An Experiment in Criticism: in which I defend Western art music

[NB This post has since been edited for clarity and typos] 

This post is the result of a number of recent confluences, among them my post on Lawrence Kramer’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Twitter conversations (more my lurking than conversing), and side-reading (C.S. Lewis again—when will this infatuation end? Never, I hope).

A few weeks ago, I became aware, via Twitter, of a Slate article by Ethan Hein, who has, I believe, now graduated from NYU with his master’s in music. His article has caused a fair amount of Sturm und Drang in the community of music theoreticians (at least those who are active in the online community). Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer have published well-written responses to Hein on their respective blogs, and I know others have as well, but I haven’t taken the time to read them all. Hein has made dubious assertions on his blog like:

Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

I disagree with such statements for a variety of reasons, but I won’t go into all of them here. Many people labor under the assumption that the ivory tower of the academy (and, yes, I admit it is too often an ivory tower) perpetuates outmoded and perhaps arbitrary ideas of what constitutes important (I would go so far as to say vital) musical experience. However, my purpose in this post is not to add yet another response to Hein in an internet already teeming with criticism. I bring up his words only because it is a recent iteration in a long line of “progressive” thought that keeps trying, seemingly, to knock down the columns of our cultural and expressive history so that the real estate can be used to erect a McDonalds or an interstate bypass. I exaggerate, of course. Some of those McDonalds will turn out to be TGI Fridays, and their Jack Daniel’s burger is DELICIOUS!  I’m scraping my metaphor-butter over too much toast, but I hope you can see my point. There is a certain distaste in postmodernity for “canons” and “rules,” believing them to be prescriptive. Saying that something is better than another has its pitfalls, but it can also be the very tool that separates the dross. Just as different metals have different melting points, so different repertories require different standards of evaluation. As democratic as it may sound, one cannot hold that “all [musics] are created equal.”

Therein may lie part of the problem—in many ways, this seems a uniquely American pathology (although I know it’s not exclusive to the New World). Some don’t like Common-Practice music because it’s too European or it’s too old. America wouldn’t know “old” if it toppled over and crushed it under a thousand years of recorded history. As to European-ness, prior to the 20th century, American music seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the longer tradition of Europe. Look at what Nicolas Slonimsky wrote to introduce Richard Burbank’s 1984 reference book Twentieth-Century Music:

American music in the 19th century was but a faint reflection of German music. Edward McDowell, regarded as the first American composer of stature, received his musical training in Germany; his harmonies follow the Germanic mold. It was only after the First World War that the German influence on American music began to wane . . ..

Even so, composers still sought their education in Europe, exemplified by Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, et al., who were all (as Slonimsky puts it) “wet-nursed” in Paris by Nadia Boulanger.

It took a long time for America to feel that it was coming out from under the shadow of the “mother continent.” But like adolescents, some Americans can still chafe at times against what they view as hoity-toity European-ness. Watch a recent episode of Downton Abbey and you’ll glimpse this conflict between the Old World and the New, between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future. We Americans (not all of us) love our fast food and our high-rises. New = better; if it’s not new, it’s disposable. 

When I toured Italy with Asbury’s Collegium Musicum, I was amazed at how many people came to our concerts—concerts filled with music too old to even be colloquially called “classical,” i.e., pre-Common Practice. At home in America, we would nearly have to pay our own friends to be part of inattentive audiences of half the size; and then, only if there were free food afterward. That’s not to say that all Europeans love “old” music, or drop whatever they’re doing to hear it performed. What I do mean to say is that I experienced a greater appreciation for the past, for “whence we come,” when I visited Europe—a quality I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in America.

But I doubt any of those reasons will change anyone’s mind who is not already so inclined. They are, in my opinion, some of the unacknowledged underlying factors in a debate that goes beyond any one argument or pundit. I’m actually reminded of a 2011 debate at Cambridge University between Stephen Fry and DJ Kissy Sell Out (I understand videos are available on YouTube, but I’ve only read summaries) on the statement “classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.” Both decried the elitism of some art music enthusiasts, with which I couldn’t agree more, but they came to very different conclusions. On one hand:

. . . ‘classical music does not represent or embody the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of our world’ and that ‘pop music is by far the more creative field.’

