Pop Culture, the Classical Musician, and Everything

In his I’m Better Than You blogpost of July 8, Phil offered:

My question is, who exactly constitutes the entity, this “well-meaning Women’s Club, it’s-on-us-to-civilize-our-New-World-savages approach”? Do we know these people? Who is engaging in this long-protracted act of culture shaming? Is there a club somewhere? Who are the classical-music types telling everyone else their music is stupid?

I see the conflation of two issues here.  It isn’t “Classical Music” so much as civilization.  In the Civilizing Enterprise we’d be OK with Ketèlby, after all, but not really Bruckner, would we?  In rather direct response to the “Is there a club somewhere?” challenge: yes, that was the point; women’s clubs had precisely this kind of function.  Little recitation scenes and piano fantasies and so on that would have been performed for such groups can be found in sheet music bibliographies (and, indeed, on the Library of Congress website and elsewhere).  There’s my personal experience, too: “Jonathan, THE GOOD STUFF!” would be yelled from the kitchen or my Dad’s study whenever I played Rock songs or whatever by ear.  (This broke down when I discovered Scott Joplin—my Dad loved that and all other Americana, to my Mom’s consternation.  Turns out he disliked Mozart, too, though I never knew that.)  In previous lives I’ve sat in on music teachers’ groups, and particularly among some of the older piano and voice teachers that bulwark-against-the-savages mentality was still strong, at least in the 1980s.  It seems to me, then, that judgmental culture-shaming is a strong American tradition indeed.  When I was an undergraduate, even Gershwin was considered nekulturny.  I made an issue out of it—not quite a quavering “Here I Stand!  I Can Do No Other!” but you get the idea—and got all kinds of whispered, on-the-QT support from both students and faculty, including faculty who might have been expected to act otherwise.  So the culture shaming was there, it went down like a tenpin, so who cared?  A resolute American impiety toward high culture is likewise a prevalent cultural strain, so it’s not like the frowns of the women’s clubs had any long-term effects.

In The Maestro-Industrial Complex, though, a different strain of cultural self-confidence is identified—as Phil eloquently puts it, “a self-reinforcing culture of classical music, narcissistically besotted with a faded image of prestige and power and insulated from outside critique by its institutional structures.”  This one is also familiar: we might think of a kind of “long 1960s”—lasting, in many minds, yea verily unto the present day—where the hero worship of Cliburn, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Heifetz, and the equivalent conductors led to high-profile RCA Red Label and Columbia contracts and joyous, secure culture-vulturedom, dependable major bookings, etc.  We still occasionally see students that live in this dream-world, and focus on that “money” repertoire, but I wouldn’t describe them as our most conscious or competitive.

Phil and I teach at very different places.  That persistent Hurokization of the classical music world seems to be all but irrelevant where I am; ours play because they play.  The ensembles are terrific, the best students gig all over the Front Range (meaning, basically, Cheyenne down to Colorado Springs, and even some Boulder work) and they do classical, Jazz, Celtic, etc.  My sense, though, is that they are not particularly reflective; they do, when they’re not doing they’re catching up on coursework and exams and so on, and during the summers they often get gigs in music camps, and … like that.  Maybe two months ago our composer Paul Elwood staged a folk/new grass/whatever gig at his church, and I was there playing mandolin; the string players were among our best, and they were bouncing around between New Grass and chamber music rehearsals and recording sessions and so on.  They’re just players who say yes when asked, are deeply committed to the classical repertoire, love playing other stuff and are probably too tired to think much.

Have axe, will travel.  Playing with those people, I felt pretty good about America’s musical future.

I wonder if this isn’t a more likely model for the survival and success of Classical music than the star system, the jockeying for who will be at the very top?  There will always be people to play the Rocky Threes, Brahms Twos, and Tchaik Ones; there won’t necessarily always be solid, accomplished people to do all the other work, play in the ensembles, be the musical evangelists that save lives in the schools.  So, play-teach-gig, Classical and other…if you can find a way to make that work, a good part of me thinks you shouldn’t waste your time thinking about it.  Don’t you have that gig to prepare for?  As the Facebook flow-chart has it, the right answer is always “go practice.”  If you’re enjoying success; continue to DO and you can reflect when it’s time for your autobiography.

It is patently obvious, moreover, that the Maestro-Industrial Complex has run its course, and by now has utterly failed.  Orchestras continue to collapse, Boards continue to make ridiculous, narcissistic decisions, for their own benefit, to the detriment of the players, and to the detriment of younger conducting talent: “The music suffers, baby, the music business thrives.”  Top Classical players are posing semi-naked and doing lame Euro-crossover pieces like this and this … that ain’t the future.  For Classical, the realization that it’s a dependable niche market but not necessarily better or nobler seems to be accepted by many…except, the culture-vultures and Maestro-Industrial marketers, who are all but out of work.  It is true that we all tend to be tribal about our musical taste: my bands are gods and yours suck, Jazz is the only true music and Rock sucks, Rock is the only true music and Country sucks, etc. Moreover, the most vernacular of musics become the most cultivated, expensive, and specialized in the recording studio.

