Obituary: Joseph Machlis

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The Independent Culture
IN AN Internet discussion forum, a member of the American Musicological Society recently confessed, "The problem is that we [musicologists] are rather irrelevant to the general public, even the educated, concert-going public." Joseph Machlis was a musicologist who did something to bridge that gap: since its first appearance in 1955, his book The Enjoyment of Music has sold upwards of two million copies.

Machlis was born in Latvia and moved to the United States with his parents when he was three, joining the Jewish community in New York. When his grandmother followed from Russia, she offered them a present of $50. His parents wanted to spend the money on something out of the ordinary and so they bought a piano - and the course of Machlis' life was decided. By his early teens he had developed into a competent pianist, but one with a deficient musical education; he was therefore enrolled in the Institute of Musical Education, the forerunner of the Juilliard School. But the piano was not to be Machlis' principal occupation: although he loved playing, he found himself being drawn to writing.

Supported by his father and his piano-teaching ("twenty little girls in Brighton Beach, all of whom were called Shirley Katz"), Machlis began sending short stories to the magazines, generating a considerable quantity of rejection notes in the process. At his father's suggestion, he went back to take a further degree, this time in English, at Columbia University, where he also sat in on the seminars of that eminent musicologist Paul Henry Lang. Some time later, after fruitless efforts to find a job during the Depression, Machlis was offered a teaching post, for a summer course of music appreciation, at City College in New York. His career was launched.

Machlis noticed that his older colleagues at City College did little to encourage their students' enthusiasm for their subject:

In those days, they believed in starting at the beginning. In an English course, they'd start with Beowulf. By the time you got to The Faerie Queene, you hated English Lit. I thought, why don't they start with Steinbeck and Hemingway and work back. With music they'd talk to 300 non-music majors about Gregorian chant. The students were bored to death. I began with Tchaikovsky and Grieg, the kind of music that you hear at a pop concert. I spoke the language of the kids because I was a City College boy. Watching the students react was very exciting to me.

In 1938 Machlis was given a teaching post at the newly opened Queens College where, unusually, a year of art and a year of music were mandatory. He thus found himself with a captive audience:

The students hadn't picked my course. They had to take it. It was my task to seduce these kids into music, getting them excited about it in spite of themselves.

And so he designed a course that was intended to stimulate his students' awareness of music rather than drum useless facts into them. His basic premiss was very simple: "Teaching appreciation of an art requires that you start with a love of the art." When in 1951 a representative from the publisher W.W. Norton asked if he was interested in writing a book, Machlis presented his syllabus. It was shown to Lang, Machlis' old teacher at Columbia, then music editor at Norton, who gave him the nod to continue. The book Machlis produced, based on his course, was The Enjoyment of Music; it was an immediate success. As Machlis explained, "The timing was perfect. There was no other textbook like it at the time - one that told wonderful stories and related music to all the other arts".

The Enjoyment of Music has now reached a seventh edition, complete with CDs and cassettes. Its publishers estimate that it is currently used in some 1,200 classrooms. Not only is it almost certainly the best-selling book on music ever to be written; it has also done an incalculable amount of good in persuading young minds that music is indeed something to be enjoyed, and not some arcane subject that has to be sat through reluctantly as part of an education.

The Enjoyment of Music was not Machlis' only attempt to bring music closer to its potential audiences: he wrote an Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961), American Composers of Our Time (1963) and Getting to Know Music, all aimed at a different non- specialist - and often young - readership. He also became known for his translations of opera libretti; the 16 texts he tackled include Rigoletto, La Traviata, Cavalleria rusticana, Fidelio, Tosca, La Boheme, War and Peace, The Fiery Angel, Les Dialogues des Carmelites and Boris Godunov.

He enjoyed writing novels, six in all between 1964 and 1990, initially published under a pseudonym (George Selcamm - Machlis spelt backwards phonetically) since Norton didn't want the reputation of their best-selling musicologist compromised by his rather racier writings. One of them, The Career of Magda V (1985), was generally believed to be based on the life of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, despite Machlis' vigorous denials.

Machlis was a man of considerable energy: after his retirement from Queens College, with 35 years service behind him, he went on to teach at the Juilliard School, and was still taking advanced courses there in his late eighties. He attributed the health he enjoyed even in his old age to his Pritikin diet, which prescribed 40 minutes of swimming every day, followed by a sequence of further exercises.

He was a seemingly permanent feature on New York's concert scene and would always be seen at the premiere of an important new piece. His generosity was legendary: he took advantage of his bachelor existence (he was a very discreet homosexual) to throw musical soirees, in an apartment maintained exclusively to that end, where he would present young musicians to an invited audience which might be useful for the promotion of their careers.

He was, in short, a considerable force for good.

Joseph Machlis, writer and musicologist: born Riga, Latvia 11 August 1906; died New York 17 October 1998.

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