in: News & Features

October 30, 2008

Who cares if classical music dies? Is it the canary in the coal mine?


Lee Eiseman, program chair of Harvard Musical Association, conceived of this publication, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, as the reincarnation of Dwight’s Musical Journal, published by John Sullivan Dwight with the support of HMA for 35 years -from 1852 until 1881.

Robert D. Levin, a world-wide acclaimed classical performer, composer, and musicologist, is Dwight P. Robinson Professor of Humanities in the Music Department of Harvard University. At a recent meeting with Eiseman, executive editor Bettina A. Norton, and musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto, Levin commented on the role of the Intelligencer.

Eiseman: Presuming that there is such a thing as musical intelligence in Boston, I wonder whether musical intelligence and musical instruction have been in a steady state of decline for the past 200 years. I wonder if the dead-cat bounce has occurred yet. The Puritans required every pupil in the public schools  to learn the equivalent of solfège so that they could chant the Psalms. And by 1880, according to John Sullivan Dwight, there was still enough interest in the subject to provoke a debate about fixed or moveable Do in musical instruction in the Boston Public Schools.

Levin: A guest teacher tried to teach me moveable Do in the third grade, and I got into a knock-down drag-out fight with her. …Well, I was eight years old. I had no idea what movable Do was, but I thought it was absolutely the biggest crock that you could ever imagine. She chalked an A major scale up on the blackboard and wrote Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. I exclaimed, “No no no; that’s La Ti Do Re Mi Fa Sol La!” She said, “What are you talking about?” And my homeroom teacher rejoined, “Bobby, just let her teach what she wants to teach and keep quiet!”

Eiseman: But the the idea, that in the 1880s the Mayor of Boston and the head of the schools were debating this? And until the 1960’s, any elementary schoolteacher in Massachusetts had to have some piano proficiency to get a teaching certificate? Now music education is considered a luxury.

Levin: Yes, but so are mathematics.

Eiseman: Except, there are tests for that. Preparing for them, and –

Levin: Not very well, it turns out. Lee, I wouldn’t single out music. Not that I don’t share your dismay. But at first, when you said over the last 200 years, I would have found that exaggerated in terms of professional music education. I would certainly assert that that’s declining too, but I wouldn’t have chosen 200 years as the unit of measure.

Eiseman: But we are not talking about professional education.

Levin: You are talking about lay people…

Eiseman: Yes.

Levin: There’s very little doubt that the awareness of classical music is low, but certainly in university settings it’s balanced by the fact that there remains a very vibrant percentage of student bodies that is very interested in playing this stuff, and the concerts that they play are very well attended.

Eiseman: By students.

Levin: Yes, absolutely. I think Harvard is a very good example of that. Unlike many land-grant universities there is no way for a violinist to get a degree in playing violin at Harvard, or the piano, or the flugelhorn, or the drums. Student musicians Students have to get a degree in something else. Yet the sheer number of music organizations that are run entirely by students is astonishing, and the attendance, primarily, but not exclusively, by students is very, very high.

Eiseman: How much can you generalize from a Harvard experience?

Levin: I have visited many other schools and had a chance to observe these things. One of the more interesting interfaces I had with the larger picture occurred six years ago, when during the summer, Harvard was sponsoring a conclave of high school superintendents from all over the country, who gathered at Harvard. They were given the opportunity to have contact with various faculty members representing Harvard’s far-flung spheres of activity, and somebody got in touch with me, said they wanted to something that involved the music department or music, and might I make a presentation? I said, “Sure. What would you like to talk about?”
I thought about that audience and I said, “I think I’d like to talk about ‘Who cares if Classical Music Dies?'” It’s a talk l I’ve given a number of times. Six months ago, one of my colleagues at BU, Jaf Yudkin, has a lunch-time debate series there, and he invites people to come over. He usually has the guest talk first and gives himself the last word, and then the noontime audience votes on which side it supports. His point was that classical music is DEAD… and was hopeless, and so on. I insisted on being last and gave an impassioned speech about this whole thing. And to his astonishment the vote went my way.

My presentation was a combination of trying to show how Classical music makes you smart by setting up certain kinds of axioms and paradigms that make the listener participate, that make creates expectations, so that one is self-satisfied when getting what one expects and intrigued when one doesn’t. I chose one of the finest of the Mozart piano sonatas, the D Major K. 576, which is a perfect example of how that all works, because, you always get what you expected, only it’s so more imaginative than what you expect. You are constantly getting the sense that what you’ve heard is half of what you’re gong to hear, so you are projecting upwards, you are building the architecture as a listener, right along with the composer. If your mind can be made to work that way, on all levels, and not just on a musical level, obviously your ability to cope with the challenges of everyday life, to say nothing of your specialized area and your career, are gong to be enhanced. So I wanted to show that Classical music is more than just something which as a cultural artifact is a Good Thing. I wanted to try to show that Classical music has a great deal to do with mental processes. I also talked about what happens when this kind of area of culture is undermined. I lived in Europe over a thirteen-year period and continue to spend a great deal of time in numerous European countries. Over that long period I have frequently discussed politics, matters of social importance and cultural issues, with my musician and non-musician friends, including bank presidents, lawyers, and other professionals. On numerous occasions I have asked a question that nobody over there was able to answer correctly, which surprised me. The question that I asked them was, can you name the country which has existed for the longest time in history under a single constitution? Unless I am mistaken it is the United States of America, 1787. France has had two Bourbon monarchies, a bourgeois monarchy, two empires, five republics, the Commune, and the Vichy fascist government and Germany’s gotten –

Eiseman: Germany has only been a country since 1870.

