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“The Chasm Between Doing Music and Thinking About It”

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.


  1. “I remember being asked by a distinguished member of the English faculty why musical performance should become curricular.”

    To this day only one Ivy League school has a school of music, Yale. The elite University of California system also limits their music departments to mostly musicology and composition. Schools of music are relegated to the California State University system (where the level is often not very high since the schools are by definition second tier.) Sure, one can be given music lessons by an adjunct in these elite universities, and play in an orchestra or band of mostly non-majors, but that is no substitute for a school of music. It is odd how these elite schools might have a gamelon orchestra, or a free improve group, or a laptop ensemble, or some other relatively odd and effete form of music-making suitable to their concepts of elitism, but without working in a wide-ranging atmosphere of dedicated instrumentalists that a school of music offers. The mediocre levels of musicianship compared to schools of music is generally obvious – if not embarrassing. (And let’s not confuse ourselves by naming a few odd exceptions.)

    I think these education philosophies might help explain why so much new music in America became so effete, intellectualized, and disembodied. Without a close connection to the world of performers, composition loses its way.

    At the same time, I have found the intellectual and academic standards in US conservatories appalling — sometimes even hilarious. Where’s the balance?

    Most of continental Europe does not offer doctorates in musical performance, since they too consider it non-academic. The difference is that they also consider composition non-academic, so composers are put in the conservatories along with performers. They thus receive more balanced musical experiences than in the disembodied, non-performance world of many of America’s elite schools. And these European composers then work in cultural climates where classical music and the other performing arts are much more widely integrated into society.

    I think these factors help explain why the USA has produced so few composers with the stature Europeans have like Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Henze, Ligeti, Andriessen, Rhim, Penderecki, Gorecki and many others. America needs to put performers in their elite schools (like Yale,) or take the composers out of them and put them with the performers in schools of music — where they might even be required to read a book now and then.

  2. Adams, Babbitt, Barber, Carter, Cage, Crumb – I haven’t even gotten past the “C’s”, yet have named six post-war American composers reasonably ranked with – or considerably above – the Europeans William Osborne mentions.

    • Cage is definitely in their category in terms of his influence and recognition, and yet he does not have the same status in concert halls. Adams is performed quite a bit in Europe, but he does not have the status of the composers I mention. The terms and perspectives become very subjective, but his music is seen as lighter, as a less profound response to the 20th century.

      Babbitt is barely recognized in Europe at all. He never had much of an international career. He is seen as parochial. Carter’s music is very good, and he is much respected in Europe, but strangely not much performed. Europeans have no shortage of their own sort of slightly academic forms of modernism. Rihm, for example, is much more widely recognized. Barber suffers the same view in European eyes as most American neo-romantics (for lack of a better term.) His music is not seen as a substantive response to the Zeitgeist and ethos of the 20th century. If we were to go in that direction, Copland would be a better example for American achievement. I studied with Crumb and deeply admire his music, but it is viewed in Europe as highly idiosyncratic and does not have the wide recognition of the composers I mentioned.

      Of course, these sorts of evaluations remain subjective, but I think they would generally be backed up by performance numbers and the evaluations of a wide spectrum of the European new music world.

      There are also far less subjective structural problems that create these differences, since classical music is much more deeply integrated into European society which allows for much more support and exposure for their composers. An example would be that Germany has 133 full time orchestras while the USA only has about 17. Germany has 83 full time opera houses, while the USA with four times the population has about 6 or 7 genuinely functioning opera houses and the longest season is only 7 months. American composers are fighting a rigged game. They have less support, and less opportunities to develop their art.

      On the other hand, I know that a lot of Ivy League composers will resent my observations. They are not short on their sense of status and elitism even though their reputations and work remain largely parochial.

      • I should add here the massive network of highly funded state radios in Europe all of which have a specific mission of promoting their country’s composers. There is nothing comparable in the USA.

  3. “Parochial”, defined as “having a limited or narrow outlook or scope”, seems to be a more apt description of the programming of European performers and presenters than of the actual work of American composers which is characteristically broad in its expressive means and goals.

    American composers do indeed lack “stature” in Europe because they are not programmed as frequently there as the merit of their music warrants. But this lack of performances has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of their work; to assert such is to blame the victim. Here and abroad, there is good work that gets played a lot and good work that gets played little. There is also lousy work that gets played a lot, some of it written by the European composers you mention. That fact that it gets played a lot doesn’t make them composers of great stature.

    I object to European attitudes being assumed to be the measure of all things. I object to the blurring of the lines between evaluating statistics about numbers of performances and aesthetic evaluations. I may be a composer with a day job at an Ivy League school, and the number of performances of my music may be, by global standards, “parochial”, but my work – my music – is not.

    • Thank you for the interesting response. If we’re going to have a discussion, I would suggest we leave aside evaluations of our own work. An objective distance might be missing in the conversation.

