights cost nothing or next-to-nil, because the publisher has already amortized that expense. As consumers, we pay for the actual production costs (printing, cover design), distribution, inventory (at the retailer and the publisher’s warehouse), and a reasonable profit margin. Publishers get a reliable income stream with a low investment and low risk. Consumers get affordable classics. Everybody wins. With a strong back-list, a publisher can risk a few new authors, and hope that one will be a surprise hit. This is the Dover and Penguin formula. Shocken also did well with a variation on this strategy (before they were swallowed by larger fish).
    Were all these companies angels on a mission of art and culture? Or shrewd business operators? Or maybe both at once. I bless them either way.

  12. Birch says:

    Bach’s cello & harpsichord sonatas from Nonesuch with the great album cover: I purchased that when I was 20 and kept it on the shelf with the cover facing out to delight my return to my student sized closet of an apartment. Nineteen years later, a cellist that I had begun dating brought that recording over to my somewhat more ample apartment so that J.S. could help us make dinner together for the first time. Gee, there was a wondrous omen. Now, twenty years later, we are still enjoying great music together, with the cello and the Les Paul ever just a few feet away.
    Bless those folks at Penguin and Nonesuch. Thanks for your site. I came across it while reminding myself of Locatelli.

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