The listener

<strong>Music at the Limits</strong>

Edward Said <em>Bloomsbury, 352pp, £20</em>

Daniel Barenboim is a conspicuous presence in this collection of Edward Said’s musical criticism, as the subject of a fine late essay and as writer of the foreword. Said was a trained pianist, and this book pulls together 25 years of pieces on music, centring on regular reviews for the Nation and branching out into more discursive essays.

Perhaps disappointingly, for a critic of Said’s breadth, music here is defined as what Theodor Adorno (whose critical philosophy of music is a near-constant presence) called “serious, or, as it is known in the realm of informed barbarism, ‘classical’ music”. Said was too intelligent a thinker to be unaware of the contradictions this entailed.

Much of the writing is marked by a seething frustration at the ceremonial conservatism of classical music in the late 20th century. Said frequently points out that this is the first age in which musical appreciation has become divorced from musical knowledge.

The most interesting essays are those in which Said confronts this, as in his review of John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, and in a passionate essay on Boulez. Nonetheless, he also writes brilliantly about Wagner, Bach and (repeatedly) Glenn Gould. These articles make a convincing case for the survival of serious thought and practice in an increasingly ossified musical culture.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks