Lower Music and Higher Education in the 1970's

October 1, 1972

Symposium Volume 11 offers the results of a Symposium sponsored jointly by the American Musicological Society and The College Music Society on November 7, 1970, at Toronto, the topic being "Music and Higher Education in the 1970's." Most of the opinions voiced are sensible, intelligent, and constructive; but there is one paper (entitled "A Needed Change of Attitude") that seeks to present ideas of an entirely different kind—ideas so inimical to the world of fine music and scholarship that an immediate reply is called for.

The gist of the argument is that one of the best musicological journals in the world, familiarly and affectionately known as JAMS, together with those who are sufficiently misguided to receive and read it regularly, should be censured for failing to give publicity to jazz, pop, rock, folk, tape, and trick music—if indeed the Muses have anything at all to do with these monosyllabic forms of activity. My reply is that neither the Journal nor its supporters deserve censure of any kind or degree; and it is no more incumbent upon them to feature the commercial ephemerides that blight the artistic ecology of our sad planet than it is desirous that they should advertise cola drinks, greasy kid stuff, or the pill.

A further point of the argument: that everything new is automatically important. It must at once be discussed in class and rushed into print, because the new and the now scream from their mass-media mortuary for instant attention. Why so in music? Comparable spheres of scholarship and performance provide no parallel. As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I receive its excellent Journal and from time to time that most sumptuous of all scholarly publications, Archaeologia, the bulk of both being concerned with excavations from Asia Minor to Verulamium. But if workmen were to dig a trench outside Burlington House in order to repair a drain or cable, I doubt whether this new and sociologically significant happening would prompt a paper in the Society's apartments or an article in its periodicals.

But this is not all. We are told that "many younger people of today . . . understand only too well the artistic, historical, and sociological value of this music." Younger than whom? Perhaps this sentence should read: "many immature quasi-illiterates understand perfectly the atavistic, hysterical, and social appeal of this noise." For noise most of it is, if you will consider the deafening volume at which most of it must be reproduced, and the incidence of permanently damaged eardrums among its practitioners. As for hysteria, evidence is superabundant, ranging from a kind of mass hypnosis through drug addiction to murder. A sensitive and perceptive student of mine, on hearing and seeing what happened at one of these "festivals," actually felt the immanence of a spirit of evil. He knew, as Aristotle did more than two thousand years ago, that music has power to produce certain reactions in the moral character of the soul. It is surely no coincidence that a famous passage from the Politics stresses this very point: "It is clear therefore that the study of music must not interfere in any way with subsequent activities, nor must it vulgarize the bodily frame and make it useless for the exercises of the soldier or the citizen."

Moral values apart, why should scholars and teachers not feel bound to deal with noise which they recognize as commercial trash or as non-commercial avant-garbage? Because they know in their musical hearts and minds that most of it belongs to the slippery realm of passing fancy—that it will not last, and was never intended to last. And even if its physical life extends beyond its temporary appeal, it can hope for little more than a niche in the guest rooms of middle-aged hippies. I have discussed this very topic with the music directors of several recording companies, and they invariably use four-letter words to describe what the public buys. The sales figures prove the extent of this cancer beyond all doubt: a Mozart symphony, 2,500 copies; Clint Crap and The Gallstones, 250,000 copies. Somebody in grade school needs grading before the entire population is degraded, but there is no possibility of even a partial redress of balance.

When Lord Reith was Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, granted a government mandate for supplying education and entertainment to the populace at large, he is reputed to have said: "We know precisely what the British public wants, and by God they are not going to get it!" The public did, of course, get a reasonably balanced diet of all kinds of music, and the formula that served so well in the thirties continues to work well in the seventies: the young are educated by radio and television (if their teachers so choose) in the sense that their normal classroom fare is enriched by top-level contributions, while the grown-ups can listen to, and sometimes see, live musicians playing works specially commissioned for a living medium. What is more, there are no intrusive commercials every ten minutes or so. This pattern is equally common throughout the rest of Europe, which not surprisingly continues to produce generation after generation of intelligent listeners. The lack of these facilities in most parts of America makes it imperative that musical education should be especially strong and influential where young people are concerned. Moreover, to ensure the proper development of their musical minds, we should follow Aristotle's advice, and use only the most ethical music for educational purposes.

This does not mean that the individual proclivities of those who teach ought in any way to be adversely affected. Outside the classroom they should be free to indulge their own personal tastes and fancies. I know a world-famous composer who likes Joan Baez, an art historian who reads Peanuts, and a professor of English who subscribes to Playboy; and the Principal of my Oxford college, when I first went up, was a shrewd and sharp-tongued King's Counsel who would run any distance to see a Laurel and Hardy film. The point is that none of these people brought their fads and fancies into the classroom. The "needed change of attitude," on the contrary, suggests that all these trivia should be brought into academe, there to be analyzed, discussed, and written about as if they were serious manifestations of a civilized culture.

It is also suggested that our conventions and publications do not reflect "student activism" and "junior faculty radicalism," whatever they may be (and I am no believer in isms as a general rule), and that we are wrong to look "to the past and across the ocean." Surely this is a flagrant example of waving the red flag with one hand, and the Star-Spangled Banner with the other, which is in direct contravention of Public Law 623, Section 3 (c). I fail to see why a contemporary pop singer hooked on hard drugs should be considered a more fitting example for young musicians—simply because he happens to be American—than, for instance, the life and music of Antonin Dvorák, who lived in the past, was born across the ocean, but nevertheless had as high a regard for America as musical Americans had for him.

