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What Makes Some Music Great?

2010 University Lecturer Jeremy Yudkin to ponder Beethoven, McCartney—with accompaniment


Self-described odd duck Jeremy Yudkin gives the 2010 University Lecture tonight, reflecting on “what is great music, and how it is distinguished from music that is merely good.” Photo by Vernon Doucette

Jeremy Yudkin describes himself as an odd duck. In his teaching, he swings easily from Bartók to the Beatles, medieval musical notation to Miles Davis. A polyglot with University of Cambridge degrees in classics and modern languages, Yudkin veered off the academic career path in the ’70s to repair Volkswagens and, as he puts it, study “the mating habits of stoned hippies.” Since the VW dealership was called Gus Mozart’s, Yudkin describes as natural his decision to go for a PhD in musicology at Stanford University, “which was just around the corner.” Also on the music faculty at Oxford University, the College of Fine Arts music professor and chair of the musicology and ethnomusicology department has taught 33 different BU courses and is the author of Understanding Music, now in its sixth edition.

Tonight, with the help of a collection of BU musicians, the eclectic Yudkin will deliver the 2010 University Lecture, titled Not a Note Too Many, Not a Second Too Long: Beethoven, Miles, and McCartney. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center.

Established in 1950 to honor faculty engaged in outstanding research, the University Lecture is one of BU’s oldest traditions and most valued honors. Since 1982, Yudkin has shared his wide-ranging musical passions with BU music majors and a diverse assortment of nonmajors who happen to be jazz enthusiasts, world music aficionados, or Beatles fans. An affiliated faculty member of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences African American Studies Program, Yudkin is also a familiar face at the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts in Tanglewood, where he delivers many preconcert lectures.

But instead of the usual divide between music talk and music performance, tonight’s lecture will be punctuated by a wind quintet, a brass quintet, and other surprises, says Yudkin. “It’s my way of saying, ‘This is about music,’” he says. “There’s music going on here.”

Sequestered at the far end of a hall in the maze of 808 Commonwealth Ave., Yudkin’s office is bedecked with Beatles memorabilia and a signed photograph of legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Framed by a hint of a white beard, his face goes giddy when he speaks about the music of Coleman, or Davis, or Beethoven. “I’ve been teaching 28 years, on every level, from classical to rock,” says Yudkin, a clarinetist married to a jazz singer. “I love teaching.”

Laced with references ranging from Plato to composer Robert Schumann to Paul Bloom, author of the recent How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Yudkin’s lecture tonight will reflect on “what is great music, and how it is distinguished from music that is merely good.” To do this Yudkin will enlist three classics of their kind: Ludwig von Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “Blue in Green” from the iconic Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, and Paul McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” from the Beatles album Help!

“Why those three?” asks Yudkin. He’s concluded that the one thing that makes music great is “concision.” Based on just four notes, Beethoven’s Fifth is “incredibly concise,” he says. “The music is taut and expressive and unified to an unusual degree.” Miles Davis “always played very epigrammatically—just a few notes, an outline, a suggestion,” he says. “He loved the silence.”

Yudkin singled out McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” for the way it perfectly marries music and lyrics. “It’s the flash of a new love affair,” with breathless phrases in which “the lyrics end before the end,” he says. The song packs such an emotional punch because not a word too many is uttered. “When McCartney wrote, ‘I can’t forget the time or place where we just met she’s just the girl for me and I want all the world to see we’ve met…,’ he’s kind of in a hurry to get through the words. The end of one sentence is the first word of the next.” The lyrics also express “bemusement and a kind of tongue-tied wonder.” The song, he says, is a great one. And it doesn’t have a note too many.

Jeremy Yudkin will deliver the 2010 University Lecture, titled Not a Note Too Many, Not a Second Too Long: Beethoven, Miles, and McCartney, on Thursday, October 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


3 Comments on What Makes Some Music Great?

  • Anonymous on 10.14.2010 at 9:02 am

    Post the Lecture?

    I am a student that has class at the time of this lecture. Would it be possible for someone to post a video of this talk or at least a transcript? I am very interested in his work, but am unable to attend this evening. :(

  • Anonymous on 10.15.2010 at 12:56 pm

    I second the previous comment

    I was really hoping to get to go to this lecture, but unfortunately I had a lot of things to finish at work before I left and was unable to attend but I’d be very interested to find out the content of the lecture as it seemed like it would’ve been a great lecture to attend.

  • Anonymous on 10.19.2010 at 9:14 am

    Yudkin Lecture

    Unfortunatley, my schedule did not allow for attending Professor Yudkin’s lecture. Can you tell me how can I get a transcript of his talk?

    Thanks so much.

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