EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of an essay written for The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, where it first appeared.
Read Part I here. Part III is now available here.
In the first part of this series, I acknowledged the growing consensus that there is something wrong with higher music education today, and I discussed Entrepreneurship as the first of three themes around which the most enthusiastic and popular suggestions for reform seem to converge. In this installment, I will address the second and introduce the third.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the plight of the young musician who, despite or perhaps rather because of his passion, is destined to scrape together his living in “the real world” outside the towering ivory walls of our traditional institutions of classical music. We sense that his is the lot of the disenfranchised – which, we might suspect, in some ways we too share. Our compassion for him is that which we reserve for the many that find themselves excluded from the privileges and the concerns of the few, “The One Percent”; we mourn the difficulty of his dejected life and regret what we fear to be his wasted potential. But our compassion, like the wider, prevailing social conscience with which it harmonizes, also has a dark side.
It is the ominous shadow of resentment that darkens both our references to “The One Percent” and the stormy gulf that it inevitably creates between “them” and “us.” But what’s most troubling about the tendency to conflate the “privileged class” with our traditional, musical institutions, such as orchestras – or even with the small group of elite students who will eventually find positions in them – is that it implies an injustice. Our resentment and our egalitarian ideals convince us that those in the small, privileged group wielding all the influence and power somehow don’t deserve their position, as if they came by it dishonestly or by lucky accident.
And we have a sense that culture is like that. You are born into a culture, of course, and so the great accomplishments you’ve inherited are really none of your own doing. They are a fortunate accident, like being born into great wealth. So if your birthright is the culture that came up with something particularly and impressively difficult to attain, something that nevertheless has endured many centuries, and has consequently become the aspiration or else the envy of the world, you will have some explaining to do. In this light, the canon, the traditions, and the longstanding conservatories and institutions of the European tradition of classical music all begin to look suspiciously like an elaborate system designed to exclude all but a cultural elite that does not deserve its place. And so they are turned into objects of resentment and scorn. But we do a great disservice to high culture when we treat it this way. One isn’t born into an orchestra or a canon. None of the world’s great musicians or history’s great composers were destined to be so by birth. Membership in either is a long-term project and must be earned at every step of the way.1
Nevertheless, we are swept along by the tyrannical tide of prevailing attitudes which make no such distinctions about social injustice and which view any objection to the ravages of their progress through our conservatories as their raison d’être. Those within the academy who lack either the will or the rhetorical skill to resist the tide of resentment threatening the canon, our traditional forms, and our historical institutions instead turn and join it. Some, guided by their compassion and by their sincere desire not to deserve the contempt rising around them on all sides, hasten to apologize for and repudiate all the more vigorously the insularity and elitism of which the tradition is accused. Others step forward to lead the assault, driven by either the revolutionary’s ideological conviction or else the careerist’s cynical opportunism. We might suspect the Task Force for the Undergraduate Music Major (TFUMM) of the latter when it bluntly declares that “the culturally narrow horizons of music study [are] nothing short of a social justice crisis.”2
And so, misguided but often well-meaning castigates are left to cast about for the things which classical music can be and do in order to ameliorate the elitism that they are now convinced has caused all the problems of the world. Classical music – and the schools which perpetuate it – must now be about setting aright the injustices of our troubled age. Our music schools now promise, as one of the nation’s most prominent conservatories does, that their “gifted students will not only be trained as musicians but also as catalysts who will inspire creativity and spark positive change in their communities.” I’m at a loss to explain to you how they intend to train their “catalysts” to “spark positive change.” Are they putting the string section through classes in the theory and tactics of social and political activism? Are they giving the trombone section master classes on “leaning in” and “paying it forward”? And what is the nature, we might wonder, of this “positive change”? The TFUMM’s report is far less vague:
A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions…3
are all mentioned in the very next breath.
Of course, that’s a laughably tall order. Does anyone really believe in the “broad and transformative wisdom” of recent college graduates? Do we have any reason to think that the next generation of musicians will finally solve human society’s oldest and most persistent problems? Yet we hear the unmistakable echo of this strange idea in the rhapsodic rhetoric coming from our nation’s beleaguered professional orchestras. They too have largely capitulated to the forces of popular resentment and have accepted their role as scapegoat. They too now increasingly promise “positive change” in return for the right to exist.
Lurking beneath efforts to convince us of classical music’s ability to change our communities and to bring an end to social injustices of all kinds is fear of the oft-repeated prophecy that classical music is dying. But in fact there are more people learning, practicing, and performing classical music in more corners of the globe than ever before in the tradition’s history. If there is any sense in which the gloomy prophecy is true, it is in the way it describes the steady erosion of the discipline within the academy at the hands of shortsighted careerists “whose primary concern is with self promotion (grounded in ideological posturing and research ‘agendas’).”4 Getting ahead in today’s academic milieu is as simple as taking cheap potshots at the tradition in the name of social justice. Accolades, promotions, and attention reward those who find innovative ways to serve social and political agendas in spite of – and indeed, specifically to spite – the canon and the traditional forms and institutions of classical music.
I do not have to go out of my way to provide an example. A respected state university lists the qualifications of the recently appointed head of its music school as follows:
An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in… a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s. …[Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality in regard to African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music.
Hardly a word is said about her musical qualifications, her mastery of the canon, her accomplishments as a teacher of classical music, or even about her previous experience running an institution of higher education. These sets of skills, it would seem, are an afterthought to her political agenda. Are we to believe that her “advocacy” is what qualifies her to lead a music school? That is, in fact, exactly what we’re expected to believe. Here is someone who represents “change we can believe in” and proof of the university’s complicity in the repudiation of classical music’s “elitist” and “exclusionary” European heritage. Here is a mascot for the social activism that will save the conservatory from resentment and ruin.
But it is in just this way that classical music within the academy will die: as we replace, for the sake of politics or expediency, the teachers who quietly loved and maintained the tradition with those who’ve made a career of loudly condemning or refuting it, the discipline will be chipped away from the inside by a myriad of tiny careerists and ideologues happy to attack or cheapen the long and living tradition of Western classical music for the sake of a petty promotion or a hearty pat on the back.
The last theme around which we find the loudest and most persistent arguments for the reform of our conservatories is the need for music programs to focus on the cultivation of creativity. What makes these arguments so powerful and so sinister is that they often begin from that old, familiar attitude of resentment. We hear it rumbling again just beneath the surface in statements made by the TFUMM, which complains that
contemporary tertiary-level music study – with interpretive performance and analysis of European classical repertory at its center – remains lodged in a cultural, aesthetic, and pedagogical paradigm that is notably out of step with…broader reality.5
At issue, of course, is the fact that the purpose of the traditional music education is to prepare students to participate and collaborate in “the performance and analysis of European classical repertory” at its highest levels. The “broader reality” to which they subscribe is reflected in the modern tendency to see that emphasis as not only a slight to those who will fail to achieve those ends, but as a real offense to those who, like the Task Force, reject that purpose and the primacy of the European classical canon itself.
It’s not far to step from resentment of the Western classical heritage to disdain for the tradition of “interpretive performance.” Each has bequeathed to us – and depends upon – the other. And so we should look with great skepticism upon those would like us to think that,
Were Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt alive today, their musical lives would likely more closely resemble those of today’s creative jazz artists and other improvisers-composers-performers than interpretive performance specialists whose primary focus is repertory created in, and for, another time and place.6
We should take the time to acknowledge several glaring problems with this astonishingly bold assertion, because they will point us towards the mistakes that underlie our present obsession with creativity. To begin with the most obvious error: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, and especially Clara Schumann were trained, in the first place, as interpretive performers. Clara was in fact an “interpretive performance specialist” for the whole of her career. It would be generous to call this statement misleading.
