The most resonant sentence in Robert Freeman’s highly quotable new book The Crisis of Classical Music in America reads: “It is my own strong conviction that, in the years ahead, music will need all the help we can give her. To my way of thinking, that means the development of collegiate musicians who are dedicated at least as much to the future of music as they as are to the unfolding of their own careers.”
Freeman’s own career – presiding over the Eastman School, the New England Conservatory, and the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas/Austin – has at all times targeted the “future of music.” His book – subtitled “Lessons from a Life in the Education of Musicians” — is unignorable for anyone invested in the musical education of young Americans.
Another resonant Freeman formulation is “the chasm between doing music and thinking about it.” I have myself been pondering that chasm, and trying to do something about it, for as long as I have been producing concerts and writing books. But I had to think twice when I read, in Freeman’s book, what Archibald Davison, long the chairman of Music at Harvard, had to say about it in 1926:
“It is sometimes urged that there is an analogy between the type of ability required in the manipulation of apparatus used in the physical lab in preparation of entrance examinations, and the merely mechanical business of playing the pianoforte, for example. This is hardly true, for the ability to handle skillfully laboratory instruments presupposes the use of logic or original thinking in the experiments that are to follow, whereas playing the pianoforte may be a purely physical matte in which the intellect plays a relatively small part.”
Freeman comments: “However misguided such a philosophy may be from the perspective of any thoughtful modern musician, the original design for the study of music in the United States perpetuated the European split between doing music and thinking about it. . . . Theory and practice, isolated from one another, needlessly fracture not only music’s integrity as a discipline but the possibility of its broader influence in America.”
When I entered Swarthmore College in 1965, the Davison distinction was firmly in place: no credit was offered for playing a musical instrument – or for acting in a play, or for creating a painting or a poem. Then the college inched forward under the guidance of a committee charged with rethinking the curriculum. I remember being asked by a distinguished member of the English faculty why musical performance should become curricular. His governing assumption was that only an “intellectual” component of this activity would validate it as credit-bearing. My answer was weak – something about the cerebral dimension of translating notes into sounds.
I now recognize what seems obvious: that making music importantly hones a range of human capacities – intellectual, emotional, experiential. In any event, Swarthmore proceeded to grudgingly offer a quarter-credit per semester for preparing and performing chamber music under professional supervision. As a participating pianist, I was assigned Copland’s Sextet for piano, clarinet, and string quartet. The coach was Paul Zukofsky, who told us that we were tackling one of the most difficult pieces in the chamber repertoire. I remember learning and performing it (not very well). I equally remember that, beyond listening to Copland’s own recording, I failed utterly to “think about it.” Notwithstanding our motivating quarter-credit, the fascinating history of this piece (which began as a symphony), and the composer’s complex odyssey as a modernist turned populist, remained equally unknown to me and my fellow chamber musicians.
How much has changed? I could cite many experiences with gifted young instrumentalists who learn the notes of a symphony or sonata without “thinking about it.”
At today’s music conservatories, the need for formidable change is pervasive, but formidable change is not. It is, however, coming. An experiment of which I am aware – and which Freeman mentions in his book – is taking place at DePauw University, where Mark McCoy is intent upon re-inventing the School of Music. At DePauw’s upcoming “Dvorak and America” festival, the participating orchestra musicians will be required to read a book. (I wonder if there is a precedent.) The symphony in question is Dvorak’s “New World” and the book is Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, which as followers of this blog know figures fundamentally in the Largo and Scherzo. There will also be a rehearsal at which the pertinence of this information in pondered.
Does the knowledge that Dvorak was inspired by the Dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis change the way we perform or hear the opening of the Scherzo? There is no right answer. But the question itself is a pertinent one if the chasm Freeman documents is to be broached. Nor is this question irrelevant to the concert experience and “the future of music.” More than before, more than ever, musicians must not only ask themselves what it’s about, but what it’s for.