Thursday, November 29, 2007

Jacques Barzun is 100

Jacques Barzun was born a century ago today: November 30, 1907.

If you haven't read him, I recommend that you do. He's written more than a dozen books, but his magnum opus is
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. It was published when he was 92.

Barzun, primarily a social historian, is the archetype of a humanist sch
olar: interested in ideas but dubious about theories and ideologies that purport to explain everything; a cosmopolitan who dislikes cant and political correctness; possessor of an enormous store of facts who wants to find meaning in them. Reading From Dawn to Decadence, you get the impression that you could bring up any year within that half-millennium and he could, if you wanted, talk for an hour about what was going down at the time — in literature, arts, politics, religion — everywhere in Europe (and the United States, if it existed at that point).

He's very readable, too, which you can't say about that many people in the academic world today (Barzun spent most of his teaching career at Columbia University). No jargon, but also no pretentious writing that shouts, "Hey, sailor, how you like my metaphor in your face, big boy?" His style is fitting: he uses the right words to say what he wants to say, with just the right shadings. That may sound easy, but as someone who writes for a living, I promise you it isn't.
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A hundred years is a long time to live. It's strange to think about. He's written a book covering a 500 year period, and he's lived through almost one-fifth of that time! He can remember how things looked, how people dressed and talked, in the 1920s and '30s, which you and I (unless you're very old) can know only second-hand. I'm not sure, but I expect he's met some of the "historical" figures of the 20th century.

I met Jacques Barzun — well, sort of. It was about 1986, in Santa Fe, and he was giving a public talk at St. John's College, the "Great Books" school for trust-fund kids. (I wasn't a student there; I worked as a radio announcer at the time.)

Most of what he said has drained from my conscious memory, although I recall being impressed, but two incidents have stuck with me.

I'm one of those who like to sit near the front of the hall at concerts and lectures, and I happened to take a seat in the first row at his talk. I must have been a sorry sight: though a minor local celebrity because of being on the radio, I was very poor and probably looked it; I definitely remember that I was wearing sandals. At one point Barzun paused during his talk, glanced around for a moment, and happened to make eye contact with me. I was ready to be uncomfortable at looking a proper slob while in his immaculately suited presence, but he gave me a warm smile. I really appreciated the gesture.
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Here's the other thing I remember. During the question period, a young man in the audience who had a serious speech impediment — I tried but couldn't understand much of what he was saying — went on and on with what was presumably a very complicated question. There was also something aggressive, even a little hostile in his tone. Look, I have every sympathy with anyone who's been ill-used by genetics, and think I can understand the anger they feel, but for heaven's sake, Barzun wasn't the cause of the young man's predicament. Anyway, I felt bad on Barzun's behalf: how was he to deal with a couple of minutes' worth of near-unintelligible grunting and gurgling? (I suspect that the questioner was hoping that Barzun would be at a loss, so he could show the world how badly he was treated because of his speech defect.)

To my surprise, Barzun proved himself to be a better, or more patient, listener than I had been. He repeated the questions (there actually had been three or four) clearly, as if for the benefit of anyone in the audience who might have been too far away to have heard them, so as not to embarrass the questioner. And sailed right into an equally clear discussion in reply.

He is a gentleman.

Happy birthday, Professor Barzun. You've lived through what was, on the whole, a pretty rotten hundred years for the world, but you've used your time to make it better and more interesting. We owe you.

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Pastorius said...


Cool post. Sorry to take it off topic but what do you do on the radio?

Rick Darby said...


That was a time long ago now, in the mid-'80s. I was an announcer for KLSK-FM, a 100,000-watt station in Santa Fe. It was very unusual for a commercial station, with an eclectic format of non-hard-rock popular music, jazz, and classical.

A few years after I left, the station was bought out, moved to Albuquerque, became one more standard rock station, and was eaten up by hogs.

So, what was your response to the Mahler Third? Which recording did you get?

Rick Darby said...


I was under the impression that you had written you were going to get a recording of the Mahler Third. I can't find the comment now so maybe I am mistaken.

David said...

Rick, there's a nice writeup on Barzun in today's WSJ.

Rick Darby said...


Thanks for the heads-up! I'll check it out at the office Monday.

Pastorius said...

Hi Rick,

I very much liked Mahler's 3rd. I bought the Chailly version. I'd also like to get Bernstein's version.

I usually have to listen to a symphony repeatedly before I feel as if I start to understand the narrative. I think all symphonies have a narrative, whether it be intended or not. It could be the narrative is soley in my mind, but still, the narrative is very important for me to have a deep appreciation of the music.

Mahler's 6th is my favorite as it is the symphony in which I believe I most clearly hear a narrative.

I also like his 9th symphony, but I find the narrative I hear to be difficult, fraught with conflict and discord. It is tragic in a very deep way, and thus it takes a lot out of me. I have never been able to listen to it in one sitting.

This week I will be driving for very long periods of time, so I will be bringing my CD of Mahler's 3rd along with me.

Rick Darby said...


I am pleased to learn that you are starting what will very likely be a long acquaintance with the Mahler Third. It has one of the characteristics of great art, in that there is always more to discover in it.

I haven't heard Chailly's performance, although I have his Mahler 5th and 9th. They strike me as very fine middle-of-the-road performances without any special interpretive viewpoint. Glorious sound from Decca.

I presume you mean Bernstein's later version on Deutsche Grammophon. It's been years since I've heard that set of Mahler symphonies, which is very popular because Bernstein is, although my vague recollection is that Bernstein's tendency to extreme expressionism is somewhat gilding the lily where Mahler is concerned.

Another version which I have in my collection and I can recommend wholeheartedly is Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony and chorus on Delos. You might be surprised, but Dallas has one of the best orchestras in the country, and Litton really illuminates the score. The sound quality is near state of the art.

If you have a serious interest in the Third, I once again recommend that What the Universe Tells Me DVD.

Pastorius said...

The music is very beautiful. Perhaps I will buy that DVD.