But the most important thing to notice about this mischaracterization, is the slippery presumption folded insidiously into it: that Clara’s focus as an “interpretive performance specialist” would have been therefore “repertory created in, and for, another time and place.” Now here is an idea that only a modern could have. And the narrow-mindedness of it would have confounded Clara Schumann – and indeed any of the artists in earlier eras, who all saw themselves as participants in a great and continuous tradition stretching beyond any particular time and place. The idea that the past masters reveal to us through their works something not only relevant but crucial to the vitality and success of all our present and future endeavors was not peculiar to the Renaissance. In fact it lasted until rather recently.
Master painter, teacher, and author Juliette Aristides notes,
However, [that] in the cultural climate that exists today this pattern of receiving an artistic heritage and either building on it or reacting against it has been broken. Many contemporary artists acknowledge no relationship at all to the art of the past.7
This break with the past precedes our dismissal of both the canon and the tradition that created and sustains it. If we have no relation to one, then we have no relation to the other. It also justifies and reinforces our resentment. And for this reason, we should not be at all surprised that the revolutionary program for higher education requires that we sweep away the “irrelevant” works “created in, and for, another time and place,” be they musical compositions, paintings, literature, or even architecture. Though most will quickly protest that their vision is not so extreme, those who call for this kind of revolution in our conservatories are in fact only following their successful brothers-in-arms whose absolutism effectively destroyed our schools of art and architecture. I will return that cautionary tale later.
It is a mistake steeped in the antihistoricism of ideology to imagine that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, and Schumann (Clara or Robert) saw themselves and their music in this particularly modern light – that they imagined themselves as standing outside of and apart from their musical heritage, bound to the times they were living in, and creators of something entirely original. And from it flows the chief mistake in likening them to “creative jazz artists” of idolizing them not for their place in and propagation of the tradition, but for what we imagine is their inherent originality.
This is a difficult subject and what I just said will no doubt rub many people the wrong way. And that is because we are generally convinced that there is no objective standard by which to judge art. We have rejected the traditional standards of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as purely subjective: what is beautiful to you might be unappealing to me, your truth might be different from my truth, etc. – and there is no way to judge between them. But if there is nothing aesthetically objective by which to judge a created thing, we are left to judge it by its creativity alone. And this is what we accept as the point of art today. Judged only in this light, it is impossible to distinguish a Bach fugue from a stunt like John Cage’s 4’33”. And if you point out that even you could have written the score for four and half minutes of silence – as if to differentiate the stunt from the skill with which Bach composed his fugues – a quick answer will remind you sharply that creativity was the point: “But you didn’t.”
Creativity becomes a great equalizer wielded in this way. A childlike scribble can be as important as one of da Vinci’s sketches, a pickled shark as monumental as Michelangelo’s David. And when you walk through our museums of modern art, you can see how convinced of the idea we are. It’s little wonder that creativity, like social justice and disruptive innovation, has become a holy grail for those who have taken up the reformation of our music schools. The cry goes up that we are stifling creativity, or at least not encouraging it as we should:
Ironically, while appeals for inclusion of the arts in overall education are often grounded in the need to cultivate creativity in all students, music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance.8
It may be true that the popular argument for including arts in general education today cites “the need to cultivate creativity,” and if it does, then that is a serious problem in itself. But it is certainly true that “music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance.” In fact, this was true for students of art, as well. And when it ceased to be true, art education began a long descent towards irrelevance, which will be the subject of the next part in this series.
1 And in fact, music has remained one of those few pursuits in which success is possible for the talented in any class throughout the course of European history’s most rigidly hierarchical societies.
2 Accessed 8/20/15: www.music.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1859.
4 Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce S. Thornton, Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing Classics in an Impoverished Age (Wilmington, Delaware 2001), 206.
5 Accessed 8/20/15: www.music.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1859.
7 Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).
8 Accessed 8/20/15: www.music.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1859.