To My Cousin, An Apologia
Published online: 1 October 1984
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374222
Visiting America for the first time after having spent your childhood in Germany and the greater part of your adult life in England, you were predictably both disappointed and exhilarated by what you saw here. You were also often perplexed by some of our strange ways, the eagerness of ordinary people, for example, to express opinions, even publicly, on matters in which they have little competence. I recall trying to explain that, because they have good reason to be suspicious of those who claim to speak for them, Americans generally prefer to speak for themselves. If, while speaking for themselves, they sometimes speak foolishly, they count this as a small price to pay to exercise that right to speak out which they are guaranteed by the Constitution. By conceding all the right to speak, they believe that the truth will eventually emerge even when it is unwelcome.
If you found such customs occasionally irritating, you also made it clear to me just how different the American and European university systems are and how differently American and European artists and musicians see themselves and are seen by those around them. By speaking as one who did not merely describe conditions as they are in Europe but as one who has experienced them at first hand, you made me aware just how American I had grown and impelled me once again to consider what makes the American system so well suited to our special circumstances.
The American ideal of the university as it has evolved until the present day does not admit a division between art in practice and art in theory or between the practice itself and that practice objectively scrutinized. Where such a division persists, it is among those older institutions whose sole model originally was the European system, based as it was in part on principles affirmed by Boethius early in the sixth century. Among those colleges and universities established since the Civil War one is likely to find composers, performers, musicologists and music educators not merely coexisting in a state of begrudged toleration but rather in a spirit, if not of complete understanding or even admiration (an impossible ideal in any case), then at least of mutual respect, resolved to sustained integrated programs in which each discipline nevertheless plays its own distinctive, contributory role. When tensions arise, they are no different from those that one would normally expect among co-workers of independent judgment or strong personal ambitions; rarely are they attributable to the apparently conflicting demands of seemingly incompatible disciplines. Among younger faculty members, in particular, there is no desire and little patience for the antagonisms that sometimes marred relations between composers and musicologists, musicologists and performers, or between music educators and all of the others in the past. Not least among the factors contributing to this relationship is the ability of so many instructors, now trained almost exclusively in the American system and consequently less likely to be influenced by European traditions, to be active in more than one discipline. It is ironic that one of the most influential musicians of the postwar period, Anton Webern, was not only an accomplished composer but also an outstanding conductor and held a doctorate in musicology from the University of Vienna. Webern was, of course, a European. His death in 1945, sadly, may have signaled for Europe the beginning of an end; for us, I think, it may have signaled only another beginning.
Although, in order to be able to teach music in depth, it is necessary to separate the teaching of music history from that of harmony and counterpoint, for example, and to choose the instructors of these subjects accordingly, the interdependence of these subjects and the ways in which they must therefore be presented and apprehended have made the establishment of corequisites among the courses in which they are taught essential. In order to comprehend fully the changes that were taking place in the harmonic language of the late nineteenth century, for example, a student studying this phenomenon in a music history course ought at least to be studying this language at first hand in a harmony and counterpoint course while at the same time training his inner ear to perceive this language in a sightsinging and ear training course. At Queens College of the City University of New York, where I teach, all music students, including those in the performance program, must even pass a comprehensive examination before they may graduate in which they are expected to demonstrate how well they have integrated all that they have learned as undergraduates. A Bachelor of Arts student is referred to as a liberal arts student who has chosen to "concentrate" in a subject like music but whose education must include as well a variety of other subjects in an effort to "harmonize" him with as much of his exterior and interior world as possible. While concentrating in one subject may prepare students for careers in that subject or at least for further training in professional or graduate schools, they often, however, do not choose a particular subject with the expectation that they will pursue a career in it. This is no less true of music students, who are often also ill prepared, if they are prepared at all, to begin the study of music on a collegiate level. The mere completion of a music program neither assures a student of a career in music nor should be interpreted as a license to begin one.