Levin: And Italy wasn’t a country until then. England still doesn’t have one. People say Magna Carta, but that is not a constitution. Britain exists on common law. It is very interesting that Europeans are unaware of this fact. Now why am I mentioning this to you? Well, why do people want to come to the United States? People will say, because there’s freedom here. Because there’s unparalleled economic opportunity here? Fine, But where do those notions come from? They come from Western European liberal thought. The music that the framers of the Constitution were listening to, and they were listening to music, was the kind of music we are talking about. I wonder what you think is going to happen when you attempt – or when this country attempts – to divorce its notions of polity from the cultural liberal traditions from which they sprang? I wouldn’t be too optimistic about it. The fact is that how you think about politics, how you think about life, how you think about order, how you think about tolerance, morals, ethics is based on these cultural traditions. I tell my students that a musical performance is a moral act. You get in front of an audience, If you manipulate them, if you try to try to mislead them, if you try to become powerful at their expense, you ‘re Elmer Gantry. A renegade priest is looked upon with contempt and with ire and with outrage by people. Someone who pretends to be a poet that is actually only a cheap egotist betrays the art. But how do we in fact inculcate a sense of morality? There is an acute moral dimension to the present economic crisis, which was precipitated by irresponsible and ultimately unscrupulous financial behavior. The need to regain an ethical anchor for our daily lives is urgent.
Art is crucial because it holds a mirror up to us. It affirms John Donne’s declaration that “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for Thee.” I gave a talk like this at Dudley House at Harvard. One of the graduate students who attended raised his hand afterwards and asked a question that to me was breathtaking. He put his finger on the crux of the matter. He inquired, “Are you saying that classical music is the canary in the coal mine?” That is really good. … I told the high school superintendents, you can see go Fellini’s “Orchestra Rehearsal” if you want to see it in a metaphoric way. But playing in an ensemble, learning that your collective responsibility comes from sacrificing some of your own selfish desires but latching onto something which has not just the practical aspect – ‘You’re gonna make a lot of money if you do it, or you’re gonna be successful if you do it’ — but it produces intangible rewards that elate you, that exhilarate you, and that communicate something profound and overwhelming to an audience, this is a powerful metaphor. You play in an orchestra, and you play this kind of music that is not simple Pop music that ends in three minutes 25 seconds, but requires that people pay attention to a narrative and really understand what both order and disorder mean, what destiny means, all of these things, This is something that will turn adolescents into people who function in society in a more responsible and enlightened way.

This is the first of a series of interviews with Intelligencer editor, Robert D. Levin.


  1. Classical Music, Although not so popular or easy to understand, is vital to the success as a music student. Some of the most intense compositions on any instrument or even just notated is from the early ages of music. The history alone, including the artists, writings and what these artists went through was a display of them selfs and a model for contemporary music today. The progressions and scales created and used are from that era. So to merely leave that era in the past would not be good for the student or for the studies.

    Comment by Dwayne Carter — October 30, 2008 at 10:43 am

  2. This was really an interesting post with lots of fascinating ideas about music and music education. I look forward to reading more.

    It never ceases to amaze me that music education continues to seek justification when there are plenty of people in the world who would absolutely love to learn music and partake in its study. The problem lies in the delivery of our message and materials – things that seemingly have not changed since the invention of the printing press.

    For example, where does a successful, hip young adult go to study music? He wants to learn musical concepts, the ‘inside baseball’ stuff regardless of his chosen instrument. His choices are limited to academia (which takes itself and its music way too seriously and probably does not meet his needs by genre) or lessons in a music shop where novice musicians (who are usually even greener teachers) attempt to ‘educate’ him by rote with no regard to the sequence of concepts.

    But this same young adult is as important to our future as a university student if not more. He is our best resource, our strongest consumer and sharpest customer – he can become our strongest advocate as well. But teaching him classical music (or any music for that matter) with outdated method books and the same tired traditions will only lead to his frustration and demise. He will never get close to the ‘participation’ that Lee Eisaman speaks of or that ‘self-satisfied’ feeling of ‘getting what one expects and being intrigued when one doesn’t’. We will have lost a chance to make him an active participant in the full spectrum of musical possibilities and will have been our own fault.

    Comment by eugene cantera — October 30, 2008 at 3:50 pm

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