Preserving Musical Cultures - Contemplations and Confessions
Published online: 1 October 1999
Example 1. Beethoven, Piano sonata op. 110
I want to talk to you about some musicians, scholars, and teachers who have inspired me, and who have been among my hero figures for many years. They are individuals who have done a great deal to preserve their musical cultures for their people—for all people—often with great difficulty and with great sacrifice.
My attention was recently drawn to an article in College Music Symposium by Richard Franko Goldman, published in 1976. It's an eloquent plea in behalf of the courage to be judgmental; of understanding that art at its best represents and synthesizes what is best in human thought and civilization; of acknowledging what is great, making it the foundation of our educational system, teaching it, and preserving it. Goldman's principal premise is: "Western music, of the period from about 1600 to about 1900, represents one of the greatest achievements of human genius; and ... is more important than any other manifestation of musical art in any other time or place." He concludes, "What is incumbent upon us all as teachers is to see that this ideal concept of art and civilization does not disappear, and that we pass on to our children something beyond information, perhaps even some ideas of order and harmony and perfection as exemplified in music—ideas on which our children, in turn, may at least hope to build."
I would certainly be inclined to agree with Goldman's appraisal of the Viennese classicists. Similarly, he shares with ethnomusicologists a conviction that the values of a society can be comprehended through its music—indeed, that music may also create the values. But these words also seem calculated to annoy ethnomusicologists, or musicologists of all stripes. It's true that proponents of classical music have always thought that their music was an endangered species, holding aloft their pots of boiling oil to throw at the barbarians, drawing the wagons into a circle to protect and preserve a body of music that is in jeopardy of disappearing. And they have a point; but I suggest that it is not only the European classical tradition that needs to be preserved, but also all musical traditions everywhere. As educators, we have been eager to understand the world of music as it unfolds in our lifetime, searching for new ways to comprehend and interpret the events rushing by us. We are also—all of us—in a profession that has made a commitment to preservation. Indeed, the idea of cultural preservation is a component of the concept of education.
And so, we are in debt to those who remind us to hold on to the European classical tradition; but, turning to my main theme, we are also in debt to many others who have helped us to avoid adopting a mind-set that would permit us to extol as worthy of attention only one style, possibly only three composers, maybe even just one, or in the end only one piece. The maintenance of the world's many-splendored musical culture often depends on people who act heroically—and yes, judgmentally—risking reputations, fortunes, even life, doing the extraordinarily difficult to preserve their culture and their music for their society or for the world, affecting our musical lives and attitudes. Let me now talk about some of these individuals whom I personally have found particularly inspiring.
The first one is a figure you've all heard about, but perhaps you haven't heard him sing, and so I'll play you first a bit from an Edison cylinder made in 1911.
Example 2. Song sung by Ishi, recorded 1911
lt's music sung by Ishi, the last survivor of a California tribe called the Yahi. It sounds very simple to us, but to Yahi society, songs like this were what united people and tied them to spiritual and natural forces. From 1848 on, the Yahi were attacked by white people trying to take over the territory of California with its grand natural resources. They went into seclusion for decades and—on the run—exprienced the destruction of their culture and social system and population, until about 1910 there was only one family left. A year later there was only one person, who was discovered by whites, befriended by anthropologists, and given the name Ishi, which meant "man" in his language. Ishi was the only person in the world who remembered from his youth the cultural traditions of his tribe, including its songs. After he began to work with white anthropologists at the University of California, he expended what must have been enormous effort to learn a bit of English and then to teach—by explanation and demonstration—how the Yahi people had lived in his youth, when there were still enough of them to maintain a language, myths, songs, ceremonies, rules for social behavior, ways of hunting and cooking, and all the other things that make a human culture. His determination to hold on to his people's traditions must have been a lonely quest, but it was of great importance to him.
