Something to Ponder

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A teacher arranges members of the St. Molaga’s School Choir before they compete in the annual Feis Ceoil music competition in Dublin, Ireland, April 2, 2019. (Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters)

For many years, I have quoted a statement by Charles Rosen, the late pianist-scholar: “The death of classical music is perhaps the oldest tradition of classical music.” Generation after generation, century after century, people say, “This is it. Music is on its deathbed. Philistinism is high in the saddle. Curtains, lights out.” And it’s never true.

But might it be, someday?

At any rate, there is cause for concern, in these United States. (Other countries are another story, often a better one.) I write on this subject in a piece today: “For the Love of Music.” Let me do a little quoting, please:

Research shows that the leading factor in whether a person attends classical concerts or operas is: Did the person study an instrument as a child? Did he actually touch an instrument with his hands? The composer Thea Musgrave pointed out to me that people are able to consume reams of music these days — via YouTube, for example (that gift from heaven). But such consumption is basically a passive activity. There is no substitute for making music yourself.

Music education in America is way, way down, I’m given to understand.

Yup. I quote Daniel Asia, a composer and professor at the University of Arizona: “Students come to university never having heard of Bach or Beethoven. I kid you not.” I know he isn’t. And what a disservice to them!

There are always people who are hot on “the death of classical music.” (I put this phrase in quotation marks because it is a cliché.) Once, Gary Graffman, the famous pianist and longtime head of the Curtis Institute of Music, gave a speech titled “Dead, Again” — in other words, the death of classical music was being proclaimed once more.

I always say, “There’s a reason they call it ‘pop music,’ you know: It’s popular. Classical music is not supposed to be popular. It never has been and never will be. But it will always be loved by a minority — played, sung, conducted, composed, appreciated, and funded by a robust, healthy minority.”

Hmmm. I guess it’s true. But the alarm-sounders have their points, and I am listening, increasingly.

Anyway, I get into it in that piece.

My view is, people should be exposed to everything — music, sports, science — just to know of its existence, and then they can focus on what they most like or value. If everyone liked high culture, it wouldn’t be “high,” would it? It would just be — well, common culture, or popular culture. But I always quote Marian the Librarian, who sings, “If occasionally he’d ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great, him I could love till I die.”

Not everyone can or should be a Shakespeare scholar, for heaven’s sake. Not everyone will be a Beethoven man, or woman. But “if occasionally he’d ponder” — what a wonderful phrase (by Meredith Willson, Mason City’s own).