—Greg Sandow, Juilliard, took the side of  DJ Kissy Sell Out*

On the other hand:

‘You can like two different things at once and not explode or be a hypocrite. Surely if education in a university is about anything it is the fact we can accept and absorb all kinds of ideas and celebrate and love all kinds of human expression.’

—Stephen Fry*

*Quotations excerpted from a write-up in Limelight

But what really sparked my fingers into motion today was reading yet another of C.S. Lewis’s writings, a bit of An Experiment in Criticism, in which he discusses people’s tastes in literature. As so often happens when reading Lewis, he has already eloquently orchestrated the tune echoing in the back of my mind. Although he is writing about literature, much of what he says is reflected in music as well, if we make a rough equation between great literature and Western art music. Admittedly, vivisecting what he said and placing it before you in a few pieces does him a disservice.

. . . the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

This has been my experience, most often of art music, almost never of popular music; and that is why it deserves to be studied by students of music theory. Lest you think me a fuddy-duddy, I listen to popular music too, and I enjoy it. Indeed I have found examples worthy of deeper study, and I know other scholars have too. But it rarely has the capacity to move me as art music has.

Though I shall concern myself almost entirely with literature, it is worth noting that the same difference of attitude is displayed about the other arts and about natural beauty. Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls ‘look so bare without them’; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years.

I freely admit there is value to be found in popular musics and non-Western traditions. But let us not forget that we are, for better or worse, in the West. We should remember that there are traditions beyond that sphere of influence, yes, but the Western tradition is our tradition. Yours and mine, even if your ancestors hailed from a non-European continent. We share it because it has influenced the world. Only in the last 100 years has the tide of influence begun to give more weight to the world’s influence on the West, at least in terms of musical influence. As much as Jazz or Rock or Country seem to contrast with art music, they all owe a great deal to that tradition while simultaneously reinventing it.

It is a simple, practical impossibility to find enough time to teach students an entire world’s-worth of music; some things must be chosen to the exclusion of others. Sometimes I wonder at those who rail against the notion of canon. As if some esoteric oligarchy sits in a fusty room somewhere (probably in Europe, by all accounts) sending down judgements from on high. That room’s probably in Rome. First the Caesars, then the Pope—Rome must be a magnet for people who want to tell the world what’s what. The truth, I suspect, runs more like this: the best endures. There were plenty of composers of the Common Practice about whom we never hear. Why? Because their work wasn’t up to snuff. Like it or not, there will be a canon of 20th-century popular music in a hundred years. In fact, we already see it forming. How many popular songs from the early 20th century can you sing? Not nearly so many as were written, I’d wager. I’ve been teaching myself lots of them on the ukelele. They’re loads of fun, but they’re also drivel, and if I have to choose which to teach, I’m going to pick Stravinsky over Irving Berlin every time, even though I’d often rather listen to Berlin. The Beatles have already established a revered precedence in popular music. Is anyone talking about the Monkees? They both gained popularity around the same time, they both named themselves after animals, they both couldn’t spell those animal names properly. The two bands even interacted. So why have the Beatles endured to a greater degree? (No doubt, some would say, because they’re European.)

Canons form and evolve—like language. Some words never go away, some fall out of use, some are revived, some are newly invented. Dictionaries have to be updated to reflect the passage of time; we have dictionaries of British English, American English, urban slang, and on and on. Yet some words persist, and even the newer ones usually have their roots sunk deeply into ancient languages like Latin. People said Latin was dead too, you know; but without Latin, we wouldn’t have the vocabulary to argue how poorly the old vestiges of European culture serve us today.

To say that popular music is worthy of equal or greater attention in the classroom, if it is to be said at all, will require more time. Time sorts out many things, not least of which is the worthiness of a piece of art (be it music, literature, architecture). If it is truly as attention-deserving as one believes, then it will stand the test of time, whether or not one feels the compulsion to beat to quarters or release the dogs of war over it, in favor or against.

But I will let Lewis have the last word, because he, unlike me, is able to stick to the point and remember why we study the arts in the first place.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.