Ishi died in 1916, but I came upon the recordings of his songs in an archive in Berkeley and had the good fortune to try to figure them out. To us, they seem maybe not very interesting, and we may be tempted to say, "well, it's just like the music of dozens of tribes of Native Americans in California," but to Ishi's people, these songs were part of the staff of life. It must have been months or years since he had heard anyone sing these songs in their traditional context, and perhaps he had only rarely heard them at all, living as he had with just a few people. But the size of his repertory, its consistent style, the logical structure of the songs—individually and as a group—all suggest that these songs were very important to Ishi, and that he worked hard to save them in his memory and to present them, eventually, to his white collaborators in order to preserve them for the world. I developed great admiration for this man whose people had been exterminated, but who nevertheless held on—through memory, without paper or technology—to their culture, and who was also sufficiently forgiving to pass them on to his white associates. Ishi was an heroic, inspiring figure, certainly, to me, and to many Native Americans decades later. The Native American composer Louis Ballard celebrated him in a cantata titled "The Last Civilized Man."
Well, although Ishi stayed alive and preserved his songs in his mind so they could live, other groups of Native Americans were annihilated for singing their songs; I believe this is a way of interpreting the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, whose story you all know. These Lakota and Arapaho people were murdered, most specifically, for carrying out the Ghost Dance ceremony, whose central component was the songs—songs which, on account of their simple form and tonal arrangement, were interpreted by some Plains people as recalling a mythic early period which ought to be brought back or at least retained in memory. After Wounded Knee, the ceremony and its songs were prohibited, and the repertory was retained in the memory of a few people at a certain risk. It's hard to see how songs like this one could have been regarded as a threat by the U.S. Army.
Example 3. Arapaho Ghost Dance song
When Ishi was living his last years as an isolated tribesman—before 1910—Bela Bartok was beginning to discover the wealth of Hungarian folk song. For so long, Bartok has been a towering figure in the world of 20th-century Western art music, and also a figure of great influence in the development of ethnomusicology. It's hard to think of him as a person who had to take heroic measures to accomplish certain things he set out to do. But when I started out to learn something about ethnomusicology, just fifty years ago, my teacher, Dr. Herzog, insisted that one first had to learn to transcribe. He showed me a manuscript transcription by Bartok of a song I was trying to render. You've perhaps seen Bartok's transcriptions: the enormous care he took to get rhythm, scale, and particularly ornamentation and singing style down on paper. Each page of transcription must have taken hours. He transcribed in the field directly from the performance, and later from recordings he had made. When Dr. Herzog told me that Bartok had collected and transcribed several thousand songs—not only Hungarian songs, but later also Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Bulgarian songs, and more—I could only say, "wow," and decided to be inspired, but probably not to emulate. Bartok was determined to preserve this music, seeing each repertory as the true expression of its people. The article about him in the New Grove devotes less than 5 percent to his research, but Dr. Herzog told me that he systematically devoted half of his time to it, sacrificing energy that might have made him even more respected as a composer and performer, so that this heritage of his people, and of their neighbors, wouldn't be lost.
Example 4. Hungarian folk song recorded by Bela Bartok
We now think of Bartok's notions of folkloric authenticity as perhaps even wrongheaded, since a certain intolerance motivated him to privilege what he considered to be genuine—avoiding urban, popular, foreign, or songs of Gypsy origin. His attempts at classification and historical reconstruction now seem a bit zany. But this was a man who, it seems to me, nearly sacrificed his life by staying on in Hungary to finish research projects until it was almost too late. Then, in the only partially hospitable atmosphere of the USA, he virtually worked himself to death. Much of this work was for the preservation of culture the way he felt it should be preserved, with emphasis on authenticity, on comprehensiveness—a comprehensive account of all songs, a comprehensive transcription of everything that went into a song.
Today, in Hungary and in the USA, Bartok's recordings and writings are being resurrected, re-edited, though perhaps more as works of reverence than for practical use by scholars. But I want to remind us today of the sheer heroic quantity of work that they represent, of the struggles necessary to preserve this music for its own peoples and for the world. Bartok, of course, also found other ways of preserving the style and spirit of Hungarian folk music.