      A good way of approaching why many Europeans view American trends in new music over the last 30 years as parochial, might be to examine the European reception of a recent major work typical of a major American composer. John Adam’s two hour opera, “A Flowering Tree” was premiered in Vienna. The negative views were typical for much of America’s postmodern new music. Rightly or wrongly, “Tree” was seen as naively eclectic and simplistically programmatic. Vienna’s most respected paper, Der Standard, snidely commented: „All things considered, this production reminded one of a rigorously planned Semester-end program in a Afro-Asiatic University Institute.“ (“Alles in allem erinnert diese Produktion an den etwas aufwändiger gestalteten Semesterabschluss in einem afroasiatischen Universitätsinstitut.“)

      This is by way of saying that the eclecticism of new American music, “broad in its expressive means and goals,” is often seen in Europe as superficial and rather naive. Even in the States, there were similar reactions to “Dr. Atomic” with its pastiche libretto that seemed to be searching for a point and coherency. Why were so few of the iconic post-war musical statements written by Americans?

      I think the perceived superficiality of American new music might derive in part from the fact that Americans experienced many of the momentous events of the 20th century from a distance – and especially the 20th century’s horrors. Twenty percent of the population of Poland was killed in WWII. Major death camps were located on its soil. Twenty-seven million people died in the Soviet Union (as opposed to 300,000 US soldiers which is 1/90th the amount.) Most of Europe was left decimated. Might this sense of horror explain why Penderecki’s “Threnody” seems deeper than “Dr. Atomic,” or why Zimmerman’s “Die Soldaten” seems deeper than “The Ballad of Baby Doe” (or whatever American opera you might want to select,) or why Britten’s “War Requiem” seems deeper than Carter’s “What Next”? It’s difficult to find American works that would even compare to these European works which have become iconic in defining the 20th century. If we are equal, why were most of the 20th century’s big musical statements left to Europeans?

      And yet, with a kind of blinkered ethnocentricity, we claim equality and even superiority. And strangely, we pronounce ourselves equal even though the amount of funding we devote to classical music is smaller by at least a magnitude.

      We might define American composers as victims, but I see these victims doing little to protest the small and ever diminishing status of classical music in the States. Are they victims, or compliant and even active participants in America’s neglect of the arts and its unique, isolated, and dysfunctional private funding system that impoverishes our cultural landscape? Such silent victims.

      Another factor that might define the perceived superficiality of post-war American new music might be its de-politicization. After the HUAC purges, political art was largely suppressed. Artists ranging from Steinbeck to Copland were harassed and intimidated with notable effects. An atmosphere of fear and propaganda created a new ethos in which political statements were largely limited to narrow confines. And as if that were not enough, the CIA infiltrated many of our major funding foundations, and massively funded phony front institutions and journals to promote a depoliticized abstract expressionism.

      Europe, by contrast, continued to allow for a very wide range of political thought, and political art was approached with much more tolerance and open-mindedness – a process that continues to this day. To what extent did the suppressed social sensibility in America contribute to a lack of dimension and depth in American art? And going back to Adams, and up to today, if American composers dare touch a sensitive topic like “Klinghofer,” they risk cancellation that strongly appears like censorship. The “Klinghofer” incident is emblematic of the parochial views and a narrowness of mind that contribute to the seeming superficiality of America’s post war new music. It’s time for American composers to consider these problems more closely and work toward solutions.

      • BTW, I should add that there are probably more performances of established American composers in Europe than there are in the USA. Europeans are not particularly neglecting them, or giving them fewer performances than their work warrants. If anything, they a probably being generous.

  4. Much food for thought in your comments – thank you. It would be foolish to argue the merits of American music by making comparisons with the War Requiem. Some of the other pieces you mention, there might be room for discussion.

    Regarding your last comment, it would certainly be helpful to have reliable statistics on, let’s say, orchestral performances of American music in Europe, of European music in America, etc. Not easy sets of figures to come by, I would imagine; I’ve tried to get stats on American orchestral performances of American composers and found even that tricky. Whether European programmers (or their American counterparts) are being generous depends on what you think of the music involved!

    • Thank you both for this thread, somehow propelled by my posting. I have a couple of thoughts. One is about Leon Kirchner, whom I knew rather well. Leon’s creative output plummeted while he was at Harvard (teaching John Adams, among others). Once he left, he re-began composing at a fiendish pace, as if trying to make up for lost time.

      My other thought is of Aaron Copland, traumatized by his grilling by McCarthy and Roy Cohn. Copland was inspired by Mexico and the thirties to become a political composer, to seek a new audience. After 1950, the Cold War forced him to turn his back on this exercise, even to cover it up (he disowned his prize-winning workers song “Into the Streets May First.”). I have always regarded Copland’s odyssey as a kind of parable. The US just doesn’t seem conducive to important political art. I have many times produced a program I call “Copland and the Cold War” on university campuses. It incorporates that workers song, also a chunk of Copland’s McCarthy testimony, in which he perjures himself (claiming not to know Communists, not to know that the “New Masses” was a Communist publication, etc.). It is really chilling.

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