I’ve been thinking about musical witnessing, and the kind of teaching (appreesh level, undergrad major level, graduate level, peer level yea verily even unto the final curtain) and sharing that truly inspire or, better, ignite. Perhaps I have been more fortunate than many in the people to whom I have been exposed, or perhaps I’m just susceptible to ignition! In any case, the real mentors in my life have been those who did both with a sense of joy, or even consecration.
In my doctoral program, I took three courses and did a good bit of independent work with Leonard Ratner. Ratner knows the eighteenth-century repertoire like no one I have ever met, and took an irrepressible glee in eighteenth-century compositional wit and eloquence: Bachian key relationships, Mozartean play of topical gesture, Beethovenian problem-solving, Haydnesque humor. Seminars were electrifying; I would walk out torn between my own glee and a nagging resentment—“How is it that I am earning a doctorate and I’ve never been introduced to any of this before?!”
Of course, that was Ratner’s life’s work, in research as well as teaching realms. I thought of his approach to both this past year, when (on the advice of another musicologist, in fact) I read Tom Shippey’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. The joy Shippey takes in his subject is boundless, but it is an educated, prepared joy; he is a scholar of Old English and its literature, he’s been through much of the linguistic and literary turf Tolkien has, and (of course) he knows Tolkien’s writings inside and out. He lovingly explicates, but is not afraid to disagree with his subject; to Tolkien’s repeated protestations of dislike for allegory, he observes, “The evidence is rather against Tolkien here,” and proceeds to lay out a persuasive counterargument. No disrespect, no laying bare of nefarious agendas; just insightful evaluation and explanation, with the clear understanding that the works themselves merit it (and a passion for them that shines through every sentence). Edward Said’s explanation for his own devotion to western literary works comes to mind here: he said (in response, one suspects, to his more excitable followers who wanted more from him of a political nature) that such works are “estimable.” That really is all the justification needed.
The danger, it seems to me, is when we move from considering ourselves worthy to study and understand and evaluate anything we want—which we are—to sitting in judgment, from a position of imagined superiority, upon the creators and their contemporary culture. A fine line! As far as I can remember, none of the people I ever really looked up to (Ratner, Alejandro E. Planchart at Santa Barbara, some few others) ever dismissed anything as crap. They may have disliked various kinds of music or certain composers, but I don’t recall the snobbery one so often finds—“You like what?—in one’s fellow students.
It’s a tough line to walk, and I stumble off more than I’d like. I’m teaching a seminar at the moment in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which our opera department is putting on this semester, and one of our tasks was to go through Paisiello’s (not Rossini’s) Barber of Seville, composed within the decade before the Mozart, very popular and well known, and based on the first play in the Beaumarchais trilogy (Marriage is the second). There is a lot to talk about; Mozart touches base musically with Paisiello in several places, and of course one looks at the characters, how they change, musical characterizations, comedic strategies. Amici miei, there’s only so much “Well, the Paisiello is pure opera buffa, you know, so the goals are different…” you can say before throwing up your hands and concluding that there’s no comparison—you are never done studying the Mozart, and you certainly are with Paisiello (especially that—er—comic masterpiece, the sneezing/yawning trio). Never mind; I’ll never achieve the status of footnote in a Paisiello biography, so comparisons are of limited value anyway.
It seems to be, though, that those who truly understand music on the deepest levels are the most understanding (I almost said “forgiving,” which would have been wrong) of affection for all kinds of music—nursery songs, ephemeral pop songs, politically problematic music, transparently grandiose music, whatever. Real education and study involve greater inclusion, but never or almost never exclusion. And always, always, a closer look. Thus my models.