Example 5. Bela Bartok, "Contrasts" for violin, clarinet, and piano
Hardly anyone in the field of music hasn't heard of Bartok, but there are also other collectors and preservers of folk music, far less well known, whose work and whose personal history serve as inspiration. Only recently did I hear about the work and life of Harry Brauner, a Romanian scholar. (I am grateful for this information from correspondence with and an unpublished article by Marin Marian-Balasa, the director of the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest.) Born in 1908, and a disciple of the distinguished ethnomusicologist Constantin Brailoiu, Harry Brauner spent his life in Romania, collecting and recording folk music, recording over 3000 songs. He tried to avoid some of the interethnic and political struggles that spilled over into folkloristics, for example, by defending the value of Gypsy folk music, and by encouraging the preservation of traditions by tolerating and recognizing change. Brauner became a victim of the murderous political movements of the twentieth century even though Romania was off the beaten track. In 1940, racial laws deprived him of his academic position, and he taught for some years in a Jewish high school, staying out of sight, while his research institute was dismantled. After the war, hoping to recover lost ground, Brauner spent three years as head of a movement for establishing folklore research, but found himself allied with the wrong faction of the party. Unwilling to turn his back on friends, he went to jail for fifteen years. Rehabilitated in 1960, he nevertheless remained an outsider whose participation in his research institute could only be unofficial. Yet, he raised his voice frequently in opposition to the domination of ethnomusicological research by political forces, and against unrealistic attitudes of "those obsessed with the need to identify archaic forms and to equating authenticity and archaism." In the period 1960 to 1980, Brauner's ideas—his scholarly conviction that folklore was always significantly transforming itself; his interest in protecting the intellectual property of musicians from folk communities; and his opposition to the mutilation of folk music for urban consumption—did not endear him to government and party and kept him in insignificant positions and at home.
I have no music recorded by Brauner to illustrate but want to punctuate this bit of information with a Romanian song recorded by his teacher Brailoiu.
There are many who kept the faith through the Nazi and communist eras, but I was moved by reading this story and wanted to share it. Much better known are the accounts of musicologists who were forced, or obliged, to leave Germany, Austria, and other countries that came under the Nazi machine, and who emigrated to North America, England, Sweden, and many other countries. Their stories aren't part of my remarks here, but I actually came up with a list of 146, and they deserve mention. Trained mainly as scholars committed to preserving the great music of Central Europe, the music for whose security Richard Franko Goldman feared, many of them came to strange shores where they established themselves with difficulty, if at all, sometimes no doubt swallowing hard to take up roles as preservers of the culture which had driven them out as undesirables and subhumans.
But to move to a different time and another part of the world: a special inspiration to me, among people who have worked to preserve their cultural traditions against enormous odds, has been a great musician with whom I had the good fortune of studying the music of Iran. His name was Nour-Ali Boroumand, and he was always called Doctor Boroumand because he had once studied medicine in Europe. He had to abandon his studies, however, because he went blind, after which he devoted himself to the study and preservation of the music of his nation. Before telling you more about him, let's hear a bit of his playing.
Example 7. Persian music: Nour-Ali Boroumand playing a chahar-mezrab in Mahour on the setar
Now, if you're new to Persian music, I must burden you with a few technicalities. The most important Persian music is improvised, but people don't play just anything that comes into their heads. What they play or sing must conform to rules—just as jazz improvisation has to sound, well, like jazz, and maybe use as points of departure some chord changes or well-known songs such as "My Favorite Things." To maintain an improvisatory system, musicians in Iran over 100 years ago created a repertory of pieces, some 300, to be memorized and to be used as the basis of musical performance—of improvisation and also for composed pieces. It was music that wasn't notated until much later. It existed only in oral tradition, and had to be memorized very precisely. Together these 300 pieces are called the radif, and they sound like this:
Example 8. Persian music: Excerpts from the Radif, Daramad of Chahargah
Well, in Iran about 1930, the age of musical globalization began. Musicians started to perform Western music, and to combine Persian, Western, Arabic, and other styles, and to play anything that came into their heads. While that's all fine for creativity, it surely didn't help the old tradition to remain intact. After returning from his European study and trying to adjust to an existence as a blind man, Boroumand took up the study of the radif with distinguished masters and memorized it carefully—all 8 or 10 hours of it—and preserved it in his mind, practicing parts of it every day—making him, perhaps, the only musician who had control of it.