In terms of costs and paraphernalia, Grand Olde Opry is music for the 1%, and four kids doing a string quartet is street.

I see the Maestro-Industrial Complex as an odd and finite cultural phase, one that is exhausted and powerless, and I don’t think it will be back.  If Volodos and Hamelin and so on couldn’t ascend (or transcend) to that level, then the game has changed permanently.  I’m not mourning the change; it has been a long time since I was attracted to the Cliburnian aesthetic, and would rather have people who specialized in particular repertories, styles, or historical periods than were simply possessed of a Your-Trademark-of-Quality seal of approval.  “Cliburn plays it like this.”  “But Horowitz,” says the glib stereophile, “plays it like this.  Of course you’ve heard the bootleg; he does it even fast.”

Really?  Who cares?

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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4 Responses to Pop Culture, the Classical Musician, and Everything

  1. nsj88 says:

    Great music is meaningful and engaging. Great classical music is both of those but also noble. Some people resent nobility as a failed vestige of aristocratic culture. Others broaden the notion and believe that we all have a noble purpose, that aspiring to nobility is universally desirable. People who believe in nobility, in making an effort to be dignified and wise, generally enjoy and support classical music, old and new. If you think about it, it’s not as anti democratic or antipopulist as Paul originally makes out.

  2. philphord says:

    You mean “Phil,” right?

    I don’t disagree re. the nobility etc. of classical music. (At least some of it: Wagner’s Ring tetralogy is noble, if ever a piece of music deserved to be called so. But surely Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” whatever its virtues, is not exactly what anyone means by “noble.”) But my point is, if people want to uphold and preserve this music, they had better stop talking about the music’s sublimity, greatness, nobility, etc., by invidious contrast with every other kind of music. First of all, it serves only to annoy people and works against the goal of actually getting people to listen to classical music; second, it’s not as if greatness (however defined) is a zero-sum thing, where acknowledging the greatness of, say, Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” somehow subtracts some of the greatness of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder. Also, I never said that that the music itself is antidemocratic. The MIC is a particular culture of classical music; it is not the music itself, and neither (as Jonathan points out) does it represent all classical musicians.

    As for your comment, “People who believe in nobility, in making an effort to be dignified and wise, generally enjoy and support classical music, old and new.” That has never been the reason I have loved and played this music for 40 years, and neither is it the reason my wife or any of my musician friends have pursued their musical work, though I wouldn’t deny that this statement is true for some people. The pianist Leonard Hokanson was one of the wisest and most dignified people I have ever known, but he never made an effort to be wise and dignified; he just was.

    • nsj88 says:

      So sorry I botched your name, Phil. I learned from both your original post and your kind response to my comment. Thanks. To clarify, I personally feel that pop and jazz can be both meaningful and engaging and therefore great, period. Great classical music, without detracting at all from the greatness of pop or folk musics, adds an element of nobility, that, to me, is both unique and worthy of shameless promotion. I hope we both agree that I am allowed to love and admire both Charles Ives and Led Zeppelin. Cuz I do!

  3. I’ve heard the nobility argument (or association, or observation) before, but for me it doesn’t stand up. One could make a better argument with ballet, I think; that particular dance form is a direct lineal descendant of the French Noble Style, the dance vocabulary of the French court in the Absolutist era, so it is all about carriage and honor and beauty and nobility and line and grace. With so-called classical music, the nobility business “says itself like that,” as it would be said in Yiddish, but that goes to pieces when we move outside our favorite five “noble” pieces. How is Liszt’s demonic *Faust Symphony* inherently noble, or Beethoven in humor mode? (The “Rage over a Lost Penny,” say, or the piano sonata Op. 31/3.) Furthermore, I at least can get real nobility from other kinds of music—I’d put several numbers on Procol Harum’s *Salty Dog* up there, as well as the closing instrumental from their “In Held ‘Twas in I” (off both *Shine on Brightly* and *Live in Edmonton* albums). I’m not a Jazz guy, but I’m sure Jazz people hear real nobility in some selections (help me out, here—*A Love Supreme*, maybe?). My point is that hearing nobility is a personal and language-based thing, and that in classical music it is no more “inherent” than in other musics; it just depends on which language you’re most comfortable getting your nobility in. Some people speak any given vernacular but simply have to pray in Latin, or Hebrew, or Greek, or Russian Church Slavonic or whatever; it isn’t that those languages are *inherently* holy so much as we attribute holiness to them by virtue of their associations. Thus with “classical” music and nobility too, methinks.

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