That we would accept students with such divergent goals into the same program must seem curious to you and that we would hope to educate both adequately even impossible. Why a student would want to concentrate in a subject which he has no intention to pursue as a career and for which he may possibly have little aptitude must seem even preposterous. In response to what we believe is our obligation to accommodate all those whom we accept in ways that will be useful to them, opportunities for both remedial work and advanced tutorials are made available, and sundry programs are designed with more or less demanding requirements depending on each student's vocational goal. In addition, students are placed into sections of courses according to their current abilities so that slow students will not be intimidated by faster and fast students not inhibited by slower. By establishing a school of preparatory studies to which are admitted not just children of primary and secondary school age but also interested adults including some already matriculated as undergraduates, a department or school of music can better prepare future students for higher education in music while at the same time provide undergraduates with the kind of basic musical training considered perhaps inappropriate in an institution of higher learning.
The conviction, which I know you share, that music is a liberating art and that without it we would be less than what we are destined to be, together with that nearly religious zeal to bring good things to all people that has characterized so much of American history, also accounts for the presence in the curriculum of every college and university in this country of at least one course and, more likely, of an array of courses designed not to teach how to sing or to play a musical instrument but how to listen to and therefore, it is hoped, be able to enjoy music. These courses are available to all students regardless of their previous training; indeed it is assumed that students who elect these courses or who are sometimes even required to take them have little and possibly no training in how to listen to music even if they have sung in a chorus or played in a high school band. To provide these courses with textbooks and other supporting materials like workbooks with listening guides, demonstration records and the like, an entire industry has emerged with instructors and publishers all eagerly promoting their competing philosophies of how to listen to and enjoy music, and, needless to say, also to profit from the demand created by the existence of these courses. In many schools more students are registered for these courses than for any other kind of music course so that many members of the faculty are engaged to teach these courses principally, if not exclusively.
Having taught such courses often in the past, helped prepare some of the supporting materials, observed able colleagues teach them, and discussed the purposes and means of these courses at length, I can testify with some credibility that teaching them is no simple matter and that to teach them well is a genuine achievement requiring special personal qualities, more than a little experience and, in particular, insight into the ways in which non-musicians can be expected to listen, ways that are not in every respect the same as those in which a musician may listen. (I am no less convinced that, as a composer and pianist with relative pitch, I do not listen in the same way as a theorist with perfect pitch might, and, if I did, the results would probably be deleterious.) If the results achieved by these courses seem no better or worse than those of English or comparative literature courses when the number of sonatas heard by college graduates is compared with the number of poems read by them, it should be pointed out that all students entering college know how to read with comprehension, although not so well as we would like, but few know how to listen to music with comprehension, so that any success at all in meeting the goals of these courses is better than none.
In endorsing these courses and recognizing the need for special skills to teach them, even the need for further research into the nature of listening, comprehension, emotional responses, receptivity, in short, into all the ways by which a human being takes a work of art unto himself, I am not oblivious to the dangers that attend them, one of which is that those who teach these courses are not always active either as creators or recreators of music or at least as students of music in the real sense of that term. However active one may be as a listener, that activity is at best once removed from the intensive involvement experienced by the accomplished composer or performer, who must decide with each phrase what can and cannot be comprehended when heard. Without the kinds of insights available through creation and recreation, conclusions bearing on the nature of listening can be only suspect. That too few of those who teach these courses are actively engaged in composition, performance or scholarship is the responsibility in part of administrators but not least of all of those composers, performers and scholars who, whatever their other accomplishments, are either too inarticulate to be entrusted the teaching of these courses or who disdain them and so abandon the field to those for whom the methods of teaching may have acquired a value greater than the subject. So long as a need for these courses can be demonstrated and consequently the need to develop effective methods for their teaching, those whose principal occupation is the development of such methods may occasionally direct inordinate attention to the methods rather than to the subject actually taught.
If attention needs to be drawn to such an imbalance and action taken to correct it, I have no doubt that it will be done. Reform in the American university system is an almost continuous process, made possible in large measure by the considerable autonomy which each school enjoys and by the great distances which separate so many of them. The physical isolation that induces provincialism in some, engenders strength in others. As in the middle ages, when great centers of learning were also not always associated with cities and were scarcely in ready communication with each other, American universities are often physically isolated, though certainly in communication with each other, but that very isolation has fostered in many the confidence to be independent and to undergo reformation free from the chilling influences that can be exerted by being near other, usually older, schools. In a country where no school predates the colonial period, colleges are still opened and closed every year. Those which are opened are sometimes in the enviable position of being able to begin anew without many of the debilitating traditions found in schools incapable of reforming themselves.
In one respect the American and European systems do not differ at all. They are both centers of learning where scholars gather to add to that body of knowledge which they have received, to alter it when necessary, and to pass it on to the next generation with the proviso that the transmission continue as long as civilization shall endure. Here, however, the similarity seems to end. Consistent with its medieval origins, the European university tends to regard itself as a community of scholars whose principal obligation is to transmit its knowledge to yet another body of scholars, to which are regularly admitted others who share the same ideals. In order to insure the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, therefore, each scholar seeks to form another like himself to such an extent that his judgment of his students' accomplishments may even depend somewhat on how well he has succeeded in doing just that. That successive generations are essential to the survival of civilization cannot be denied, only that the American university recognizes a multitude of purposes among which the formation of curators of knowledge is important but only one. Together with that purpose it also acknowledges that art, too, is a way of knowing, art not merely scrutinized, but art practiced. Taken into its community and encouraged, indeed expected, to flourish, are those who in a former time were often regarded as little more than artisans. I speak now of you, a painter, and me, a composer and pianist. By our presence our students are invited into a workplace where the new is created and where they may observe how it is created. Like the aristocratic salon and the church before it, the university has become both the delivery room where our offspring first see the light of day and the nursery where their public lives are cultivated. It has, furthermore, supplanted the public concert hall as the place where one will find the most intensive performance activity in our country, a fact scarcely recognized by reviewers for the press, who rarely venture more than a few blocks from their typewriters or word processors. Indeed, much of what is permitted by commercial entrepreneurs to filter into the public concert halls has originated on the university campus. What is heard in these halls reflects only in small measure the variety of both performance and compositional activity that takes place in the university and that is made possible by its unique relationship with the arts as they are actually practiced in this country.
By now it should be clearer that Americans look upon their universities not as private treasures, access to which is limited only to an invited few. On the contrary, with few exceptions American colleges and universities have been established in response to the needs and wishes of those who have attended them and who subsequently continued to support them financially. This legacy, much like the nation's scenic wonders, belongs not to a single constituency such as a faculty or a board of directors but to those constituencies along with a number of others as well. While this may seem to be true only of state and municipal schools, which are supported to a great extent, though not exclusively, by taxes, it is equally true of private institutions, all of which depend for their survival increasingly on donations by private individuals, especially alumni, and foundations but also, to an ever greater degree, on public funds. This sense of belonging to all, however, is not dependent on an awareness that, were it not for the richness of America's natural resources and the productivity and ingenuity of the American people (and sometimes its greed, too; but then they are hardly alone in this regard), this system would not exist at all; it is not a matter of owning bricks and mortar or of paying a faculty for services rendered. It is rather the realization that, if a child proves that he is qualified, he will always have access to what it is that goes on in the university however old he may be, however late he may come to the realization that he cannot continue without a university education.
To hold out that hope indefinitely is without question an enormous burden. Its cost is sometimes more than some regions can ably bear. Yet we seem intent on maintaining the system because by it we also sustain the hope of those who did not have the advantages of a university education to be able to offer it to their children. It is partly for this reason that Americans have habitually looked to their universities for answers when there were none to be found anywhere else. When the primary and secondary educational systems were thought to have failed it was left up to the universities to provide the remedial work which that failure made necessary and to suggest how primary and secondary education might be returned to good health. Because of the sins and ignorance of parents as well the American university has had to provide the kind of guidance that a parent with barely a high school diploma can hardly be expected to provide a child and occasionally even to encourage students to persist when their parents have done everything in their power to deter them.