Even so, when I came to Iran in 1966 and chanced to meet him, he was considered by most musicians as a kind of old fogy who would stand in the way of change if he could. Dr. Boroumand was not a tolerant man. He insisted that there was only one truly correct radif and one way to render it. He had little patience with musicians who engaged in lighter forms of classical or popular music. He was famous for having kicked a promising singer out of his studio because he had begun to sing in night clubs while pursuing his classical music studies. The single-minded preservation of the radif was to him a patriotic act. He told me, many times, that he regarded the creation of the radif as one of the world's great artistic achievements, in language not unlike that of Richard Franko Goldman. He insisted on the uniqueness of Persian music not because of its overwhelming complexity—he knew about symphonies and operas—but because of its comprehensive aesthetic, its ability to render the gamut of emotions better than any other music. He knew that the Shah's ministries wished to eradicate this old music—some called it camel music—and replace it with European symphonies and operas; and at this same time, some of the clerical opponents of the regime wished to cleanse culture of its musical domain.
When in the 1960s a few Iranian educators wanted to offer their own classical music in the university, they turned to Dr. Boroumand to teach it. He told me that he had done this with some reluctance, because students would want to learn this tradition quickly, while it was supposed to be learned slowly—a subject of contemplation. He thought that they would try to write it down in notation—since he couldn't see them—and that this would violate the principles of the tradition. He worried that they would emphasize the notion of technical virtuosity, or musical razzle-dazzle, and that instead of improvising on the radif they would simply memorize it and play it in public. With sustained patience, he taught his class at the University of Tehran. And so today, in Iran and among Iranians living abroad, it's again a vigorous and living tradition—his students among the leading artists. Devoting himself almost single-handedly to maintaining and then reviving the tradition, he did much for his people.
Example 9. Persian music: Improvisation based on Dastgah Mahour
If the world were full of Boroumands, they would not be heroes, and music would stand still. But if there were not a few of them, we would lose the accomplishments of the past. We're living in a time in which music teaching, music scholarship, and musicianship of all sorts seek constantly for innovation. And I'm thinking of everything from the "new standards" in music education to the introduction of high-tech methods in composition to the developments of interculturally based developments such as world beat—everything from interpretive new musicology to computer-based theory research to fundamental changes in the concept of fieldwork in ethnomusicology. We're concentrating on educational, scholarly, artistic innovation, and we should. But we would be remiss if we did not use a bit of our energy to hold on to the cultural traditions of the past. And so today, I want to celebrate people like Dr. Boroumand. His persistence paid off.
As I've just suggested, the debate about the value of the unchanging tradition is not confined to the so-called Western nations. For other classical traditions, too, one hears that if knowing, listening, respecting, and understanding are not part of the experience of everyone—or of many—then the music and its tradition will disappear, perhaps to exist only in archives and as historical artifact. I heard the same thing from the secretary of the revered Music Academy in Madras, a man who despised the changes that had come about in Carnatic music—the introduction of strange Western instruments, the excessive attention to razzle-dazzle virtuosity, and the influence of Western and North Indian notions. "There is no room for change in Carnatic music," he thundered to me when he found that this change was what I wanted to investigate. Evidently, certain Asian musicians didn't always look to the coming of Western art music as an unmitigated good. Knowing a bit about the way music was changing in Madras, I mentally ridiculed the aged Tamil music scholar for not appreciating much that was being done in the way of innovation by many distinguished musicians. Still, it is important to recognize the contributions of those who worked to preserve musical traditions. They helped to maintain the continuity that together with change gives culture its character of consistency.
