Rock and disco, the typical middle-class alternatives to Afro-American popular music, are inferior forms of music; however, as Pete Townsend helped us to see in the last Songbook post, it may usually be too difficult, and is (arguably) inauthentic anyhow, for middle class persons to play Afro-American music.
So perhaps, the proper middle class path would be a return to fine arts music.
Well, if that shoe seems to fits you, dear reader, I say give it a go. Lord knows we need more classical fans. When the boomers pass away, so will half the classical music performance in America. My generation, now well into the ages in which many boomers had turned to classical after a youthful fling with rock, does not support it in economically adequate numbers. Nor, I fear, will the millennial generation.
Pop, of course, will always be with us. So we should never seek to blame the long eclipsing of classical and jazz on the types that actually buy recordings by Lady Gaga or Shania Twain. No, the blame is more properly affixed to those educated types that turned to, and have remained in, rock and its entire attitude.
Here’s two things you’d gain from “going classical.”
First, one basic lesson of genuine liberal education—that there is a fairly clear pattern of how to cultivate virtue—has a musical application that certain forms of classical music were deliberately designed to serve. Carson Holloway’s fine All Shook Up provides, among other things, a sound summary of Plato’s and Aristotle’s teaching about music: both hold that musical forms apart from any lyrics influence emotional disposition, and that this is particularly so for music heard repeatedly and by the young. For this reason, both recommend styles of music that imitate measured, noble, and logos-friendly emotional states. Holloway also provides a useful collection of results from social science studies on the question of music’s effect, and these largely confirm the insights of the classical teaching. Holloway convincingly argues that Plato and Aristotle were correct to recognize the character-influencing effect of music, and derives from them a basic guideline: music which indiscriminately stirs our passions or which deliberately fosters our lower ones should be usually avoided.
Second, outside of a few “strict constructionist” Platonists, real liberal education “lets Homer back in.” Because in doing so it assumes that the philosophy-honoring student can benefit from portrayals made of the likes of Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor, Aeneas, Dido, Mars, Venus, Henry V, and Portia, it follows that music that can imitate such characters, despite its stirring passions that go to heights and depths well beyond the ordinary, sometimes in ways directly contrary to the basic virtue education guideline, would fit such education. Whatever Plato would say to that, it is obviously the sort of idea that a Wagner, a Berlioz, or a Shakespeare would endorse. And Aristotle’s defense of tragedy puts him to some degree in this camp as well.
To speak more plainly, if you are going to spend time with Great Books, thinking it worthwhile to understand, say, what Virgil means the doomed love of Dido and Aeneas to teach(with more patience than Augustine, perhaps?), then you are precisely the sort who might benefit from experiencing the rich musical portrayals of this love found in Purcell or Berlioz. Emerson once said that you read the lives of Plutarch, and the world seems a grand place…I’d add that in classical literature generally, you are given models to aspire to, and the sort of music one hears in the likes of Les Troyens can fire that aspiration further.
So classical music usually tries to be 1) friendly to basic cultivation of arête, and 2) poetically aristocratic.
Now rock n’ roll, and the whole Afro-American tradition, seems naturally in opposition to classical music—outside of some jazz developments, it’s all lower class dance music. Thus, the musical expression of class distinctions, such as was known in Europe, ought to apply. As we see in Master and Commander, the captain and the doctor play their Mozart violin duets in the captain’s quarters, whereas the crew on deck enjoy some sort of reel-type dance music set to fiddle. And the cook’s complaint about the Mozart is, “scrape, scrape, scrape…never a tune you can dance to!” I suppose he would not be impressed by the proper dances played in those brief scenes Jane Austen features in her novels, either. So as for Afro-American music, with its half-African elements, and its peculiarly American connection to a more democratic attunement, it ought to be all the more opposed to the music of the European upper classes, right?
Actually, no. I say this even though a musicologist could demonstrate a greater formal similarity between European folk music and classical, than between our Afro-American music and classical. The socio-cultural opposition of rock n’ roll to classical, I say, is more of a European story than an American one. It’s not that the divide or at least tension between the two didn’t exist in America, it’s just that Americans, and particularly African-Americans, found ways of negociating that tension and living with it. This was often done with humor, such as with the mocking reverse-minstrely of the cakewalk. It was also done by a greater comfort with compartmentalization: this is for the concert hall, that is for the dance hall, and it is not my class (or race) that places me in one or the other venue, but my present musical needs and purposes—indeed, in the course of one evening, democratic me (and yet ineradicably aristocratic me, also) may move from one to the other. Carnegie Hall at 8, The Savoy by 11. And then there is another movement—for the unparalleled sounds of Afro-American music, jazz especially, astounded classical musicians from the get-go, and more importantly convinced their creators of their own aristocratic rights (that’s King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, to you, son)—this is the movement that even from out of the speakeasies was beginning to envision the sort of thing Ralph Ellison would articulate years later, in 1969:
I have no idea where we will all be a hundred years from now, but if there is a classical music in which the American experience has finally discovered the voice of its own complexity, it will owe much of its direction to the achievements of Edward William Ellington.