It is little wonder that Americans have such a stake in their universities, that even in the best of times they place their highest hopes in a university rather than in a high school because it is there that they expect independent minds to flourish and inquisition into the unknown to take place; it is there that they expect to find readily available to them those who have done much and thought much about what they have done and can speak to them clearly of their experiences. Perhaps that is why, as a musician in a university, I am especially aware of being a musician. To my students I must be above all a practicing and thinking musician who has first hand knowledge of what I teach. Only then can I expect to teach effectively. They must understand that, when class is over, I leave to return to the pursuit of that art which I would have them pursue even as I do.
We are not aloof; nor are our universities monasteries from which we rarely set forth. Indeed, the truly accomplished artists and musicians among us are too absorbed in what they are doing to be acutely self-conscious and so are scarcely distinguishable in a crowd from anyone else. They are aware, furthermore, of the symbiotic relationship which prevails between them and those who are dependent on them for their expertise and, especially where artists are concerned, for their sometimes disturbing visions. Our students, their families, all who support the system which helps to nourish us in return for our nourishing them, are individuals all, many good, some evil, most, of course, in between, and do not exist for the principal purpose of enabling us to ply our trade in protected isolation. While leisure we may need, not to speak of uninterrupted time free from distraction, we are now, as we ever have been, functioning members of a living community of human beings. To the extent that it too is a community, though of scholars and artists, students and faculty, administrators and directors, within a larger community, each organ contributing to the healthy functioning of the whole, subject nevertheless to disease, even death, the American university thrives and, like other organisms, will survive so long as it is able to adapt while continuing to identify, illuminate, and adhere to timeless principles.
If my prognosis is optimistic, I am not unaware of the dangers that threaten the well-being of this organism. Having lived through one social, economic and intellectual crisis after another, all of which reflected upheavals experienced by the larger world from which there could be no escape, I can attest both to the vulnerability of the American university as well as to its durability. The greater danger, I believe, is from within, not just from students or administrators, whose threats are easily detected and temporary, if recurrent, but from the faculty. For all their declarations of solidarity with those of lesser circumstances, there are those among us who, perhaps because European society still remains a powerful attraction (as did the monarchy to some Americans even after the Revolution), yearn to be identified with an elite social class admired for its enlightened views, envied for its accomplishments, separate yet protected, provided for with little or only modest consideration for any services rendered, deeply desirous that whatever it says or does will be carefully attended to, and able to influence the course of great events. To their regret they rarely acquire anything more than a sense of comic alienation as they become ever more self-conscious, reinforced in their positions by discourse with like minded colleagues, and unchallenged by dissenting views. To some degree they do constitute a kind of class, within which they, however, become increasingly trapped.
There is, I suppose, an elite of sorts, men and women of exemplary character and superior attainments, but it does not follow that they constitute either a distinct social class or that many of those whom I have described would qualify for membership in it. If we are artists, we have been called to do that by which we are identifiable as artists. To no lesser degree has the master carpenter been summoned to do that by which we recognize him as being a carpenter. However we may compare on an absolute scale the work of the carpenter with the work of the artist, we shall all individually be judged ultimately only on how well we have responded to what we have been called to do, not by our pretensions to membership in one or another social caste.
This is not to say that class distinctions in the United States are not widespread; far from it. They are not, however, hereditary or dependent on one's father's trade or on decisions made before maturity; they are, in fact, extremely fluid and subject to rapid and sudden changes especially when based on power and wealth and are indeed not class distinctions so much as categories of status which may vary widely even among members of the same family. The realization how readily power and wealth may dissolve emboldens most Americans to regard all such distinctions rather lightly even while they themselves covet them. Those who pretend to membership in an intellectual class are generally viewed as pompous and self-aggrandizing and are liable to ridicule.
