Friend of the Hadleybloggers Terry links to this article by Dr. Alice von Hildebrand entitled “The Moral Weight of Words.” Terry uses this as the basis for a discussion of Dawn Eden and her youth-oriented (i.e. talk to them in their own language) approach to chastity. And from this, I propose to talk about the future of classical music. Well, we’re nothing here if not eclectic.
But there is a method to this madness, and that method lies with the topic of communications. How do we communicate – across generations, across cultures, across racial and ethnic divides? In an age where we as a society have become increasingly fragmented and isolated, how do people of different tastes communicate?
Exhibit #1 is this fine piece by Terry Teachout, commenting on the recent death of Beverly Sills. Teachout underscores, in so many words, a point I made last week in my own notice of Sills’ passing: that Sills came from an era in which classical music was an established, accepted part of popular culture. That doesn’t mean it was the most popular type of music out there (even if Leonard Bernstein lived the life of a rock star), but it does mean that, through exposure on radio and TV, it was part of the mainstream. By this I mean that even people who didn’t consider themselves classical music fans were still expected to be familiar with particular singers and pieces of music. And so, as Teachout says, Sills’ (and others, such as Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters) appearances did not create as much as they did reflect reflect the popularity, or at least acceptance, of opera. By bringing it to the people, in the medium the people enjoyed, these stars kept opera in front of the people in a way that (with the end of variety shows and other forms of “middlebrow” programming) would be impossible today.
The mention of “middlebrow” culture leads me to this post by Donald Pittenger at 2Blowhards, in which he laments the disappearance of that middlebrow area in which classical music was so firmly established. Donald voices a guarded optimism over the return of high culture, in the cyclical ways such things happen. Donald points to what passes for pop culture today, and suspects that such “crudeness in the form of Rap, Concept Art, mindless action movies and the rest of current popular culture will become boring because it will have been around too long.” I can only hope he’s right.
However, perhaps voicing a note of caution is Greg Sandow, who argues that classical music is at a crossroads unless it faces up to the fact that its audience is daily growing grayer, older, and smaller. Unless classical music engages the modern culture, it will fade away. Far easier said than done for, as Sandow points out, “it's fairly hard to address some huge problem like the aging of the audience, because the most direct solution -- start doing things younger people might like -- seems to conflict with the untouchable core mission, and therefore can't be contemplated.” A more casual atmosphere, shorter pieces, not being so prudish about applause, more direct interaction between the orchestra and the audience – these are merely some of the ideas that Sandow proposes as a way for classical music to regain a foothold in popular culture.
Now, note that none of these are diametrically opposed. Terry has, in the past, shared Sandow’s concern about the future of the classics (as he points out, recordings can often be a more satisfying experience than live attendance in the orchestra hall). And Donald’s optimism in the return of high culture doesn’t necessarily preclude the implementation of Greg’s suggestions.
But at some point in this discussion we have to confront the question of the future identity of highbrow culture – what does it mean? Do we want our high culture to be a little more special, a little elevated, from the rest of pop culture? Should we be looking to elevate people to this height, rather than bringing it down to their eye level? In other words, should we really be trying to make it accessible, or should we be expecting and demanding more from the public, asking them to make an effort to better themselves?
This question isn’t a new one to me, insofar as I’ve been reading these writers discussing the topic for some time. But I wrestle with it, because there is something – I’d call it purifying – about dressing up in suit and tie to go to a concert hall, about sitting in dignified silence and listening to music, about behaving – perish the thought! – like ladies and gentlemen instead of punks. We’d have called that “civilized” or “cultivated” behavior once upon a time, although I suspect both of those words are on the outs nowadays. And yet Sandow is right – without some way of engaging today’s culture, it’s going to be an uphill battle to continue to grow the classics. And the way this culture is laid out makes that task even more difficult.
So with that we return to Terry’s original post on von Hildebrand and the morality of words. (See, I told you we’d get back there eventually.) And this, for me, crystallizes this whole issue: how far do you go to evangelize – whether we’re talking about religion, art, politics, or anything else that might require persuasion? There’s always a fear of “going native,” of losing your way amidst the dangers of modern culture. Equally, there’s the threat that in speaking the language of those you seek to convert, you water down the message to the extent that it loses its true meaning and power. And there’s the question that anyone faces – that of preserving your own dignity and integrity.
Von Hildebrand speaks powerfully of the dangers of using the popular language to express divine concepts:
The choice of words in such work is crucial. When referring to her previous life — before she was converted to the beauty of chastity — a young woman appearing on television and addressing millions of viewers, kept saying, “when I was sexually active….” The question that I raise is: Will not her choice of very graphic words inevitably bring to the minds of the viewers images that the phrase “sexually active” triggers?
Perhaps this is overstating the case somewhat in terms of classical music (my first thought was to entitle this piece “Alice von Hildebrand Explains Classical Music to You,” but I thought that might be a little obscure even for me), but I’m not entirely convinced of that. As Rush Limbaugh often says, "words mean things." And the central question remains the same: how to you communicate your message to a generation that, in some cases, is barely literate – unable to write in cursive, using the shorthand of text-messaging, increasingly isolated in that fragmented society, with common cross-boundary frames of reference becoming less and less. In this relativist age, how does one get the message across?
My first instinct is to say that one has to speak the language, that in a pop culture society you'd better know something about that pop culture in order to communicate. Certainly this entails risk, with faith and education being your prime defenses. But it'd be foolish to do business in France and not know how to speak French, right? Being familiar with is not the same thing as being a part of, after all.
And, as everyone in business (and entertainment) can tell you, the first secret of success is to know your audience. A friend of mine works at a non-profit that also provides services to the public. Try as they might, the public isn’t interested in hearing about the group’s mission – all they understand is the service provided. And so this organization, despite a mostly heroic mission, is reduced to hawking the service – they have to speak the language of the public. You can tell the public about the wonders of classical music until you're blue in the face, but if they don't speak the language - if they don't share the values that you know are enhanced by classical music - then you might as well be speaking to a brick wall.
But there has to be more to it than that. There's always this stiffing of the spine when it comes to compromising your ideals. You can go only so far, no farther. Where do you draw the line? Maybe, as von Hildebrand suggests, you don't speak the exact same language, you parse your words carefully. While it doesn't mean the same thing as denying the culture altogether, it does imbue your words with a certain dignity, something that others will definitely notice, one way or another. (Incidentally, this also makes the case for elevating the liturgical language above that of the normal vernacular, but that's another argument for another day.)
I’m always reminded of the story about Mrs. Robert Taft, whose husband ran against Eisenhower for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1952 When asked if her husband was “an ordinary man,” she replied, “I should hope not!” Ordinary men need not apply for the presidency – it takes an extraordinary man to lead.
And I confess that this is my feeling regarding classical music as well. I cringe every time I go to the orchestra and see people dressed in untucked shirts, jeans and tennis shoes. Don’t dumb it down to the public – educate them, elevate them instead. Make it special, something transcendental, out of the ordinary. How, of course, is the question. And I’ll be damned if I have the answer.