Universal Language?

My mother is in her late 80s, and does not remember every last pearl of wisdom she dropped on me when I was growing up, but I enjoy reminding her of the ones that stayed with me. I cannot remember the context, but at some point (maybe before a Shakespeare play?) she gave me þe olde writ: even thought it’s about kings and nobles and ladies and whatever, the point is that the Truths contained therein are universal; even though it’s about all the archaic types of the old class system, the Art was so Great we—high and low among us—can find great Truths that apply to our own lives. I did not bridle at this, nor (probably) did I even take much notice; because we were raised in a cult of art and literature and education, such things didn’t need any justification. It’s Bach! It’s Shakespeare! Who needs a justification? I’m old enough to be taken to it, now!

Of course, the critical thought of recent decades has taken this traditional view head on. Everything is contingent upon culture, and it is the most offensive thing imaginable to forcefully tell people that something from your culture automatically has value for them if they could only realize it, especially when it’s your high culture and they’re not educated (of course we mean indoctrinated) to “properly” understand it. The best we could hope for was that such artworks could be problematized, thus reinvigorated for contemporary audiences who could now appreciate their underlying discourses; at least, though, we would be forever free from the relic-worship of our false religion of “high” art that only served to inscribe the power relations of…

Resistant as I have been (I won’t bother denying it) to this line of thinking, it is undeniable that many interpretive doors have been opened by it. The cult of the Great Masters Only has now been (rightfully, in my opinion) compromised by the study of minor masters and popular and consumers cultures and the entertainments of common people and so on, of various historical periods. For some time, it has seemed to me that the great masters are better understood for not situating them in a heavenly Empyrean but rather in their proper cultural contexts, and we are asking ever more incisive questions.

It is also true that Shakespeare has not suffered much from the inquiry. Shakespeare’s plays continue to anchor summer festivals, high school competitions, and so on. (Two of my father’s colleagues at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, ran a Shakespeare competition for all the surrounding high schools: scenes and soliloquies, and some of the most passionate competitors were from the lower-income high schools…you’d just see the kids from those places burning like torches by what an inspiring English teacher gave them: so—in cases I remember—a large, fey Latino boy, and an otherwise shy Black girl, just came alive in their soliloquies because life, clearly, hadn’t presented them with anything like this before. This poetry, these emotions—whatever it was, and whether or not they understood it as they would twenty years down the line, their speeches turned them luminous…indeed, nuclear. Would I make the case that they should forget their own valid cultures? Of course not. But Shakespeare clearly had something for them, and anyone who has spent any time in music school has seen what The Classical Repertoire can do to and for people of any nationality and class who get the fire, whether of European descent or not…or, to those of us who discover medieval and Renaissance church music, whether of Christian descent or not. Our pre-exposure identities are entirely valid, of course, and not under discussion; what said art supplies is a mind-blasting and transformative experience, and what we walk away with is far greater than the sum of the combined cultural parts.

Why am I testifying in this somewhat old-fashioned way? Here’s a link to a Guardian article about group of young people from Soweto, under the guidance of English violist Rosemary Nalden (I believe it’s “l” not “r,” regardless of the link). Youtube links are found in the article; listen especially to the way they play Rameau. Rameau’s music is indisputably great, but it is as much a part of its culture as anything there is: the specific dance rhythms, the ornaments, the underlying grace and noblesse that lies at the core of the French Noble Style. (There’s also the first movement of a “Soweto Suite” that seems to be a minimalist treatment of the ancient song “L’homme armé,” but it wasn’t loading properly for me.)

[The good reader listens.]

So what are we to make of a bunch of poor Black young people from Soweto playing music that reified the absolutist French monarchy, in all its aspects, perhaps second only to the music of Lully, Rameau’s predecessor? The criticism writes itself: how dare we offer them this indoctrination, with unavoidable colonialist superiority, as if their culture has nothing to offer them? The imperial obscenity continues: here we are, again, replacing their cultural expressions with ours, and (worse yet) with those designed to concretize the unjust power differentials of the eighteenth century…

I’ll let my musicological friends fill in a hundred more paragraphs. That stuff bores me, honestly.

Let’s return to the musicians and their performance. They also do arrangements of African music, local songs, etc. They incorporate dancing in their performances (which I, actually, have not seen). A friend who has worked with them informs me that Rosemary Narden is very conscious about the performance practice, and tends to lecture those about to hear performances: “Now, this may sound odd to you, but I assure you that the ornaments are actually correct, and…

That aside: I hear a sinuous rhythmic strength, one that in no way threatens the inherent grace of Rameau’s elegant art. The music-making here is of a life-or-death variety, as if the musicians understand that the resolution of a half-step can pack a titanic significance, a simple sequence a spiritually transforming journey. All the standard formulas musicians take for granted by virtue of their very familiarity, in other words, seem to become vivid, pulsating, stand-in-the-fire expressions for these musicians, each rhythm and scale-step having a physicality, a bodily resonance, that one can only hope to hear in all live music. So, given this authority and command, is this What Rameau Wanted?

This is the performance practice conundrum. We cannot know what the musicians sounded like in the pre-recording era, whether or not they played timidly in the presence of the aristocracy in attendance, whether or not they were paid well enough to be excellent, whether or not the fashion was for them to play as if it mattered, or if they were background for singers and dancers regardless—just shut up and get out of the way. Anyone who has ever worked as an accompanist has encountered this latter approach.

If this isn’t what Rameau wanted, I’ll say it’s what he should have wanted. The amperes and sparks that rise from this playing are validation enough. So, for these Soweto musicians, this isn’t the music of “their” culture; they’re speaking a foreign language. Are only French people to play this? Europeans?

My feeling is that our finger-wagging parents were right after all. We were right, too—other musics are valid and worthwhile and worth cultivating, however much the custodians of High Culture dismissed them. (A cherished friend, on hearing that I was doing a paper on a Rock topic, once arched an eyebrow and said, “Well, if you can hear any difference in that stuff…”)

Just look and listen, though, at what the High Culture of white Europeans does for these people.

No apologies.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Universal Language?

  1. dellantonio says:

    Jonathan – I completely agree with you (otherwise I wouldn’t also be in this biz) that it’s fruitful for individuals to encounter musical traditions that are not their own, and especially fruitful for musicians to be able to experiment/cross-fertilize with unfamiliar sound structures in order to shape their own creative path. And certainly the clips you posted testify to the musical energy of these students and what they can build from the Rameau scores and Nalden’s performance-practice suggestions. I guess what I wonder is whether Nalden chose Rameau because his music was more accessible because he had been determined to be more artistically significant than, say, Telemann — and whether the significance of this experiment comes from “greatness” or from the inherent creative impetus of grappling with the unfamiliar (guided by someone who loves that unfamiliar music, as it seems to me Nalden clearly must, and nothing negative about that).

  2. Jonathan Bellman says:

    I might be more leery if they were playing *Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in string arrangement. I know very little Telemann, but consider Rameau pretty obscure for most listeners, French Baroque being what it is in terms of relative popularity. My suspicion, based on nothing, is that Nalden knew the Rameau and said “this will be perfect; they’ll dig into the rhythms”—no more than that.

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