There are, nevertheless, some distinctions which are earned and others which pertain to the position of responsibility which one may hold, though not necessarily to the person holding it. Both can be useful. The office of the president is held in high esteem by almost all Americans, but not always the man elected to it. In the university students almost instinctively grant their instructors respect unless it becomes clear that they are unworthy of it. In the student-teacher relationship I believe this deference is beneficial to both parties, and its absence can be a barrier to learning. It is incumbent on the teacher, to say the least, to prove that he has earned that respect and not to jeopardize it in any way.
Having judged, it seemed, after many hours of conversation with me that I qualified for membership in an intellectual class, you were noticeably upset, I am afraid, when I declared that I seldom found conversations with intellectuals stimulating and therefore have never done anything to encourage them. What I have found stimulating, however, is teaching eager students because by teaching I am often compelled to rethink what I thought I knew or to examine for the first time what I had not previously noticed. Casual conversation with intelligent and sensitive listeners or accomplished amateur musicians I often find stimulating if only because they frequently do not share, much less understand, my assumptions. If I want to know what intellectuals are thinking, I can more efficiently read what they have written in the journals published for that purpose and, if I grow impatient with what they have written, silence them by turning the page. The work of other contemporary composers I certainly find interesting, though rarely stimulating, because I am curious, but it is what they have composed, not what they have said, that I find pertinent. What is most stimulating of all, of course, is dealing directly with the materials of composition whether by composing, practicing, or by studying the scores of those whose work I admire.
In revealing these preferences I believe that I am speaking not only of myself but of the greater number of my productive colleagues, who tend to be solitary in their habits, much as were the frontiersmen, who built their farmhouses and ranches at considerable distances from each other. Unlike many of your European colleagues, who seem to require the support they can find in small gatherings of likeminded individuals and who can usually find it within an hour or two of travel time, Americans like me are aware that it was action, not talk, which settled the New World and that by itself talk never made anything better; indeed, it is often an excuse not to get down to the business at hand, which is creation, recreation, or study.
Of those whom I have included within the community of musicians found in the American university I have until now said almost nothing about those whose activities determine in large measure the education of the American child. The record achieved by these "music educators" is astounding both for their successes and for their failures. Among their students, as you might expect, are both the best and the worst, but, as you will probably agree, the damage inflicted by a weak student who enters the primary or secondary school system to teach is greater and more lasting than that inflicted by any other kind of musician unless they are perhaps teachers of voice, violin, piano and the like. If it seems that the musical experience of the children attending one school system is rich but in another almost non-existent, you must understand that educational policy in the United States is not determined by the central government but is left to the individual states and to the cities, towns or other regions within them, a method that can partly explain not only some of the failures of music education in this country but also some of its successes. Even so, the best policies can be thwarted by incompetent teachers while the initiative, imagination and determination of outstanding teachers can help to overcome the worst.
Not least among the factors influencing the quality of primary and secondary education in this country and over which music educators have little control is the attitude toward the arts expressed by those who determine educational policy and who, more often than not, reflect the prevailing attitudes of their constituents. Although the cultivation and enjoyment of music as a humanistic art for its own sake was certainly known in colonial America particularly among such groups as the Germans and the Moravians, music to a people preoccupied with clearing the land and building industrial empires has functioned as little more than an accompaniment to its daily activities, though sometimes a vital one, or as the subject of a brief entertaining diversion. Of the many roles which music plays, as a high art requiring a period of extended study for its practice, it has only in more recent times been regarded seriously in this country. A number of reasons can be advanced to account for this development such as the increase in leisure time and discretionary funds for greater numbers of people and the easy availability of music on records and radio but also to the effectiveness of those music appreciation courses which I mentioned earlier. Americans nonetheless still like to think of themselves in varying degrees as clearers of the land and empire builders and so often regard music as necessary only so long as it remains ornamental or can be interpreted as a reflection of their success and does not interfere with the teaching of subjects considered essential to the continuance of commerce and industry.