That is, Ellison sees a classical music of the future that has been more thoroughly shaped by jazz, and sees it as taking its place as the distinctively American fine-arts music.
By contrast, Chuck Berry with his “Roll over Beethoven” was not trying to peer out into the grand democratic vistas of America’s cultural future. Bayles reports that the lyrics were in part inspired by Berry’s boyhood impatience one day to have his turn on the family piano, because his sister was monopolizing it with her Beethoven practice. You read that right: Berry’s sister was far more classically cultivated than the average American, white or black, is today. Now the song has a quick point to make about the general stuffiness of classical cultivation, but it’s made according to an old dance-craze song formula, where you praise the current dance music and its addictiveness, and dismiss whatever went before it as worthless, particularly anything serious or romantic. Berry’s song was by no means the first to thus dismiss classical—take Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Rock It for Me”:
…Now I’m all through with symphony
Ohh…rock it for me.
It’s true that once upon a time, the opera was the thing,
but today, the rage, is rhythm and rhyme,
so won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll?
…It ain’t no shame, to keep your body swaying,
beat it out, in the minor key,
Ohh… rock it for me.
Well, the folks who held, even as late as 1937, that being classy was all about opera, symphony, and Tchaikovsky-style high romanticism did need to be taken down a peg or two. But did Fitzgerald and the members of the Webb orchestra turn their backs on classical music? Did Chuck never willingly listen to another Beethoven sonata? We sure can’t deduce such from these formula-bound songs. I can report, however, that many of the best swing-era jazz musicians had a deep appreciation of classical: Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker are just a few of the more significant names. And swing itself was all about keeping it classy even as you turned up the heat—at one point in “Rock It for Me” Ella asks the players to send me lightly, politely, brightly, and tightly—a set of adverbs you could not exactly slip into a Cramps song, or a Rolling Stones one.
But ours have been less happy times for living out that tension. The Songbook once sketched a sort of Tocquevillian social analysis to better explain the gravitation of so many of our intellectual types towards rock and away from fine arts music, even sincerely offering up the excuse of zeitgeist attunement for this otherwise embarrassing pattern.
The fuller story is that there were very understandable reasons, particularly by the 1960s, for middle-class persons to turn away from fine-arts music. First, the romanticism that dominated classical music for the 19th and early part of the 20th century, spoke to, as Allan Bloom put it, an “exquisite sensibility” difficult to appreciate outside of aristocratic circles. Second, the cutting-edge of classical music from the 1930s on, a la Schoenberg, became forbiddingly abstract and experimental. Third, within jazz itself, aspects of this hyper-modernism were echoed by certain developments, alienating much of its potential audience, and burning the bridges it really could build between concert hall and dance hall.
But here’s the big factor: the often frenetic character of career-dominated middle-class life doesn’t lend itself to the meditative listening that classical music requires. We have chores to do, commutes to make, and the likes of James Brown helps us with them more than likes of Chopin can. For similar reasons, tossing some classical music in the stereo can become a callous action which just doesn’t fit the real state of our lives, even if our lives would in fact be better ones if they contained the leisure and education necessary to really appreciate such music. Richard Wilbur’s poem “C Minor” speaks to this well:
Beethoven during breakfast? The human soul,
Though stalked by hollow pluckings, winning out
(While bran-flakes crackle in the cereal-bowl)
Over despair and doubt?
In a life dominated by cereal-munching or mundane chores, it is not so clear that Beethoven in the background is the way to go.
And finally, we can’t deny that the various excellences of Afro-American music struck others in such an unforgettable manner that persons all over the planet have had to confess with Carl Perkins that, musically, they’ll never be the same.
I notice with myself, for example, that I often seem to respond to Afro-American music more than I do to my favorite types of classical. Logos-wise, I read Holloway and Aristotle and agree, and maybe I spin some of my favorite Haydn pieces, maybe even “The Philosopher.” And I am moved, and my soul is shaped, but I know that there’s a music that moves me more. Perhaps I came to serious classical cultivation too late. But I often feel that more is involved, that through dim echoes contained in countless recordings, beginning for me with the first pop songs I loved as a child, the momentous-yet-hidden events that occurred in New Orleans and Azusa St. more than a century ago have been reaching into me across the years, so that whatever any philosopher convinces me about what I ought to want, I know I will always want to be in that number…
…but for so many inner ears, it is London that’s calling nowadays. Next time, we’ll explore why I think it was the response of the British Bohemians to this Afro-American impact upon their own musical attunement that really set the present scene.