A few weeks ago, Kurt Masur returned to conduct The Cleveland Orchestra after an absence of 17 years. I had played for him before, but never with Cleveland, where he had been a favorite for many years before he got his position in New York. From the first moments of rehearsal it was clear that this was going to be a very special week of music-making. Masur appears to be somewhat frail, but his experience and passion for the music made Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony come alive with a tremendous clarity right from the first bars.
At our Saturday night concert, I looked out to the edge of the stage before the Bruckner and saw my friends Tim and Mary Ellen. They come to the orchestra once every few years, usually to a Christmas – oops, Holiday Festival Concert – with their six children. Yet here they were, sans kids, at a really good subscription series concert. Hmm – I wonder how they’ll take to the Bruckner, I thought. But, one mustn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, so I asked them if we could talk after the concert so that I might write about their experience.
Post-concert, they said that they had really enjoyed the Bruckner. They had read the program notes and had immersed themselves in the piece by thinking about Bruckner’s Catholic faith – trying to hear how it was expressed through the music and trying imagine the parallels between the architecture of the music and the architecture of the church in which he had composed it. I knew that they were Catholic and serious about their faith, but I was a little surprised that this was the window to Bruckner for them.
Lately, I’ve been wondering about culture – the idea that a group of people in a particular time and place hold certain values in common and act according to these values. I have wondered what the values are that cause certain cultures to embrace classical music.
People seem to agree that we have seen a high value placed on classical music over the past couple of centuries by, among other groups – 19th century European Jews who wished to assimilate into European culture after centuries of isolation, and then those Jews who emigrated to North America in the first half of the 20th century, American culture in the 3rd quarter of the 20th century, and now modern China, perhaps. What could these groups possibly have in common that would lead them to all pursue European classical music?
Let’s take a look at these values and then see how they applied to the US 25-50 years ago and now.
First, in order for these disparate groups to find meaning in classical music they have to believe and experience it as something universal and transcendent. It is of such power and beauty that it speaks to 20th century Americans and 21st century Chinese as strongly as it did to 18th and 19th century Europeans.
Next, they must be able to recognize that this transcendent experience gives the music a higher value because it brings the human soul somehow closer to its ultimate meaning. This implies a hierarchy of value. They may not agree on which music is of higher value, but they know and agree that such a concept exists.
These groups all recognize authority, whether it is from the accumulated knowledge of experts on this music, or in the person of the composer or conductor, or simply the authority of past generations’ judgment of the music.
In the 3rd quarter of the 20th century, the US experienced a “culture boom.” Orchestras grew dramatically in scope and number. Performing Arts Centers were built across the country. Major foundations set out to increase the number and quality of American orchestras, opera and ballet companies. The NEA was started. President Kennedy hosted concerts in the White House and the State Department sponsored orchestra tours. NBC commissioned operas for television and the major record labels made sure to record the greatest orchestras performing the greatest repertoire. Music education was a national priority. Public radio was founded in order that it might devote itself to what was worthy (classical music, largely) without having to fend for itself in the marketplace.
All of this took place because those in authority recognized the value of the universal and transcendent nature of the greatest works of art humanity has produced.
Today the situation is quite different. The two most powerful forces for molding our culture – education and the media – are hostile to the three values of transcendence/universality, hierarchy and authority. It is unimaginable that the executives of any television or radio network would find that art music is worth broadcasting simply because it is great. The idea of finding value in other cultures has degenerated into a multicultural relativism that is unwilling to grant standing to any discrimination among works of art other than that of simple personal preference. Print media coverage of classical music is quickly disappearing (unless it is heralding the death of classical music). Discrimination has been replaced by a hip, ironic cynicism that is unable to muster more than a smug mockery of anything that claims to be worthwhile. Those leaders of education, media and government who once championed the arts now see us as an obscure, irrelevant aberration.
OK, perhaps I overstate my case against the present in order to make a point. But what happened to the values that made American culture “boom” in the last century? Is this still part of our country’s spirit?
Actually, there is a group in our culture for whom the values of transcendence/universality, hierarchy of value and authority still resonate. They are religious conservatives, such as my friends Tim and Mary Ellen. They see an inextricable connection between Truth and Beauty, and as such are open to respond to the beauty of great music as they respond to their faith. Anyone who has experienced a truly great performance and thought, ‘This can’t be merely human,’ has touched this intersection of truth, beauty and faith.
Let me be clear. I am in no way suggesting that one must be either religious or conservative to appreciate and love classical music. I do suggest that we may have missed a natural ally.
As classical music coverage disappears from Time and Newsweek, and is diminished in the NY Times, influential conservative and/or religious magazines such as First Things, Touchstone, Crisis and National Review continue to write thoughtfully and well about composers and recordings. How many orchestra executives have reached out to these writers to offer access and assistance? The NEA under Dana Goia has cut grants to individual artists and funded tours of Shakespeare. Have orchestras taken advantage of this philosophical shift to funding performances of great works?
Here’s the rub – the political and religious makeup of the classical music field is very much like that of the academy and the media -liberal and secular. Even though music is not political, and even though we have a shared experience of the values of transcendence, hierarchy and authority, secular liberals and religious conservatives don’t talk to each other. Are we, the orchestra field, cutting ourselves off from those who might likely be our friends?
In today’s political climate, liberal secularists and religious conservatives avoid each other. We speak about each other only to those we already know to share our own views. Yet, music is not political. In fact, we’ve all experienced that it transcends politics and culture.
In doing so, we miss the chance to discover that music is where our values intersect.