But if we have been able to measure progress in the teaching of music in our school systems by a geometric progression since the end of the Second World War, we can expect continued progress but probably at a much slower rate. In order for any progress to be maintained, however, it will be necessary to continue that close relationship which has existed between the music education faculties of the universities and the school systems which they supply with both teachers and expertise and to insure that music education faculties never be allowed to exist apart from those of the other music disciplines. Only with such co-existence can we hope for the cross fertilization that we are now enjoying, if sometimes with interruptions, or hope to draw composers and scholars in particular into an awareness of a wider constituency while they share their unique experiences with their teacher training colleagues, the future teachers themselves, and, last but not least, those undergraduates who will eventually assume the responsibility of determining the educational policies that affect all of us whether we approve of them or not.
What I think may be most disconcerting to a European like you visiting us for the first time is that, besides having probably received a limited and distorted image of us by watching American movies and television, observing American tourists, or discussing us with other Europeans, so much looks strikingly the same here as in Europe yet is curiously different. While we acknowledge without embarrassment or self-consciousness any longer our European heritage, we also realize not only that is only one part of our heritage but that, like our language, we have also transformed it into something recognizable as our own, as American. A Beethoven symphony played by an American orchestra under an American conductor may betray a remarkably American approach to this universal, very contemporary music. While granting the validity of a number of interpretations, both European and American, of such a symphony, I must also confess that many European interpreters fail in the understanding of their own music while some Americans reveal great insight into it. Few Germans or Austrians, for example, play French music really well or even seem to care to, and the best performances of Stravinsky's music are apt to be American. There is an irony here which I cannot overlook, and that is that the interpretation of European music created through the generation, of Bart, Stravinsky and Schoenberg may gradually be passing away from Europe itself to the United States and the Orient. At the very least, Europe's contribution will be proportionately less, and that may be judged more and more harshly.
All civilizations have their rises and falls, and, even as I write this, I wonder where in the continuum we Americans belong. I do know, however, that I am, whether consciously or not, contributing to the momentum of this continuum just as you are—you, who are, as you once said, neither German nor English but all of these and more because of the way in which you have integrated what is culturally German and English (and probably a good deal more besides) and transformed it into something singularly your own. What we are doing then, I believe, is characteristic of our time and place, and perhaps these remarks, though addressed to you, will help some future biographer of our time understand better how we saw ourselves.
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A native of New York City, Allen Brings received a Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude from Queens College and a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University, where he was a Mosenthal Fellow and a student of Otto Luening, and a doctorate in theory and composition from Boston University, where he was a teaching fellow and a student of Gardner Read. In 1962 he was a Naumburg Fellow at University, where he studied with Roger Sessions. He has twice served as chairman of the eastern region of the American Society of University Composers and is currently vice-president of Connecticut Composers. His published compositions, which include works for orchestra, band, chorus, a wide variety of chamber ensembles, piano, organ, harpsichord, guitar, and voice, have been recorded for Navona Records, Capstone, Centaur, Grenadilla, Contemporary Record Society, North/South Consonance, Arizona University Recordings, and Vienna Modern Masters. A pianist as well as a composer, Brings has performed extensively both here and abroad especially in programs of music for piano, four-hands, with Genevieve Chinn, with whom he has recorded for Orion, CRI, and Centaur. He is also co-author of A New Approach to Keyboard Harmony, published by W. W. Norton, and has contributed articles to College Music Symposium, College Music Society Newsletter, Contemporary Music Newsletter, Society of Composers Newsletter, New Music Connoisseur, New Oxford Review, ComposerUSA, sounding board, and Adoremus Bulletin. He is Professor Emeritus of Music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College of the City University of New York, where he was co-ordinator of the theory and ear training program, and is a director of the Weston Music Center and School of the Performing Arts in Weston Connecticut, where he teaches piano and theory.