A recent article in the Wall St. Journal reported on the awarding of a $400,000.00 grant from the Mellon Foundation to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Normally this would be cause for celebration: 6 figure grants for performing arts organizations are significant and not easy to win. Orpheus, besides being a top-flight ensemble, seems almost like a bit of a Cinderella story, especially today: formed in the 1970’s by a group of musicians who worked together from the start, building a sustainable organization and driven by their mission, they’ve become world renowned and an important institution in New York City. Yes, a $400,000.00 grant is nothing to sneeze at. The reason for this grant, however, may be cause for cautious optimism at best–and active worry at worst. A significant reason for the awarding of this grant is to hire more minorities–especially, at least ostensibly, latino and black musicians. The article quotes the League of American Orchestras figure which estimates that a mere 5% of orchestral musicians in the United States are of hispanic or black descent. A grant designed to address this problem seems, at first glance, to be a boon to those it may help. After all, bringing attention to the problem is the first step in rectifying it; taking steps to fix it is a logical second step. Unfortunately this sort of thing throws into sharp relief the problems behind the problem–many of which are not addressed at all. Perhaps the first issue is the lack of classical music in the ‘black’ and ‘latino’ communities. It was more than a century ago that one of the musical giants of the Romantic, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visited the United States. During the four years he lived and worked here he taught, traveled and composed, among other things, his 9th Symphony, the ‘New World,’ which is regarded as one of his finest works (and certainly one of his most popular.) Dvorak also became familiar with the music of Native Americans and freed slaves–the so-called Negro Spirituals. His enthusiasm for this music was genuine, and he advised the American musical community to take advantage of this bounty and incorporate it into the American musical language. No less a person than Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most accomplished and admired classical musician that the United States has ever produced, also argued this point with great fervor, going so far to say in his senior thesis at Harvard, that “(To sum up, then:) American music owes one of its greatest debts to the Negroes, not only for the popularly acknowledged gift of jazz, but for the impetus which jazz has given to America’s art music. This incentive has come in two ways—melodically and rhythmically—with further support from tone color and contrapuntal feeling. Both the scale patterns and the rhythm patterns, as first manifested in jazz itself, were used freely in symphonic composition by men like Gershwin. With more advanced composers or with composers in a more advanced state [i.e., Sessions and Copland after 1929], this initial use—especially of the rhythms—has grown into a new style, which might be called the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music.” While the particular merits of each argument may be debated in social and scholarly circles, the positions of both men are clear. Yet more than a century after Dvorak’s proclamation and three quarters of a century after Bernstein penned his thesis, the idea of a National Musical language influenced by indigenous and minority cultural experience largely remains an historical footnote. Classical music, unfortunately, remains a prisoner of stereotypes: that it is ivory tower music, elitist, snobby, inaccessible, and perhaps most unfortunately, that it is exclusively white. Blame is ample on both ‘sides’ of the problem: orchestras tend to cater to ‘traditional’ audiences, in traditional (and ‘safe’) venues, waiting for the willing to come to them. Non-traditional communities are ignored, but often don’t take initiative: disadvantaged youth, particularly those ‘of color,’ are not encouraged to listen to Beethoven and Brahms, not introduced to the instruments of the orchestra, and, simply, rarely, if ever, told that they could be a violinist (or pianist, or oboist, or composer) if they wished. It is a poor message to send, and perhaps the cornerstone of the issue. It is interesting to note the presence of high-budget orchestras in cities which have large black and hispanic communities. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has a budget of nearly $100m, a black population of 9.6% and an hispanic population of 48.5%. Boston, whose famed Symphony comes in 2nd with a budget of $89m, includes populations which are 24% black and 17% hispanic. Orchestras in such cities with large minority populations as Baltimore (no. 15) St. Louis (no. 16) and Detroit (no. 17) are outside of the top 10 in budget size but, with budgets over $20m a season, still have plenty of resources. Orchestra administrators across the country often cite a desire to be more ‘representative (on stage) of the communities in which we play’; but when orchestras in these major cities include minority members whose numbers account for just 5% of membership, one may wonder how great that desire truly is. A second problem is that of the attempts at ‘solutions’ that have cropped up here and there in recent years. From the Sphinx competition to orchestral fellowship programs designed exclusively for ‘musicians of color’ to ensembles comprised of minority musicians, there have been some well recognized ‘innovations’ over the last decade or two. But oh, what problems they come with! A competition designed exclusively for a single demographic immediately attaches a qualification to its competitors–not to mention its winner. Thus the career of a ‘brilliant young violinist’ becomes the career of a ‘talented young black/latina’ violinist.’ Descriptive adjectives and personal pride in ones heritage aside, that sort of qualification can do as much harm as good, if not more. Instead of anticipation building ahead of a performance because the soloist is known for, say, an especially luxurious legato tone or a special way with Brahms, he or she becomes known simply as ‘the winner of this particular competition.’ In short, a musician–a complex human being!–becomes an other, possibly even a curiosity. Fellowships for minority musicians are helpful, but I wonder how they can help but being seen as a sort of affirmative action program. Music is hard enough: getting just the right colors in Debussy, the depth and subtlety of emotion in Brahms and the right articulation and tempi in Bach, for example, are challenges that require the most intense attention to detail. To be scrutinized for those details is difficult enough, particularly in an audition, but to have additional scrutiny because one is seen as the ‘other’ fellow–well, that is another thing entirely. And lastly–the idea of an ‘all ethnic’ ensemble is perhaps the ultimate double edged sword. It certainly runs the risk of reinforcing or affirming the convictions of those who may think that ‘people of color’ have little to no place in a professional symphony orchestra–that it is not ‘their’ music. Orchestras such as the ‘Soulful Symphony,’ performing gospel versions of Handel, could be seen as apologizing for (or even misunderstanding) classical music. Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is that music is designed to break down barriers, not to reinforce them. Beethoven has as much to say to a poor kid in the Bronx as it does to the Wall St. exec or PhD. The kid in the Bronx needs to know that he’s welcome: welcome at the children’s concert, welcome on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, welcome to take up the violin or the trumpet, welcome to love Beethoven and Brahms–and, perhaps some day, welcome to study at Juilliard and take his place in (or in front of) the orchestra, too. And for all the talk of hispanic and black, heritage and identity, that kid also needs to know this: when the music begins, that’s all that matters. What you are is irrelevant; who you are is important. Yes, there have been more outreach programs recently. Certainly the philosophy of ‘El Sistema’ has taken the country by storm, and programs are springing up all over the country. And of course the purpose served by organizations like Sphinx is noble and useful! But there is more to do–much more. And it really isn’t that complicated. So to Orpheus or any other organization out there that is ‘grappling’ with diversity, here is my advice: forget about diversity. Embrace inclusiveness. Do a runout concert in a rough neighborhood. Send your musicians to give free lessons in a failing middle school or high school. Preach the Word According to Beethoven, and let them know that his music is for them, too. And above all, don’t look at someone dark-skinned as an other, a minority, someone different: look at them as a friend, a colleague, a musician, a member of Schiller’s universal brotherhood. Look, listen, and give them a chance. That is worth far more than $400,000.00, and it’ll cost you far less.
Why do we place responsibility in the hands of politicians? Why do we expect that they can (and will) effect change in any positive way? When did the artist–the musician, writer, philosopher, teacher–lose power? When will the citizenry of humanity realize that man does not need to be governed, but rather inspired?
I recently came across a posting which printed a letter written by Oscar Wilde to a fan who found curious the following line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”
True to his witty and sartorial nature, Wilde replied:
My dear Sir
Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.
A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.
It is difficult to know if Wilde was being serious or, per usual, tongue in cheek with the flower analogy. However, if he was indeed being serious, he missed a wonderful chance to elucidate about art. A flower is absolutely useful: it provides a brilliant canvas upon a meadow which serves to attract all manner of life. It also provides pollen which sustains bees and butterflies who, in turn, pollinate other life, keeping nature in perfect working order. And a flower gives off seeds which allow future generations to grow and flourish! Finally, a flower may be unique to a certain environment or locale, ensuring that one may identify his surroundings. And so art is to us: it provides us a canvas upon which to express our experiences in life; it allows us to share ideas with others; it provides life for future generations, and a path for those who may lose their way; and, finally, it is both universal and unique to culture and country, allowing us to identify and empathize. Perhaps it is the so-called industry of mankind, which so often struggles to value art, which is most useless to nature.
Snobbery seems to run rampant in classical music. Classical music has long been seen as a product of those living in ivory towers and often out of touch with the so-called common man; snobbishness seems to be cultivated by those who make this music part of their lives. Yes, both concert-goers and musicians are often practitioners of this affected behavior, often aloof to the real dangers it poses to the art itself. Whether in major concert halls or intimate chamber spaces, the air of refinement in which this music lives and breathes is too often stifled by the attitudes of those who see it only as an elite and mysterious craft.