Example 10. Carnatic music: Excerpt from a kriti (song), performed by S. Ramanathan
The continuity of culture: I want now to mention another artist who has been an inspiration to me, although I can hardly claim to have expertise in the area in which she became famous. It is Wanda Landowska, a heroine in preserving the musical tradition of what seemed in her day to be the distant past, by bringing it back to the present. Although she did more than anyone else to reintroduce the harpsichord into the 20th-century soundscape, Landowska seems to me barely remembered today in the context of the vigorous early-music movements that have become established since 1950. As with Bartok, Brauner, and Boroumand, the word "authenticity" rings out. She was determined to perform and to promulgate Bach and other Baroque music authentically. Throughout her life, however, while widely respected, she was also the object of ridicule—not only by those who considered her attitudes as hopelessly reactionary, but also by various more radical and advanced schools of early music performance. Active mainly during the first half of this century, she saw Baroque music as something quite in the distant past; today, paradoxically, we have a longer view—in which the distant past is three or four centuries before Bach.
Landowska seemed often to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, finding herself: detained in Berlin as an enemy alien during World War I, forced to flee Paris on account of the oncoming Holocaust in 1940, (having to abandon her comprehensive collection of instruments, a library of 10,000 books, and the Ecole de Musique Ancienne which she had founded), fleeing to the Pyrenees, to Switzerland, and then turning up in this country in 1941. Here she had her adoring fans, but she also had a lot of critical opposition from those who thought that the harpsichord's sound was sterile and bloodless for Bach, and that it should be relegated to a role of historical curiosity. Landowska often wrote in defense of her chosen instrument with aggresive vehemence, fighting hard for her position.
I did have the honor of meeting Landowska—whom my parents knew slightly—when I was about 14, in Princeton. She was not feeling well, and my mother asked me to deliver a pot of hot chicken soup to her hotel. I was warned that she was an eccentric old lady, going so far as sleeping on black sheets when she was in certain moods. She spoke with me enthusiastically about my rehearsals with a dance band and encouraged me to try the saxophone—which I never did. Nor did I ever get to see if the story of the black sheets was true.
Landowska never had an easy time of it: a career as a Jewish artist in pre-World-War-I Europe, a female musician early in this century, defender of an old-fashioned instrument and a virtually forgotten musical tradition. But would we have developed our 20th-century harpsichord culture without her contribution? Well, of course; or maybe not? In my family, she has always been one of the heroic figures of 20th-century music.
Example 11. Bach, Aria from "Goldberg Variations" performed by Wanda Landowska
As you, I'm sure, have noted, the individuals who play these significant roles in preserving their musical culture all come out of the sad events in which the 20th century specialized—events for which the term "ethnic cleansing" comes to mind. We have seen it everywhere, and we look back at it in our own history with horror. Naturally, the victims usually took their music with them into obscurity. But I guess if I have an argument to present to you, it is in behalf of freedom—freedom for creating and innovating, of course, but also freedom for maintaining and preserving musical traditions. These traditions may indeed be eliminated because of cultural and ethnic and religious intolerance, because of excessive emphasis on innovation and on keeping up to date, and because their carriers have been wiped out. While I would like always to celebrate the new, today I have tried to celebrate those who brought back and preserved.
It won't surprise you, then, that my final heroic inspirations concern the survival of music in the ultimate paradigm of ethnic cleansing. You have all read, I am sure, about the ways in which artists, writers, poets, and musicians tried to maintain their cultural heritage in the concentration camps and death camps of the Nazi Holocaust. They used their cultural heritage to sustain themselves until the last moment. The best-known stories come from a camp in a town called Theresienstadt—or Terezin, in Czech—a few miles outside Prague in the Czech Republic, a camp to which thousands of Jews—and also a good many others from the Czech lands—were taken to stay for weeks or months or even years before they were shipped off to death camps. Many of them were artists and musicians, and I want to mention particularly four composers who had been well known before their deportation: Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, and Victor Ullmann. While in Terezin, under unbelievably difficult conditions, they provided leadership for a musical culture, which helped the inmates to sustain their spirits. They continued composing and performing, perhaps on broken down pianos and violins strung with ordinary wire. Then, all on the same day, October 16, 1944, all four were put on a train of cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz, and as far as is known, they were murdered two days later. But while in Terezin, they were determined to avoid acting like the starved animals that the Nazis wished to make of them. They behaved, instead, like civilized musicians, bearers of the great Central European musical tradition, continuing to compose in the styles of Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Kurt Weill.
