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“Music Unwound” — The NEH and the Music Education Crisis

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Processing a terrific performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet at this summer’s Brevard Music Festival, I found myself pondering both musical and extra-musical paths of engagement.

Elgar, born in 1857, became Britain’s most famous concert composer, an iconic embodiment of the fin-de-siecle Edwardian moment. From its retrospective relationship to Imperial England, his music derives its singular affect of majesty intermingled with anguished nostalgia. Added to that, the Great War shrouds the Quintet with a poetic veil of mourning. (Elgar’s much performed Cello Concerto, also completed in 1919, is even more elegiacally veiled.)

The audience at Brevard – one of the nation’s leading summer training-camps for pre-professional classical musicians, in the foothills of North Carolina – mainly comprised young adults new to this piece, probably even to this composer. They were ardently attentive, effusively appreciative. I asked myself how many of them knew  “Edwardian England” – or the Great War, or Queen Victoria. What cultural content, outside music, could they bring to a first hearing of Elgar’s quintet? I would venture to guess: little or none.

There are many manifestations of the current crisis in music education. Some derive from accelerated cultural change, which makes canonized symphonies, plays, novels, and paintings ever more remote. In classical music, the crisis is acute because the canon is closed — the mainstream repertoire for orchestras and opera companies ends  well over half a century ago with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten.

Among America’s music schools and festivals, Brevard is unusual for crafting a targeted response. With the support of the National Endowment of the Humanities, next summer’s festival will incorporate a cross-disciplinary festival-within-a-festival: “Dvorak and America.” All the collegiate musicians performing Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony will read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – which happens to be a pertinent point of reference for this most popular symphony ever composed on American soil. Even conductors who assay “From the New World” do not realize that – as Dvorak testified – the middle movements are inspired by episodes from Longfellow’s once-famous narrative poem – that the Scherzo sets “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” and the Largo re-experiences Minnehaha’s death in shivering winter.

At Brevard’s performance of the “New World” Symphony next July, these movements will be accompanied by a “visual presentation” incorporating excerpts from Longfellow’s poem (a core specimen of the American experience) and paintings by nineteenth century Americans, including the important “Indianists” George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. And a “Hiawatha Melodrama” combining verses by Longfellow with music by Dvorak will be performed in tandem with the symphony.

The purpose of this exercise is to launch an inquiry into the question: “What does music mean?” It is the same question I asked myself about Elgar’s quintet. It has no correct answer. But the question is invaluable, I believe, if fledgling classical musicians, reconnecting with masterworks of centuries past, are to maintain a living relationship with the legacy they inherit.

When “Music Unwound” was initiated in 2010 with a $300,000 NEH grant, it was a consortium of professional orchestras — the Pacific Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, the Louisville Orchestra, and the Buffalo Philharmonic — committed to undertaking thematic festivals on two topics: “Dvorak and America” and “Copland and Mexico.” A secondary component was institutional collaboration: the four recipients  were challenged to link with high schools, museums, and – especially – colleges and universities. As director of “Music Unwound,” I frankly imagined that these relationships would at best materialize slowly and fitfully. I did not foresee that the project would rapidly evolve to target students.

In addition to five professional orchestras, the current “Music Unwound” participants include the Brevard Festival, Chapman University, and the University of Texas in El Paso. It has unexpectedly become an experiment in infusing Humanities instruction.

At Chapman – a small liberal arts college in Orange County, California – “Music Unwound” is driven by a visionary chancellor — Daniele Struppa — who believes that allying with a major professional orchestra is a necessary strategy for introducing undergraduates to symphonic music. When next February the Pacific Symphony produces a “Music Unwound” celebration of Charles Ives, Chapman students will be invited to explore what Ives and Mark Twain have in common. The premise of his exercise will be that what Huckleberry Finn is to the American novel, Ives Symphony No. 2 (1909) is to the American symphony: a landmark achievement in transforming a hallowed Old World genre through recourse to New World vernacular speech and song.

At the University of Texas, “Music Unwound” is driven by a visionary Mexican-American music historian — Frank Candelaria — to whom collaboration with the El Paso Symphony seems a necessary opportunity to introduce high school and college students to the Mexican Revolution and its formidable composers and painters.

If “Music Unwound” is renewed for a third funding cycle, the consortium will expand to include the DePauw University School of Music, where a visionary dean — Mark McCoy — is attempting to re-invent conservatory education. One part of this new template is a new  way of teaching Music History – not as a sequence of Great Composers, but as a Sociology of Music privileging institutional history and cultural circumstance.

Dvorak would open a window on Longfellow and Catlin. Ives would connect to Mark Twain, to Emerson and Thoreau. Elgar would register the passing of Empire and the trauma of unprecedented “world war.” These topics need one another. Their binding synergies can no longer be assumed.

(For more on “Music Unwound,” see my postings of March 31, 2011; Feb. 23, March 20, May 20, and June, 11, 2012; and May 1, 2015.)



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