I will admit that I am not free from this sin (though I’ve made a conscious effort to abstain in recent years.) As a young musician, I was afforded some rare opportunities: I got to play in major concert halls in the USA and Europe; I’d had the chance to tour Europe as an 18 year old; I worked with (and received positive attention from) world-class symphony musicians. Before my 19th birthday I had composed three symphonies, studied all the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, could easily tell the difference between the styles of, say, Haydn and Mozart–things that seemed to impress people, to be sure, and fed my ego. Of course it seemed ‘cool’ to tilt up my nose a bit, to snicker privately at those mere mortals who simply couldn’t understand this incredible world.
But after a while, I started to realize that this snobbery was entirely unimpressive. And then something else hit me: it didn’t make the music better. Yes, it was wonderful, in some ways, to know and understand things that many other people didn’t. However, as I grew older (and grew up!), I began to understand that it was much more fulfilling–not to mention productive–to share this knowledge and passion with others rather to inflict it upon them. I noticed a change–I was able to talk to people about it and share this passion rather than merely show it off. It was a fundamental change, and quite an enjoyable one.
One of the major complaints I hear is about how stuffy the concert hall is. It is often referred to as antiquated, out of touch, a museum. It is often called a 19th Century product (ironic, as it happens, given the atmosphere of joy, excitement and sometimes outright bad behavior of the 19th century concert hall!) But above all, it is seen as a hobby of the elite, with all the trappings of the upper crust–including the stereotypical snobbery. All that is missing, it seems, is a top hat, cane and monocle.
As I’ve evolved from a slightly precocious know-it-all to a (hopefully) more complete musician and man, I’ve begun to reflect on the nature of this attitude and what it means. My conclusion is something of a paradox–but interesting enough, I hope, to share.
Ah, a night at the symphony! Here we have the moneyed, the educated–the elite, in all their evening finery, in all their social splendor and glory. This is their element. And why should it not be? Everyone knows that classical music is only for rich people. Yes, to enjoy it, one must be in the know; it can only appeal to those intellectually gifted and refined enough to understand. Symphonies are complex, after all! The riff raff simply couldn’t comprehend.
In a word…no. In a few more words…no, no, no, and NO! Why oh why has the music world come to this? It wasn’t always so. Opera, emerging in the 17th century, was a social affair for all classes. The poor sat on the floor, the rich above them (okay, so I won’t go into all the details–but hey, at least the lower classes showed up!) Opera was for everyone. In fact, it was a way for music to break free of the authority of the day: that ultimate Institution of Restraint, the Roman Catholic Church. Opera (and, throughout the baroque and rococo, the orchestral and dance suites) gave the masses a chance to hear popular (and bawdy) dance tunes dressed up a bit. Despite the orchestra’s birth as an institution of the royal court, the sonata form, songs and symphonies because forms for the people. By the time the orchestra (and the symphony as a form) entered maturity, finally moving across the pond as the great American orchestras were established, going to the symphony was, for lack of a better term, a thing. That is, a thing to do, rather than the thing to do. Not everyone attended, of course, but middle class families were extremely likely to attend–and it was seen as a measure of success.
Some time around the 1960s or ’70’s, it was decided that classical music should be only for the sophisticated. I’m told that this has something to do with marketing. I can’t imagine Beethoven, for example, seeing his 9th Symphony held in the regard that, if you had to have it explained, it wasn’t for you. The 9th symphony is literally for everyone; its central message is a hope for universal brotherhood.
How does snobbery make it better? This music is exciting! It is living, breathing, timeless, tradition filled but always new! From time to time, I hear a remark from a long time subscriber-type that ‘Well, I don’t like the way the orchestra sounds, so I’d rather stay home and listen to my recordings.’ This is the type of thing that really misses the mark: recordings are great, of course. They are literal records of a certain orchestra, soloist or conductor. Some recordings are truly transcendent. But there are a few things missing. For one thing, you lose out on the sound of the concert hall. No matter how good your recording and playback equipment, you’ll never get the feel and sound of actually being there. For another, you miss out on the social aspect: the thrill of being this close to the musicians, of feeling the energy of the audience, of hearing the music reborn. And recordings are somewhat artificial, especially studio recordings. They’ve been engineered to sound perfect, to be as consistent from start to finish as possible. Knowing a recording is not the same as knowing and loving a work itself; it is only loving the idea of a performance of that work.
