In my last blog, commenting on Richard Taruskin’s review-article in The New Republic I suggested that, while the usual high-culture, cod-liver-oil (“but it’s good for you!”) approach to music appreciation is a demonstrable failure, “Just keep listening!” is not really sufficient either. Here’s why: almost the entire performance repertoire of art music was composed more than a century ago—not just the much-complained-about German repertoire; also the Russian and much of the French also. The culture that produced it is long gone, in other words. To expect “just listen”ing to afford sufficient cultural currency to understand the art music of a largely alien culture seems a bit like urging people to “just expose yourself to the beauty of the language” in order to understand Dante—in the original Italian.
Let’s forget about form and the adventures of a motive and all the usual approaches to “appreciating” art music; I’d go with styles first. National styles, high and low styles, and certainly the topics and styles (e.g. dance topics like Sarabande and Mazurka, styles like Pastoral, Storm, Hunt) are immediately easier to recognize, given a modicum of background, than form and motive. (“Modicum of background”: being able to make pastoral out of “pretty and peaceful,” hunt from “stirring and energetic,” “Turkish” Style from “thumping and percussive,” etc.) The character of the musical surface is the composer’s first choice, and it’s what defines the affect of the piece. Learning topical vocabulary and style literacy gives the listener far more tools for musical enjoyment and—dare I say it—understanding than will trying to discipline a normal human attention span to follow the adventures of a motive throughout a 50-minute symphony. If we understand styles, we get the joke when Mozart moves almost indiscernibly from Singing Style to Brilliant Style to Turkish Style, and we recognize—and are captivated, as was Clara Schumann—when Brahms explodes from a turbulent, stormy texture into the noble strains of Romantic Medievalism and remembered chivalry. Communication between composer and listeners takes place without our having to enter the workshop and check the voice-leading.
One level deeper, I cannot overstress the importance of pre-college music experience of the far-too-infrequent kind where students actually play in band and orchestra and sing in choirs without intending to be music majors later. In the Common Practice vocabulary (and its modern derivatives work the same way), the play of styles rehearses the play of associated emotions. Learning Common Practice music is in a way like learning a theatrical role—working through by proxy, in other words, a sequence of emotions and ideas, or varieties of human experience (grief, fury, horror, joy, contentment, yearning, the full gamut, all modulating smoothly one to another), without having to experience them in a real way, via the symbolic Common Practice language. This of course means that one rehearses emotional experience in a controlled, supportive atmosphere, undeniably advantageous in facing real emotional turmoil in later life. (This is not my own idea; I first ran across it in a Senior Honors Thesis I mentored in 1999, that of the now-English teacher Alberto Aguirre.) This struck me—once I saw the issue laid out like that—as one of the most urgent reasons that music in the schools desperately needs support: the social and societal reason, the value of practice at emotional health, if you will. (Increased test scores and so on are the icing on the cake, societally, not the main act; as Shinichi Suzuki stressed, music makes good citizens, which are more immediately needed than virtuoso musicians.)
Understand: I consider this kind of participation important groundwork for understanding musical language, but even those who don’t participate know people who do—the more participation, the more cultural understanding. Participatory music making results in emotional education and musical experience, and through the experience one learns the vocabulary. True, vocabulary can be learned in classrooms too. All of this means, though, that historical vocabularies remain, if not current, at least familiar, vivid, and understood. The same would then apply for works composed in those historical vocabularies, which retain enough currency among those with at least minimal education that they can communicate. This is basic foreign-language education, I think—get some vocabulary and jump in. No mention of high culture, or better and worse music, or nice and not nice, at all. Just get some idea of what they’re talking/composing about, and go to concerts armed, so to speak, with some vocabulary. Then: “Just listen.”
A final thought: we should keep tabs on what is happening in the Shakespeare education industry if we need new ideas. Though dissenting voices at the Modern Language Association may carp about it (I read an article about this once), the Bard is still a major audience draw, and his work still communicates. Whether you want to call his values and concerns “universals” or not doesn’t concern me, nor would I even claim that most directors and actors (not to mention audiences, at least where I live) have a complete understanding of what is going on in his language and subtexts. Down to the grade-school level, though, teachers are creating a variety of interesting approaches, some of which are outlined in the final chapter of Herman Gollob’s Shakespeare and Me, a somewhat self-indulgent but interesting read. Can we claim that music education on any level reflects this kind of flowering of creativity? Shakespeare died almost four centuries ago, his plays were written for a world of capricious kings and queens, the counterpoint of the privileged high-born and those born to serve, the constant realities of conquest and cruelty. Still, the plays have maintained a currency with audiences today, in the English-speaking world especially. It is worth at least trying to achieve similar success with the “classical music,” the much-loved, much-derided, much-defended, much-misunderstood.