20 September 2021

Wise Words on a Current Topic

by the composer Max Raimi, violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

My wife and I recently spent a long weekend in Virginia, staying in Charlottesville and visiting the nearby homes of three early Presidents—Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison. We were enormously impressed with the staff at each of these sites, and loved listening to what they had to say.

It seems to me that the real challenge of presenting the story of the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ is not so much getting the story right, but recognizing that it is of no use to think of them in terms of ‘the story’. There are innumerable stories, which often collide with and seem to contradict each other, and I was astonished by the skill with which the scholars we met there were able to give all the narratives their due.

I was brought up on the heroic narrative about these men; they were freedom-loving visionaries who bravely stood in the face of tyranny and forged a nation with their ideas that is a model for the world. Increasingly a very different narrative has come to challenge it, that these men were misogynist racists who enslaved and raped their fellow human beings. Their paeans to liberty were rank hypocrisy in the face of their monstrous actions, their purported belief in equality mere lip service, a cover for their efforts to maintain the supremacy of White males.

To some extent, the recent battles over the ‘1619’ and ‘1776’ manifestos that are being played out across our political divide are an argument as to which of these stories is the true one. I would argue that this misses the point to some extent. Is it not possible that both narratives, notwithstanding the cognitive dissonance required to believe them both, are essentially true, that these men were both monsters and also brilliant idealists who accomplished something extraordinary?

The presentations we saw at the homes of these Presidents certainly did not sugarcoat their culpability, striving with great success to depict the enslaved people at these sites as three-dimensional characters. We were able to see them as fellow human beings who suffered inexcusably. All three of these Presidents treated those they enslaved appallingly.

But still. What they achieved was miraculous. They created the first government founded on Enlightenment principles, with a mechanism that allowed for increasing democratic participation, utterly free of religious dogma. And they essentially created it out of whole cloth, with no particularly relevant precedents to guide them.

I am not one to fetishize the Constitution, and I think the ‘Original Intent’ people are basically creating an idolatry around these men as a means to consolidate and maintain economic and political privilege. I find it impossible to read the Constitution (which I make a point of doing each July 4) without being struck by its miscalculations, notwithstanding my great admiration for it. It was the result of a lot of hard-fought compromises, bringing to mind Ambrose Bierce’s definition of ‘compromise’ in The Devil’s Dictionary: ‘Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.’

And yet, the fact remains that there has now been well over two centuries of more or less democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power in our nation, time after time. No other political system, as far as I know, has ever achieved this. Indeed, the attempt to break this string last January was to a great extent defeated by the safeguards envisioned by these long-dead White guys. I recognize that this story is all but impossible to reconcile with the appalling inhumanity with which they conducted so much of their lives, but that does not make it invalid.

Which brings us to the issues that precipitated Mr Harper-Scott’s change of careers. There has been a long overdue movement to make classical music more diverse and inclusive in recent years. One unfortunate side effect of this, however, has been the growing chorus of voices he cites denigrating the composers in our canon, and the culture that spawned them. In a notorious manifesto covered on this site, the musicologist Philip Ewell wrote ‘Beethoven was an above average composer—let’s leave it at that.’ He argued that our veneration for Beethoven comes out of a racist and misogynist need to elevate White men, and is completely out of proportion to the quality of his music.

After James Levine died, somebody posted on a friend’s Facebook page, ‘The so-called “greatness” of musicians like Levine and Wagner is a direct result of the free passes they got on being rapists, or anti-Semites, and that “greatness” came at the direct expense of the demographics they harmed. They were not born with such ‘greatness’ inside that they succeeded despite their abhorrent characters; they succeeded for the same reason that they got those free passes in the first place – namely, that they were white men with status quo appeal, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right connections. In other words, their despicable behaviours AND their successes are actually just two different symptoms of a much bigger, systemic sickness in the classical music world, that doles out resources, reputation and opportunity on the basis of a whole lot of things other than merit.’

The poster went on to argue that we can be certain that there were innumerable other composers just as good as those we now revere in Europe at the time. They have remained unknown to us, the poster argued, because a racist and misogynist power structure requires the concept of genius (which the poster derided as ‘idiocy’) to maintain its hegemony.

In a later discussion, this poster wrote that ‘greatness is a construct’, that the esteem in which we hold the canonical composers is essentially a structure erected to keep current women and people of color down in the world of classical music.

My friend on whose Facebook page these arguments unfolded made a characteristically wise observation: ‘I like Robert Pirsig’s idea about Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quality is not in the music, it’s not in the listener; quality in the interaction between the two. Quality not a characteristic of a work; it is an experience.

‘As I see it, a quality experience happens partly because the music is created to foster high-quality interaction, and partly because listeners are able to co-create quality with that music. A listener’s ability to co-create quality comes partly through inborn ability to hear and respond, and partly through acculturation—learning to respond to the musical signals of a particular culture, and learning the culture’s priorities.’

As with Jefferson and his contemporaries, there are a number of conflicting stories simultaneously at play in classical music. Our core repertoire emerged out of a world that did not regard women as anything like equals, and didn’t often acknowledge the humanity of people of color. It came out of the Age of Empire, when the European powers assiduously went about the task of enslaving and plundering the rest of the world. There was a stultifying overlay of class and privilege that severely restricted who could take part as performers, composers, and even listeners.

But there is another story too, I would argue. Out of that rather problematic world emerged a body of work that ranks among the greatest beauty ever created by humankind. Believe me, I wish Beethoven’s music wasn’t so much better than mine. Lord knows I try. I struggle to touch the heart of my listeners in anything like the way that Schubert does, to conjure out of the orchestra vivid sound worlds as brilliantly executed as Berlioz, to come up with my own harmonic and structural schemes that are in remotely the same league as those of Bela Bartok. And so on.

The extraordinary music that came out of Europe over the course of a couple of centuries was a freak occurrence, comparable perhaps to what happened in art in Renaissance Italy, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, and no doubt in a number of other places lost in the sands of time.

If you only accept the validity of the first story, that the classical music of the past is a story of racism, misogyny, and class privilege, then your interaction with it will no doubt lack the ‘quality’ that my friend so perceptively referred to. The listener who only accepts that story cannot forge a ‘high quality interaction’ with the old masterworks. Wagner still cannot seem to get any traction in Israel. Too many of the listeners see his story as wholly one of proto-Nazism, and are in no state to perceive what is going on in the music itself; that is a story they prefer not to be told. And I would argue that this is the case with so many who deride the great classical music of the past. The story they tell themselves makes them unable to truly hear it. They can’t accept that there are other stories as well, very much in conflict with the entirely valid story they accept, but nonetheless just as true.

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