And, sadly, some musicians are not exempt from this attitude. I’ve heard musicians say ‘Ah, Beethoven 9…yes, no big deal, I’ve played that a hundred times. I don’t even need to come to rehearsal.’ Beethoven 9 is always a big deal. Being nonchalant about such matters is horrid! It is wonderful to have a frame of reference for a work and experience with it–but none of us can afford to be anything less than completely excited and committed to this music. Ever. Adding snobbery to that is…well…a good way to kill classical music.
So…snobbery: Not good. On the other hand….
Why is snobbery in classical music held to a double standard? In our society, snobbery is worn as some sort of perverse badge of honor. People love being snobs! And they’ll be snobs about some pretty silly things: their phone, the number of friends their dog has at his birthday party, what email provider they use…silly things. But allow me to give two examples that seem outright ridiculous: clothing and food.
Now perhaps it is a sign of evolutionary success that we are able to be snobs about these two basic staples of human existence…but I’m not so sure. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m willing to expound a bit.
Clothing. I’m sorry: fashion. Yes, sartorial splendor. It’s a big deal. Full disclosure: anyone who knows me is aware of this irony, as I’ve been accused of being extremely well dressed. Yes, I enjoy dressing well. And I appreciate fashion as an art form. But as Twain wrote, naked people have little to no influence on society. I’ll ignore the recent spate of celebrity whatever it is and just agree with good old Sam. Clothes are essential to wear. Without them, we’d be arrested…and very cold. And, to be fair, there’d probably be a fair amount of pointing and laughing from time to time. So, clothing is good. But in many ways, we’ve gone too far. Clothes are clothes. They should be well made. They should make us feel good when we are in them. They should reflect a certain respect for decorum for our particular social customs. But, again, we often go too far. Certain people take clothes…more seriously than others. And they’ll pay! Oh, will they pay. They’ll also take great delight in being absolutely insufferable snobs about it. Rather than simply saying ‘I like this style and will enjoy wearing it,’ they seem to make it their mission to consider inferior any who do not join them in their particular sartorial sensibilities. And often, they’re rewarded for this. Oh, are they rewarded.
Snobbery. Which brings us to…
Ah, the foodies. Where to begin? For the uninitiated, food is organic matter which is consumed orally by carbon based life forms–including homo sapiens–in order to provide energy for physical and mental activity and continued biological survival. In other words, if you do not eat it, you will die.
Again, it is probably a good thing that we’ve evolved from trying to hunt while not getting run over by a wolly mammoth to being able to choose between Beef bourguignon and beef stroganoff. But anyone who has been to a Whole Foods lately (or to Brooklyn) is aware that perhaps we’ve become a bit more picky than nature intended.
We all love a good meal. Who doesn’t? Besides allowing us to, you know, keep living, food comforts us, makes us feel safe, secure and generally happy. But the foodies…ah, the foodies…the foodies have decided that, no, eating well is not enough. For a foodie, you must eat correctly. They’ve managed to take something which is a basic part of human survival and make it exclusive.
And you know something? Again, they’ve been rewarded! Yes, this incredible snobbery has been awarded social recognition in the form of media exposure, financial gain and varying degrees of social ascent.
So, we can see that snobbery is not all bad–at least not in certain eyes.
Why, then, is the snobbery of classical music considered a mortal sin? Why is it one of the main reasons cited for the death of this great art (which, by the way, provides to the soul as much warmth as fine clothing and the sustenance of nourishing food?) It is a double standard, and yet this presents another paradox: the need to eliminate snobbery while defending its honor.
A recent article brought word of a new initiative in Russia: the passage of a law which would prohibit (or punish those who participate in) the dissemination of information relating to the existence of homosexuality. In short, Russia, in one fell swoop, intends to more or less deny the existence of homosexual citizens—or, at least, to deny that there is such a thing as homosexual behavior.
Being a straight, American man, this news wouldn’t seem to affect me. But there is, as always, a catch: I am not simply a straight, American man, but also a straight, American musician. To be more accurate, I am a classical musician—and that threw this news into even more sharp relief.
Forget, for a moment, the fact that this news does not merely relegate a segment of the population to 2nd class status, but effectively eliminates them altogether! That in itself is worthy of attention from people of all walks of life. But as a musician, my mind was drawn immediately to one name: Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky—or, perhaps we are now to refer to him as ‘The composer formerly known as Tchaikovsky’?—is (or was) a Russian icon. Perhaps no other composer defined romanticism quite as strongly. With his sweeping melodies, colorful use of folk-idiom, brilliant orchestration, rhythmic drive and love of the supernatural, the Romantic Spirit was made perfect in this tragic figure. He is certainly among the greatest of the Russian Romantics—arguably the most accomplished, most famous and most influential. And he stands (or stood) as one of the great Russian spirits: strong, indomitable, complex.