As for "many of the best students" finding musicology "less and less attractive," this is decidedly not my impression. The best students, in any case, do not take up a demanding pursuit such as musicology simply because it is attractive, but because it is a challenge to their musical and intellectual powers. If they are turned off by anything, it is not by materia musicologica itself, but by the dull and unimaginative way in which it is frequently taught. Some of the dullest lectures I have heard, and some of the most boring books I have read, have been those dealing with the fifteenth century, which I personally regard as one of the most fascinating periods in the history of music.

When I look at Dufay and Binchois smiling serenely from the safe haven of folio 98, fonds français 12476 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, I often wonder what they would say if they knew that two musicologists obtained union cards by writing dissertations about their music, and promptly proceeded to advocate the extensive study of non-music, pseudo-music, and un-music in classrooms and seminars. Perhaps Dufay would quote from one of his own songs: "Laissons dire ces faux jalous / Ce qu'ils veulent." And Binchois, an ex-military man who would recognize a jealous traitor when he saw one, might well agree with his friend. The author of the Binchois dissertation wrote last December to the New York Times, suggesting that a cantata by J.S. Bach ought to be considered "commercial music." I am not a Bach scholar, but I studied with a great Bach enthusiast, Sir Hugh Allen, for long enough to know what a cantata is all about, and I accordingly replied as follows (New York Times, Sunday, December 19, 1971):

"Bach wrote his cantatas as part of his duties as a director of music, and for the glory of Almighty God. Commercial music is written or improvised (the mode of transmission is of little importance) by decomposers as part of their duties as corrupters of public taste, and for the glory of the Almighty Dollar . . . . If Mr. Parris can honestly compare the finest of Binchois, or of any other great composer before or since, with the primitive vomiting noises wallowing in over-amplified imbecility that typifies most 'commercial' non-music of today, he would be well advised to cure his addiction to value judgements and think in terms of something more important . . . . The story of the emperor's new clothes is not necessarily restricted to the sense of sight."

I received hundreds of letters from all over America as a result of this statement, and their general tone is well summed up in the reply of a professor in Missouri: "I wish that more scholars and musicians would have enough courage and enough foresight to voice their opinions in like vein in places where they would be widely read and heard. It is good and refreshing to hear a voice like yours crying out—even though it may be in the wilderness." Such replies demonstrate clearly and forcibly that there is a solid core of conscientious teachers throughout the land, and the work of these teachers is in turn reflected in the thoughts of intelligent students. One of these, Mr. Jeffrey D. Earnest of the University of North Carolina, wrote in that same issue of Symposium: "I feel that a knowledge and love of the world's great art music is a sensitive musician's most important possession." What a difference in attitude from the sour professors who obviously don't like the music that earned them their degree!

One final false statement: "many musicologists have realized for some years that the discipline could not continue to expand indefinitely" because material "in some cases is reaching the point of being overworked." If we musicians and scholars were instead in the field of literature, we might have good cause to complain, because virtually every poem, play, novel, and essay has been published and edited and worked over for dissertation topics a thousand times. In music, we do not even have a complete catalogue of all the manuscript and printed books available, and of this vast amount of material only the tiniest percentage has been transcribed and discussed. Much of what has been transcribed and discussed needs to be gone over again in a more scientific and enlightened way, so that there is work for thousands of students for hundreds of years. There is no reason for pessimism, and there are masterpieces still to be uncovered.

Only two years ago I listened with delight to a concert performance of Alessandro Scarlatti's Eraclea, in Donald Grout's new edition, at Cornell University, and I could hardly believe that this was only one of over a hundred stage works by the great master. Last year, to close the tenth season of the Accademia Monteverdiana in London, I conducted the première of Scarlatti's Vespers of St. Cecilia, and was as much amazed by the beauty and power of the music as by the fact that this particular work is but a fraction of what he wrote for the church. And the rest is still untranscribed and unknown.

A change of attitude is needed, most certainly. The quintessence of that change might usefully be equated with the necessity for all musicologists to explore and become involved in the thousand or more years of music springing from dozens of nations, and to pass on to their students the results of that exploration and involvement. Many already do; but some apparently do not, since they choose to bother with tenth-rate material when good in plenty is at hand. I shall never tire of great music, because it can be experienced from so many different angles and standpoints. I have known the organ loft and the orchestra pit, the choir stall and the concertmaster's chair, the heat from the lamps in a television studio and the cold moment of truth when I look through the first copy of my latest publication and find an error that I should have caught; I have known the quiet of an old library and the rousing sounds of an ovation, the gregarious run-around of a congress and the lonely walk to the podium of the Royal Albert Hall, where seven or eight thousand people—many of them youngsters—are waiting to hear for the first time the music of Dunstable, Machaut, or Monteverdi. These are all aspects of music, and valid aspects. No matter what our own compartment may be, we should not disdain the others. And above all we should remember that however mod we may wish to be, no man can serve both mod and gammon, especially when the kids have to have spinach thrown in.

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