Book Review: How to Hear Classical Music, by Davinia Caddy

by Guy Somerset / 12 September, 2013
Davinia Caddy became a more adventurous listener after writing her new book demystifying classical music.
I’m all set to mount the case for my being the ideal reader of Davinia Caddy’s How to Hear Classical Music when she reveals she has one already, thank you very much: the book’s dedicatee, her partner Chris.

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As a lifelong listener to pop and rock who has extended himself to take in everything from free jazz to experimental electronica but has never been able to get to grips with classical music, I am certainly someone who’ll benefit from Caddy’s demystification as part of Awa Press’s celebrated Ginger Series of How To books.

But when Caddy was writing the book, Chris was the reader/listener she had in mind. He’s further along the spectrum from me – attending concerts with her, “his general knowledge of classical music sometimes better than mine”. But “he’s the opposite of a musician. He’s tone deaf. He can’t hold a tune. He can’t walk in time.”

As well as Chris (and me), Caddy has been a beneficiary of the book she has written. A former principal flautist with the National Youth Orchestra back in her native UK, since 2009 a senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s School of Music, and author of The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Epoque Paris (2012), she admits her biggest challenge with How to Hear Classical Music was overcoming her distaste for a lot of post-1920s modern classical music.

“I started to ask things like why would composers want to write this sort of music, why would they want to overturn centuries-old ideas and standards of beauty and pleasure and music of expression? If I’m not the intended listener, who is? And how should this music be heard? And I arrived at the conclusion that hearing this music is akin to composing it yourself, and what these newfangled composers are trying to do is encourage us to hear differently.”

Davinia Caddy


As a result of looking for ways into the music, Caddy is indeed hearing differently. “I’m totally more adventurous now I’ve written the book. And hopefully a bit more self-assured about my musical choices. The book has made me more confident about saying what I like, what I don’t like, why, and also encourages others to be the same.”

Caddy, 33, contacted Awa Press about writing How to Hear Classical Music shortly after arriving in New Zealand and seeing others in the Ginger Series in a bookshop. For her, classical music is not something to be cloistered in some rarefied sphere – least of all an academic one.

“One of my dear colleagues back in the UK, when I said I was writing this book, urged me not to. He said, ‘Oh no, you don’t want to do this. One, you don’t want to waste your time on stuff for the general public and, two, you need to be aware of your reputation.’ So I forged ahead partly because of that idea. For some time, I’ve felt a disconnect between the work I do and the music I hear. I talk early on in the book about forgetting what it’s like to be seduced by a really good piece of music.”

Caddy wanted “to try to chip away at the image of classical music as something boxed in to either the past or to a particular realm of grey-haired connoisseurs. And to replace it with images that are a little bit more vibrant and inspiring.”

She’s done a good job, but does say in conversation that a modicum of musical literacy doesn’t go amiss, either – otherwise the music “becomes this private sign language for a privileged literate few”.

The piano’s the best place to start, and the younger the better. “Try teaching 19- and 20-year-olds the basics of music. You’d be amazed at the literacy among some of our students [at the music school]. And I know this is an international problem. It’s not endemic to New Zealand. My hunch is it’s to do with the removal of the keyboard, the stave and treble clef and so on from music education, and that musical training has become something different from what it was when I was a youngster.”

Open-minded (and open-eared) though writing How to Hear Classical Music has made Caddy, there is still one form she is deaf to – the “structured unstructuredness” of jazz. If she can’t train herself into jazz, I say, maybe I’m unable to train myself into classical music. “Well, there’s probably a bit of bias there: I don’t know if I have the desire to do so. There are enough pieces in the classical music world I don’t know and there’s enough interesting stuff being written now I’m wanting to hear – I’ll just start off with that.”

HOW TO HEAR CLASSICAL MUSIC, by Davinia Caddy (Awa Press, $26).

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