As part of my Associate Conductor position, I am often asked to answer the question “Why Classical Music?” People – even avid music lovers – want to know why in this time of economic, social, and political strife, we should continue to support something as intangible and fleeting as the arts. Particularly these days when it seems as if our attentions as a culture are pulled in every direction, and we have an ever increasing number of options for where to deposit our money and (even more valuable) our time, this issue demands addressing.
I’ve lived with this music my whole life, so to try to explain it is nearly impossible. For me, the art form speaks for itself. After all, that’s why when asked to write about music, William Faulkner said:
“I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, but since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.”
But, I try. And I use any means possible from inspirational quotes and stories to the closest thing to a scientific study as I can get.
When I speak on this topic, I usually begin with the assertion that indeed the arts are the most real, the most concrete, and perhaps the most long-lasting of all our human pursuits. I quote John F. Kennedy, whose strong statements about the importance of the arts adorn the external walls of the Kennedy Center. One such quote is particularly suited to my argument that the arts are perhaps more real and more necessary than any of us would expect. He said:
“I AM CERTAIN THAT AFTER THE DUST OF CENTURIES HAS PASSED OVER OUR CITIES, WE, TOO, WILL BE REMEMBERED NOT FOR VICTORIES OR DEFEATS IN BATTLE OR IN POLITICS, BUT FOR OUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE HUMAN SPIRIT.
The proof is in the pudding – or is it?
Still, however, the proof is in the pudding. With a family of scientists, engineers, and lawyers, I have worked hard to find some proof, some concrete examples that the arts are worth sustaining.
Let me try sharing a few example of how the arts, and my beloved “classical music” in particular, help shape a positive and productive community.
I had a student in Baltimore who played a certain instrument. I’ll call him John and his instrument the hecklephone. He lived between two boarded up row houses, took the bus to school, and was the first of his family to even consider graduating from high school. Several times, he almost gave up as classwork proved difficult for him and his family to manage; as he couldn’t easily get to weekend events because the bus schedule was odd; and as he got beat up every time he took his hecklephone home to practice. But, he loved Schubert. Schubert got him to school. Schubert made him do his homework. Schubert kept him practicing. Schubert helped him graduate from high school.
Another student had all of the advantages in the world, but was scared to audition. She would cry before (and during) every audition, unable to finish a phrase. Something, however, kept her going. Something made her push through her nerves. Perhaps it was Berlioz. Perhaps it was her friends. Perhaps it was her instrument. Now, she’s in college – an eloquent and compassionate speaker and musician.
I could spend this entire post on anecdotes like these, because I encounter them week in and week out. They are wonderful, inspirational stories for sure. But, I’m not convinced that these stories are unique to music – or to the arts, for that matter. For example, I read an article the other day about five teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds who made it through high school and into college because of their commitment to their track team. Allow kids to engage in a positive passion, and they will succeed.
How would a scientist approach this study?
So, I’m back to the original question: what it is about the arts – and music in particular – that is so special, so unique that it must be valued even when we are fearing the plunge in our retirement funds?
What is it about this – the Dona Nobis Pacem from Bach’s B Minor Mass – that requires a community to rally around it to make sure its power does not diminish?
Well, I suppose if I had words to explain it, we wouldn’t need music, but me try to approach it methodically, like a scientist or an attorney might.
Here is my hypothesis: Music, particularly the category we incompletely call “classical music,” is the ultimate human experience. In it are combined the intellectual, the spiritual, the emotional, the temporal, the communal, and the individual elements of our being.
We humans love knowledge. We strive to acquire information, solve puzzles, and outwit our neighbors. This small three-and-a-half minute piece by Bach taps into this slightly nerdy part of our human nature. It’s a fugue – a structure we can analyze and sort-out – a piece to which we can even apply mathematical equations. We can relish the fact that this small bit of music comes from a much large piece that is built with symmetry and form akin to the temples in Rome. The New York Times crossword has nothing on this puzzle of subjects, countersubjects, and episodes. (Sorry Will Shortz.)
