Ho Hey Revisited

Following up on this post: Paul Berman responds to Mark Oppenheimer’s foolishness. Oppenheimer replies, repenting his glibness but not his foolishness. He claims to be the only thirty-nine year old classical music fan he knows, but with fans like these, who needs haters?

Quite by coincidence, this recent post by Terry Teachout is highly relevant. In it he writes:

What’s in evidence here, I think, is something bigger, something that goes to the heart of our national character. In America you can be thought perfectly well educated without knowing much of anything about the arts. I’m acquainted with any number of board-certified intellectuals whom I doubt would recognize the names of (say) Samuel Barber, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Loesser, Lynn Nottage, Walker Percy, Preston Sturges, Paul Taylor, or Lester Young. Nor would they blush to have that fact pointed out to them. For such folk, the life of the mind is a calling that need not encompass the arts. They read histories, biographies, and books about current events, not novels, and they’re rarely if ever to be found in concert halls, theaters, or museums. It’s my guess that the National Book Awards, like the Pulitzer Prizes, have a natural tendency to reflect that collective preference.

Why should this be the case? Because ours is a youngish country with shallow cultural roots, one in which art has traditionally occupied a place well off to the side of the mainstream of American life. Even when we pay attention to the arts, our perspective on them is like as not to be utilitarian, not aesthetic.

A utilitarian perspective, exactly Oppenheimer’s limitation.

Mendelssohn and The Lumineers

This piece of classical music bashing made steam come out of my ears.  Among its foolish assertions: we shouldn’t bother giving kids music lessons (or at least on non-pop instruments) because, unlike people in the 19th century, we don’t need musical proficiency to validate our social status anymore. We shouldn’t bother about music lessons because most people don’t keep up playing their instruments. And there is no difference between the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the song “Ho Hey”.

Having children study music was never only about having a daughter with social graces. The choice to study a musical instrument today is not, as the article states, an “accident[s] of history, entirely contingent.” Could it be that there is something about having intimate, hands-on access to classical music that has to do with something other than a social context? Some of those amateur pianists in the 19th century actually experienced the music they played as art, something that enlarged their experience of life, something that nourished and challenged them in mind and heart. And amateur musicians can still have that experience today. (Don’t mistake what I am talking about for some claim about music’s moral uplift – that can be part of the experience of art, but the point of art is elsewhere.)

Oppenheimer writes, “Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah [his daughter] would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar.” I’ve listened to “Ho Hey” and doing so made me wonder what “better off” means.  Why are you “better off” to know dumb music rather than smart music? What does it mean to “love” the Mendelssohn if you think “Ho Hey” might be a better use of your time? If you know the concerto well enough to “love” it, can you still not be able to distinguish it from a banal pop song?

There are plenty of things that we are glad kids study that they will never use in daily life. For me, Algebra 2 and Trig is like an untouched clarinet in the closet. But does that mean I should not have studied any math beyond arithmetic? My mind was challenged to grow by third-year high school math in particular ways that other pursuits never could, and the same is true of music. The idea that we shouldn’t bother learning to play an instrument because people don’t go on to play all their life is circular reasoning. It’s like saying we shouldn’t like something because nobody likes it.

The post-modern point of view rejects the notion that some cultural artifacts are intrinsically more interesting than others  – “intrinsically” has become a dirty word, and  folks claim they don’t know what “the music itself” means. I continue to believe that there are pieces where the pitches and rhythms are more interesting than in other pieces. As for “interrogating” (to use a bit of scholarly jargon) the concept of “the music itself”, well, as Louis Armstrong supposedly said to the person who asked him to define swing – “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”