Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [1]

I think I will make this a series. . . Violinist Hilary Hahn thought it would be interesting to do some interviews where instead of her being the interviewee, she would ask other music professionals questions about music. Available at her official web site are the transcripts from these interviews (there are five total as of this posting).

I would like to give a few selected excerpts from these interviews as they contain some interesting thoughts about music. And I think they also may be applied more broadly to any form of art. They help to shed further light on that wonderful aspect of being human which is our propensity for artistic creativity.

Here is an excerpt from an interview Hilary did with conductor Bramwell Tovey. Hilary is the questioner:

Q: Classical music in schools – what difference does it make, and why is it important?

A: [. . .] An education without a significant musical component is not a proper education. Music is a language and understanding something of it as a performer or listener is an important part of a well educated mind. The musical philosophies of Beethoven and Mahler are easily appreciated as life enhancing. In the case of Shostakovich, who for some reason still baffles some listeners, he heroically articulated the despair of the human condition under the nose of Stalin at a time when his compatriots were being imprisoned in the gulag. An understanding of the language of classical music is part of understanding our civilization [. . .]

And so, Tovey holds that having a serious exposure to the tradition of classical music that has come before our time is a life-enriching experience. It helps make us more human. His comment about Shostakovich acknowledges how art can reflect elements of an artist's society in a powerful way. It also illuminates the fact that learning about the history and cultural context of the times in which an artist lived is a great help in being able to more deeply receive and appreciate his art.

A few key points might be teased out, reflecting on and embellishing the above:

1. Music (and art more broadly) is an important component of the formation of an educated person. Art provides something to the human soul that is unique. Other kinds of human endeavors cannot replace the special contribution that art makes to a flourishing, well-rounded human life.

2. Being able to appreciate great art in all its depth and profundity requires some education about art. This is not to say that art cannot be enjoyed deeply without this, for it certainly can. But, to gain the most that one possibly might from great art requires at least some amount of artistic education in particular. As Tovey put it, certain types of art speak a kind of "language." Knowing something about this language adds to the ability of a receiver of art to receive in more abundance what a work of art has to give.

3. Part of the education necessary to fully benefit from the work of a particular artist is to learn about the life history of the artist, the history of his society and about the contemporary culture in which he lived.

4. A major facet of Western civilization is its artistic patrimony. If we are to understand our own civilization and its place in the world we must know something about the history, purposes, and special qualities of its great art.

I'll close with another question Hilary asked of Bramwell Tovey,

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?
A: The fact that every day of my life I am dealing in some of the greatest creations of the human mind.

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