Posthumous portrait of Sir Philip Sidney, possibly by Hieronimo Custodis, after an original attributed to Cornelis Ketel, 1578, at Longleat House. See Strong, 1990. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Were you beginning to wonder of the title of this domain should be “almost anything but music?”
That’s why I will now address the subject in a lofty manner.
If you search using the title of this piece, you’ll find all manner of websites dedicated to the topic, most referring to neurological and educational research. These points of view are familiar and dear to me. I do intend to expound upon the multiple virtues of taking piano lessons, but as I was trying to decide what to write, it occurred to me that all of my thinking was defensive and that many of those websites were, too.
Being the lucid and direct thinker that I am (not), I was reminded of the first time I encountered Sir Philip Sidney‘s Defence of Poesie. Why on earth would anyone have to defend poetry? (After many hours in graduate seminars, I found out.) I took another look at the DoP to figure out what was roughing up my mental landscape and stumbled upon this craggy ridge:
… I will give you a nearer example of myself, who, I know not by what mischance, in these my not old years and idlest times, having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in the defence of that my unelected vocation…
And yet I must say, that as I have more just cause to make a pitiful defence of poor poetry, which, from almost the highest estimation of learning, is fallen to be the laughing-stock of children…
At first, truly, to all them that, professing learning, inveigh against poetry, may justly be objected, that they go very near to ungratefulness to seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges…
Sidney, Philip. A Defense of Poetry and Poems. London: Cassell and Company, 1891. Project Gutenberg eBook, 1999. Web. 8 Nov. 2012 <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1962/pg1962.html>
Exchange “music” for “poetry” and it’s almost exactly how I feel! Reference to classical music in our contemporary culture has almost become a semiotic flag for laughable elitism or even arrogance. In the mainstream, classical music hides in soundtracks for movies, games, and cartoons, where frequently the message is less than positive, for example, the use of “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now! In spite of some negative connotations, I’m grateful for the soundtracks. Those were my first experiences with classical music. I hope that’s what might happen for today’s children who won’t necessarily recognize a snide subtext and just hear powerful beauty.
I remember being enchanted with Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concertsas a child. There were all those dressed up New York-y people, with their well-behaved children, laughing politely in all the right spots and obviously delighted. I wonder if young people now would tolerate the programs (unless forced to view them in music class where the alternative would be active instruction). I’m sure I was partially lured into appreciation by the fact that my dad was from New York: a place, he intimated, infinitely more sophisticated than quaint little San Antonio. I was just trying to figure out what planet he came from. And that’s exactly the point. From those first tiny screened black and white encounters, I came to understand that there was something else, something higher, something better, something different…
This is what exposure to classical music, and the world of classical music, can do. As Sidney said of poetry:”… in the noblest nations and languages that are known (it) has been the first light giver to ignorance, and first nurse whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges…”
Sidney was “defending” against the Platonic idea that poetry is false because it creates an alternate reality, a “lie.” In modern culture any pursuit of knowledge unrelated to the acquisition of wealth is mostly regarded as “false” and foolish. Except, without the sense of something “else,” material possessions, beyond basic necessities, become empty.
The serious study of music, classical music, or any music complicated enough to provoke curiosity, is a gateway to the other arts, languages, literature, world cultures, comparative religion, philosophy, and more. It also teaches the joy of persistent, methodical striving for and achieving goals that are just out of reach. That makes it a perfect antidote for junk media overload and not at all antithetical to being competitive in the economic world.