As a young artist during the 1950s, I immediately got the point of modernism – to maintain a high aesthetic without relying on traditional narrative structure. But it required some effort to remove the crust of politics that had been applied to it during the 1930s – progressively distorting its deeper meaning and importance – by communist idealists, liberals, radicals, and fellow travelers, most notably in the arts and education.
We are shaped not only by music, but also by our opinions about music. It is all the more important to revisit the connection between music and moral education in a culture like ours, steeped as it is in self-indulgence and vulgarity. The study of music as a liberal art gives students an extended opportunity to scrutinize their opinions – and to confront the causes and effects of their passions.
There has been a drumbeat of naysayers who prophesy the doom of symphony orchestras, telling us in somber tones that only rich, old folks go to concerts these days. I’m sorry, but that’s not how I’ve seen things.
When we throw together these shows on one rehearsal, with an undermanned orchestra augmented by freelancers who perhaps have never played together before, we are again denigrating the intelligence of our audience: “They won’t know the difference.” In my experience, this is profoundly wrongheaded.
The present-day abundance of classical music – of newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fans – is a testament to its deep roots in human feeling. And it is a cause for celebration that so many people still feel drawn into its web of lethal beauty, in a world so far from the one that gave it birth.
The terroirist revenge, a renewed commitment to authenticity, was not created by wine alone and it does not apply to wine alone either. Rather, it is a movement among the new and the young today – exactly those not brought up in the traditions of grand opera and Bordeaux, but who seek out, nevertheless, the real, the genuine, and the authentic experience.
However impoverished a student’s experience, I discovered, his taste will not, under examination, remain at the level of ‘that’s what I like’. The question ‘why?’ pushes itself to the foreground, and the idea that there is a distinction between right and wrong very soon gets a purchase.
It is very possible that the music academy, if it harkens to the shouts echoing all around it and proceeds in the proposed march toward reform and “progress,” will pass by the art academy as it hastens back to that crossroads where it took a wrong turn. It is very possible that, by chasing “relevance,” our conservatories, like our art schools before them, will make themselves irrelevant.
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 modern tendency is 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 reject that purpose and the primacy of the European classical canon itself.
It’s starting to sound like a self-evident truth: there is, indeed, something very wrong with the state of higher music education in this country – that it’s not sufficient anymore for music schools to turn out graduates who are merely good or even exceptional classical musicians. That, we are assured, is not enough for an aspiring musician to get by on in the modern world.