One of their accomplishments was the production of "Brundibar" by Hans Krasa, an opera to be performed by children—to give them some kind of life and some hope. It's about two poor kids with a sick mother who needs milk. They try to make a bit of money by singing on a street corner, but they are chased away by the villain Brundibar, the adult organ grinder, who thinks it's his turf, and who steals their money. With the help of a dog, a cat, a sparrow, and a lot of other kids, they win out over him. Brundibar is obviously a dictatorial figure, but I guess the Nazi guards weren't quick enough to pick up on the analogy of this evil organ grinder and Adolf Hitler. Here's a short excerpt.
Example 12. "Brundibar" by Hans Krasa; excerpt
Krasa produced "Brundibar" to preserve those kids; alas, only the eight-year-old boy who sang the role of the Sparrow, Raphael Sommer, survived, and is now a well-known cellist in England. But preserving culture, values, and principles that could be manifested in music, this too was somehow accomplished. And so, the end of my story is the last completed work by the leading composer of the Terezin group, Victor Ullmann, the pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. It's his seventh piano sonata, written just two months before he was taken away. Ullmann knew what his end would be, and caustically noted on p. 1 that "the rights to performance reside with the composer as long as he is alive."
In the last movement of this last work, Ullmann presents an object lesson for future musicians, as it extols the great classical tradition with reference to forbidden musical symbols. Based on a vernacular song of early twentieth-century Zionists, it's a fugue—the form paradigmatic of German art music at its intellectual best—with reference, in case any Nazis were listening, to the motif B-flat-A-C-B, Bach's musical signature. One hears the second part of the Czechoslovak national anthem, forbidden under Nazi occupation; one also hears the hymn sung by the followers of the martyred Czech reformer Jan Hus—music forbidden after 1422, but a theme used by Czech musical freedom fighters from Smetana to Karel Husa; and then one hears the chorale, "Now Thank We All Our God". I'll play an excerpt.
Example 13. Viktor Ullmann, Piano Sonata no. 7, last mvt.
Ullmann knew that his end was near, and he gave precise directions as to what was to be done with his manuscripts, thus reminding those who might survive of the music that was there to be maintained—the great tradition begun by Bach, yes, but certainly also the traditions of minorities on the world's stage. For Ullmann these might have been Slovaks, Jews, and Czechs, but to others, they might be Africans, Native Americans, and Southeast Asians.
They are sad stories, the stories of Ishi and Hans Krasa and Harry Brauner and the Ghost Dancers of Wounded Knee. Sad too, if less dramatically so, are the experiences of the likes of Wanda Landowska, Nour-Ali Boroumand, and even Bela Bartok. For us today, having observed both the ethnic cleansing and the musical prohibitions of the twentieth century, the lesson should be obvious—to preserve and to pass on to our children the work of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, yes; but also to make certain as well as we can that the musical work of all other periods and places and societies also remains in our arsenal of musical resources.
Last modified on Thursday, 12/12/2013
Bruno Nettl was born in Prague, immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1939, received his PhD at Indiana University, and spent most of his career teaching ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois, where he is now professor emeritus of music and anthropology. His field experience has been with Native American people, in Iran, and in India. Best-known books are Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (1995), The Study of Ethnomusicology (rev. ed. 2005); and Nettl's Elephant: On the History of Ethnomusicology (2010). Most recently, Becoming an Ethnomusicologist: A Miscellany of Influences was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013. He has served as president of the Society for Ethnomusicology and as editor of its journal, Ethnomusicology. Since 1990, he has held visiting professorships as Harvard University, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Syracuse U., U. of Washington, and other institutions. In 2012 he was named Charles Homer Hoskins Lecturer for 2012 by the American Council of Learned Societies and the first recipient of the Tai Ji Traditional Music Award (scholarship category), by the China Conservatory, Beijing.