Tchaikovsky was also gay.
His homosexuality played a leading role in his life: it led, ironically, to his marriage to a lovely young woman, which was the very definition of a disaster. This led to a chain reaction: the unconsummated marriage led to a suicide attempt, which led to the 4th symphony, which led to the last two symphonies, which led to musical and cultural immortality. Of course somewhere in there he also found time to write a few ballets—perhaps you’ve heard of Swan Lake and another little ditty which apparently is trotted out during the holiday season, The Nutcracker—along with several tone poems (the supernatural Francesca da Rimini, the ravishing quasi-memoir Cappricio Italian, the sweeping Romeo and Juliet), a repertoire-defining concerto for violin and three for piano and a few operas. He also carried on a most notable affair: a long relationship with his pen-pal, benefactress and dear friend Nahedza von Meck. The two carried on a torrid affair of the heart entirely through letters. That this was sincere (and successful for both parties) is beyond a doubt. The relationship was never physical, for obvious reasons—along with the fact that a stipulation of the agreement was that the two were not to meet. But taken together, it was one of the most important relationships in artistic history.
Here ends the biographical sketch and history lesson, which is of course not the focus of the present text. But it should deliver a clear message: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most important composers in music history and an indispensible part of Russia’s cultural landscape.
This is what makes this law so much more difficult for Russians. With the passing of the law, Tchaikovsky faces one of two fates: to be stricken from the record entirely, or to be subject to certain historical revisions.
Let us explore these possibilities. The former would be, at first glance, quite simple. Classical music is dying, anyway, so why not make it a little easier by just erasing a name? Sadly, the reality may not be as simple. Tchaikovsky has a few things named after him in Moscow (and throughout Russia), including a major conservatory and a museum. To change the name of these institutions would likely take time, despite the efficiency for which things in Russia are known to disappear. Such public changes are bound to attract attention (a fact which long ruffled the feathers of old Uncle Joe in his dealings with Shostakovich) and a committee approach would likely allow the memory of Tchaikovsky to linger for a generation or two longer than the authorities would like.
Then there is the matter of his music. Tchaikovsky, as it happens, remains quite popular. What is more, Russian orchestras and musicians are quite good at performing his music. Very good, in fact! There is certainly a wealth of Russian repertoire to take its place—the music of Miaskovsky and Schnittke, for example—but despite the sympathetic view on this matter of law–which is certain to be taken by other progressive countries!—there is a risk that the music if Tchaikovsky may remain in the repertoire of those countries’ finest orchestras. When Russian musicians go abroad, they are likely to be exposed to performances of this forbidden music or even expected to perform it themselves. The only recourse for Russian authorities would therefore be the complete restriction of touring and studies abroad for its finest orchestras and young musicians—quite a difficult thing to enforce.
And this is to say nothing of his ballet music! A ban on Nutcracker would likely deprive ballet companies and young ballet dancers of a long-established repertoire staple, imposing a Siberian winter on the holiday season centerpiece that so many audiences have come to look forward to. This ripple effect would go on and on.
That leaves the latter option of revising history: certain details would have to be omitted or altered. I suppose the memory of poor Ms. Miliukova—the ill-fated Mrs. Tchaikovsky—would fare better under this, but this would likely be the only victory in the matter. To say that Tchaikovsky was such a successful composer because of his sexual orientation would obviously be quite silly. After all, if such behavior allowed for an individual to become a productive member of society, laws such as this would never need to be passed! No, it is obvious that his success was likely to be in spite of his affliction. But in this case, it is no matter: the real point is the previously mentioned domino effect (marriage-suicide attempt-4th symphony) which imparted to his music a new emotional and intellectual depth. Without the suicide attempt, it is unlikely that the 4th symphony would exist as we know it—and we know what led to the attempt! But surely there is a way: perhaps the authorities could come up with an alternative story which is suitable to explain the particular despair (and ultimate triumph) of the 4th.
Yes, the matter of Tchaikovsky is complex and the task for the lawmakers and historians will be daunting. Perhaps it could serve as a reminder that the elimination, subjugation or marginalization of any group of people within a society is a herculean task. Perhaps it would be better, in this case, to allow certain things to continue as they have, or to find sympathy, understanding, compassion and acceptance within our grasp rather than to use our hands to effect iron fisted authoritarianism.