In addition to and because of this intellectual underpinning, this short window into Bach’s genius has an emotional element that can be understood even if the puzzle of its construction has not been completely solved. Its long, beautiful phrases begin subtly and gently rise to a stirring, powerful climax towards the end. With the same kind of emotional trajectory of a good tear-jerker film, this miniature sets up emotional expectations and fulfills them in a way that mimics the growth of human passion.
The spiritual element of music is a tricky one, because especially in a piece like the Dona Nobis Pacem, the spiritual can get confused with the religious. But they aren’t the same. For me the spiritual element is an unexplained phenomenon that happens with music in particular. It’s that “greater than the sum of its parts” miracle. In studies about the importance of music education, we often hear about the association between music and math, but with the spiritual element of music, we get a new kind of math.
1+1 = 3…or 4…or 5!
It happens with every ensemble (including the intimate ensemble of a single soloist and her audience):
great music+talented musicians+dedication+practice+focus+energy
something inexplicably better than all of those individual elements
(This is why I call this phenomenon spiritual, because it’s hard to explain. You have to trust it, without logical, scientific proof. Here’s where my scientific approach breaks down, but just trust me. Or come to a concert and experience it for yourself.)
Just like human life, this glorious piece by J.S. Bach has a beginning, a middle, and (unfortunately, as this is one of my favorite pieces) an end. You cannot slow it down to make it last longer, you cannot rewind it and replay it without altering its natural continuity, and you can’t stop it in the middle to take a time out. This temporal element of music is at the same devastating and fulfilling, reminding me to savor the moment in everything I do.
Even this brief snippet of Bach taps into the human need to make connections, for inherent in his composition and eventual performance is a complex web of relationships fundamental to its existence. It requires connections between composer and singer, between soprano and alto, between singer and instrumentalist, between ensemble member and conductor, between performers and listeners. Involved in this most simple of examples are: the technicians who recorded the performance; JS Bach’s musical hero Buxtehude; Fred Waring, who set Robert Shaw out on his conductorly path; Felix Mendelssohn, who helped create a Bach revival in the 19th century; the custodians at the Woodruff Arts Center where the music was rehearsed and recorded; the Cleveland Orchestra who eventually hired Atlanta’s concertmaster Bill Preucil; some student who will learn this piece in 200 years; and even you, because you just listened to the recording. You are now connected to Robert Shaw, to JS Bach, to future generations, and to all of the performers in this recording.
Although this piece depends on an entire community of performers, technicians, historians, and audience members to make it work, it also highlights that sense of individual spirit that humanity honors and demands. Yes, the piece requires community and unanimity of purpose to bring it to performance, but each person in that collective has a completely different relationship with it. The trumpet player might be spending the first several bars breathing and preparing for his soaring and triumphant entrance. One bass voice might need to make sure that his initial note doesn’t go flat, as is his tendency, while another needs to catch an extra breath in the middle of the first phrase because he had an allergy attack that day and his breath control is shot. The organist might be focused on monitoring the pitch of the instrument because the AC system might be down that day, while the AC repairman might be frantically trying to fix it so the performance can go on with excellent intonation. One person in the audience might be hearing the work for the first time – one person for the last.
As I hear it, I will be fighting back tears, as I always do in this piece. It’s the piece that got me hooked on classical music – it encapsulates the human experience. I celebrate its beginning, get wrapped up in its intellectual, spiritual, and emotional construct, share it with others, and mourn its ending, even in all its trumpet and choral splendor.
Have I answered the question? Probably not.
But, here’s my best shot. The question is – why support music? Why invest my hard earned (and hard to find) money in this fleeting endeavor? My only answer is this: Perhaps because as we downsize “tangible” things that have defined us for too long, NOW is the time to find a new definition of humanity. We can feel how folks are desperate for contact and connection – with things like Twitter and Facebook. These tools, as fun as they are (and I have to admit to checking my Facebook account regularly), only touch part of the human experience. At this juncture, we require something that not only establishes communication and connection, but something that feeds us spiritually, culturally, emotionally, and intellectually. Something that all at once relies on and feeds community of spirit, soul, and understanding. Something that connects us with our past, requires us to live in the present, and urges us to contribute to the future. I would argue that it is the arts, and music in particular, that fulfill that need.
Oh, and this: