Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DeKoven: Music Appreciation Subversive

Much about classical music appreciation is middle-class, and middlebrow. The appreciation industry popularizes by simplifying and making classical music accessible, chiefly to people with little or no training as musicians. (For those with more training, music history is taught at a deeper level of musical analysis.) In the nineteenth century, classical music concerts in Europe and America were potpourri of mixed genres, often with soloists whose performances and choice of repertoire appealed to popular rather than cerebral taste. Opera appealed across a wide range of social classes.

One of the more interesting phenomena of the mid-twentieth century was the increasing media representation of classical music, which made it more accessible than ever to the middle classes seeking to "acquire culture." The advent of the long-playing record in the 1950s made it possible to hear lengthy pieces of music with little or no interruption, and major record labels such as Columbia and RCA Victor devoted a substantial part of their budgets and catalogs to classical music in this new format. In the 1960s classical music on LP records expanded with the rise of new companies such as Nonesuch and Turnabout which specialized in recordings of lesser-known composers, and complete sets. Many of their LPs were "budget" priced, and as a result the major labels came out with budget lines, often showcasing great recordings from the past in their budget series. Whereas the 78 era had emphasized music from the nineteenth century, now all centuries and periods were represented. It became possible to accumulate a record library that represented a larger part of the classical music repertoire than ever before. The music of certain periods, particularly the medieval and baroque, became popular among a growing audience of classical music aficionados. On the backs of the record jackets, music critics and journalists offered brief discussions of the structures of the compositions on the recordings, in the language of appreciation-talk. This language, while it addressed elementary structural features, assumed a familiarity with the terminology of basic music theory and was attractively highbrow and slightly mysterious to classical music fans who came to record collecting without any education in music.

Radio was another medium where classical music became more accessible after the middle of the 20th century. Radio stations such as WQXR in New York programmed classical music only, in the 1950s and beyond; in the 1960s FM radio stations down towards the bottom of the dial began to devote their programming largely, if not exclusively, to classical music and later many of these became public radio stations, again with many hours of classical music programming.The phenomenon continued strongly to the end of the century, diminishing somewhat as a greater number of musical choices became available on recordings, radio and, finally, the internet.

Usually the classical music announcers practiced a kind of radio minimalism, seldom doing more than introducing the piece, performer(s) and composer by name, being careful to pronounce the foreign words properly. Occasionally the announcer would venture an anecdote concerning the piece or composer, but almost never would the announcer engage in appreciation-talk of the educational variety. The exception to this rule was a classical music disc jockey named Seymour DeKoven (1903-1984).

DeKoven, who always went by his last name (few listeners knew his first name), produced  a syndicated classical music radio program from the 1950s through the 1970s, entitled DeKoven Presents. It featured baroque and rococo music exclusively, or barococo as he often called it. DeKoven would wax as excitedly about a particular composer or composition as a rock deejay would exclaim over the Beatles. With his New York (or was it New Jersey?) accent, along with his brash enthusiasm for pieces he called "out of this world" or "super out of this world" (there were even more superlatives), he presented a marked contrast to the cerebral, minimalist world of the public radio classical music announcers and their finishing-school accents. DeKoven was different in another way, too: he engaged in appreciation talk, instructing the listeners as to the piece (or movement's) basic structure and points of interest much as a college professor would do, except that his overbearing manner could be regarded almost as an unintentional caricature of a music appreciation professor.

DeKoven represented a paradoxical voice, a democratization of classical music; in this he was a throwback to an earlier century. Like the musicians who performed in nineteenth century concerts, he often played single movements rather than the whole piece of music. (The slow movements did not, as a rule, excite him.) He was not only a deejay, but a pitchman; like a televangelist he solicited contributions at the end of his show, threatening the audience that he could not continue to produce and offer it without their sending him money. Finally, he did not hide his prejudices and opinions, but proclaimed them with absolute certainty; and in advancing rococo and baroque music he disparaged the music of other periods. Needless to say, the rather staid classical music establishment was amused--a little--and also contemptuous.

DeKoven was in some ways a precursor of a later democratizing (but far more intelligent) classical music announcer who plied the appreciation trade, Peter Schickele, whose show Shickele Mix has been popular on public radio for a couple of decades. But Schickele is mild and earnest whereas DeKoven was always over the top and seemingly on the verge of exploding. Are there DeKoven shows archived somewhere on the Internet, or in a sound archive somewhere? Once heard, he could not be forgotten, even though some listeners wished to do so. For as much as DeKoven was amusing, he also subverted the refined image of culture that the classical music establishment wished to project.

8 comments:

  1. I come late to the blog of my colleague and friend Jeff, but better late, as we say... I'm in his debt for reviving memories of DeKoven with those over-the-top otw's (out of this world's) and super-otw's. We for whom Baroque music was an adventure owe DeKoven much, but he had what Jeff calls his biases. One of them spoke volumes of the limits of his (forgive the pun) appreciation of that repertory: he refused to play the slow middle movements of the 18th-century concertos he enthused over, insisting that they were boring and not meriting his listeners' time. To that bias I owe some of my most happiest record-buying forays at the Sam Goody Annex in Manhattan. I was determined to listen to the music he dismissed, and it was all available there, in cheap recordings by minor European orchestras, mostly from small German towns or cities behind the Iron Curtain, at a dollar or two a record. The sound was lousy, the LP jackets were threadbare and pretty much bare of information - no middlebrow lectures on them - but it was a peerless education for those of us who hungered for that music. But the man to whom I owe more was the inimitable d.j. Karl Haas. He wasn't enthusiastic, he wasn't a popularizer. He was serious - he was a first-class musician himself - and he addressed his audience as if it were a literate one. For him radio was a medium of education as well as elevated pleasure. It's Haas to whom I owe the greater debt.

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  2. I always enjoyed Dekoven on WAWZ in Zarephath, NJ

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    1. I did too -- what a unique station it used to be. Played organ music. Trying to remember what DeKoven's chosen epithet was -- didn't he call himself The Amazing DeKoven, the Incredible DeKoven or something?

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  3. Sadly, the tapes of his show were kept in a garage in Chesapeake, VA. and were destroyed by the elements sometime in the last 20 years. I heard this from a friend in the public broadcasting community about ten years ago. As the son of a fan, it saddened me that his legacy wasn't preserved (my dad would listen to him on Saturday evenings while he puttered around in his garage).

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    1. I think Raymond Jones was the source for that (WHRO-FM), but that's not true. Nearly 600 program tapes were donated to the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center.

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  4. I'm sorry to hear that. I guess that there may be some people who tape recorded the show over the air, and they would be the only ones now who would have copies of the shows. (It seems like a good candidate for someone's crowdsourcing.) The same unfortunate fate has happened to many broadcasts. Even those in archives are endangered unless they are well cared for, and archives don't have enough funds to preserve them all.

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  5. more than 20 years ago I was advised that a Seymour DeKoven archive was donated to the library of the University of Wyoming

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    1. You can order CDs of DeKoven's broadcasts from University of Wyoming.

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