Monday, November 12, 2007


An inevitable downside of being a slow blogger of late is that one of the many potential blogging ideas that's been floating around in my head was just beautifully articulated by someone else. It's possible that the ultimate meaning of this is that everything I want to say will eventually be said by someone else if I just wait long enough. Anyway, Dial M for Musicology's Jonathan Bellman recently made a point I've been meaning to make about Gustavo Dudamel and the dazzling system of Venezuelan youth orchestras - namely, that this system is unapologetically grounded in The Canon of Western art music. As Bellman notes, the poor Canon has taken quite a beating in the last few decades with more and more concern that it's too past-centric, and masterpiece-centric, and Euro-centric, etc. In fact, the postmodern mindset has done well to remind us that much of how we look at the past is colored by tradition, cultural bias, etc. OK, fine.

On the other hand, sometimes it's worth remembering that these very traditions (how we think about the past) can be as important as the foundational masterpieces that comprise them. Ways of thinking about cultural objects become cultural objects themselves. Yes, there are entire schools of thinking about music that distort music history - the legendary Russian schools of piano and violin playing, for example (see below) - but at some point, these traditions and some of their handed-down distortions become invaluable as well, and that includes very strict and disciplined ideas about how to become a good orchestra musician. No, there's absolutely no reason why a Central American musical training program should be aiming to produce orchestras which excel in the music of Beethoven, Mahler, and Shostakovich - but, clearly, many non-Western cultures still find this to be a compelling and inviting tradition that isn't remotely dead.

Trying to argue for cultural superiority on behalf of the Western tradition may well be a dead-end street - or at least an invitation to have Richard Taruskin lay the smack down. Still, there must be something special about this tradition, because getting to be that good (El Sistema good) at it takes a LOT of hard work. Does the evidence that so many people will devote so many hours to mastering the intricacies of so many difficult instruments mean that Western classical music is better than other types of music? Well, that's hardly a satisfying proof - people put unimaginable amounts of energy into all sorts of things I don't care about. Still, it's something.

I kind of miss the days when I never worried about such things. I've recently been re-reading Gary Graffman's 1981 autobiography, I Really Should Be Practicing. It's a very lighthearted book, but I think one way it influenced my as a young pianist was that I completely bought into the world it describes of young pianists completely devoted to becoming great concert pianists in the grand old tradition. It never occurred to me as I leapt into training that the classical world wouldn't always exist as it did in the 1940s and 50's he vividly describes. It's a little off-topic, but my favorite story is how he insisted on playing a passage in Schumann's Carnaval as indicated in the score rather than as taught by Isabelle Vengerova, his great Russian teacher. She was outraged, insulted and humiliated. As Graffman tells it:
"Finally, she did admit that during my performance, when the shock of that scandalous moment had passed, [great Russian violinist, Efram] Zimbalist had leaned over toward her and whispered, "Is it really written like that in the music?" She confessed that she had then explained to him, "Yes, but nobody..." with exasperation, to me: "As you well know, kagda...personne jamais...IT JUST ISN'T DONE!"
That sums up so much of the teaching I heard in years of accompanying violin, cello, and voice lessons taught by important pedagogues. IT JUST ISN'T DONE! Obviously, it can seem silly to say that one shouldn't follow Schumann's clear directions because the cultural consensus is that it's better another way, but this kind of teaching is, for better or worse, an essential part of the classical tradition. Actually, Kenneth Woods recently took an excellent look at the negative side of this "secret handshake" way of teaching, and I agree with a lot of what he says. In fact, I agree too much because, as a teacher, my biggest fault is that I don't like to impose my will on students. Even when a student plays a wrong note, there's often a voice inside saying, "maybe he really feels it that way." Still, this opinionated, intuitive approach to music-making is an inescapable part of the music world - and part of me knows that my happiest musical memories have had to do not with worrying about what makes Beethoven relevant, but with being exposed to the evangelical zeal of the true believers who never worry about such silly questions.

And now I've sailed off course and am in danger of having another blog post sink to the bottom of the drafts folder. What's my point? My point is that there's nothing wrong with embracing not just the music, but also much of the culture of music-making that's been handed down to us. For example, I love the old yellow Schirmer 24 Italian Songs and Arias, which figures in just about every voice student's experience. Although most of the songs are from the 17th and 18th centuries, the collection is very much of the late 19th century, with wonderfully pianistic accompaniments. There are now competing editions that try to return these songs to their roots by filtering out all that Romantic interpretation, thinning out the piano textures, etc.

What's funny about that to me is that the songs have survived and been useful for more than a century because of their 19th century incarnations. If someone wants to dig up the old roots, that's fine, but there's nothing wrong with understanding the "yellow book" as it's own authentic source. The same could be said for some of the outdated editions of Vivaldi concerti that show up in the Suzuki repertoire. Which is the real Vivaldi A Minor, the one Vivaldi wrote, or the version played by thousands upon thousands of young violinists? (For the record, I prefer some of the more interesting passagework that shows up in the Suzuki version. I'm not sure of the source of that version. Future blog topic?)

Wow, I'm drifting ever further outward. I've really got to stop and I'm really tired of having no new posts, so to recap: The Western classical art music tradition ain't so bad; it's embraced by all sorts of non-Western, non-elite cultures and it's got it's own pretty lively, breathing internal culture. I like it.

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