"A true, lively, and experimentall description"

Today’s topic: how current modes of classical-music discourse are and are not like the literary efforts of early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now, I am, myself, a non-native New Englander, which may be why I have 1) a more-than-passing fascination with New England history that 2) tends to come from a somewhat oblique angle. Veterans of school-grade American History have absorbed the standard view of the early New Englanders: high-minded, humorless Puritans, full of Protestant work ethic and Calvinist grimness, the traditionally-cited sources of the flinty New England intellect. But dig a little deeper, and you find an awful lot of that work ethic being expended in advertising that ethic, making sure everybody knew how high-minded and hard-working the New Englanders were. Viewed in this way, early New England more and more resembles the sort of shadowplay of moralistic façades that Hawthorne, for instance, made so trenchantly entertaining.

So I’ve been having a good time reading Phillip H. Round’s By Nature and By Custom Cursed: Transatlantic Civil Discourse and New England Cultural Production, 1620-1660. Round’s thesis is that much of the intellectual and literary groundwork of what came to be categorized as the New England Mind was shaped by the fact that those literary efforts were specifically designed for readers back in England. The traditional New England virtues of sobriety and objectivity, for instance, first appear as literary strategies to convince English readers of the colonists’ fantastic stories, that the passenger pigeons really did flock in such numbers as to blot out the sun, &c. A prime example of the strategy is found in the note “To the Reader” from William Wood’s popular 1634 book New Englands Prospect:

…I presume to present thee with the true, and faithfull relation of some few yeares travels and experience, wherein I would be loath to broach any thing which may puzzle thy beleefe, and so justly draw upon my selfe, that unjust aspersion commonly laid on travailers; of whom many say, They may lye by authority, because none can controule them….

“So there is many a tub-brain’d Cynicke, who because any thing stranger than ordinary, is too large for the straite hoopes of his apprehension, he peremptorily concludes it is a lye,” Wood goes on. “But I decline this sort of thicke-witted readers, and dedicate the mite of my endeavours to my more credulous, ingenious, and lesse censorious Country-men”. Round notes how such favorable reportage of New England’s wonders—exotic flora and fauna, in seemingly endless quantities—was often couched in terms of that most gentlemanly of English pursuits, science, the observations given an extra veneer of plausibility by a restrained and matter-of-fact style (along with frequent reminders of the observer’s unimpeachable moral standing).

But Round also notes that such objective reports were, not infrequently, flat-out disinformation. He traces a series of letters sent by one Emmanuel Altham, assuring investors back in London that things in the colony were going swimmingly, until the ruse proved untenable and he was forced to admit that the swimming was not, in fact, all that good. As the early years of the colony went along, the pressure from financial interests back in the home country became substantial enough—and the need to project an image of success and confidence correspondingly important enough—that John Winthrop, the governor, ordered the collection and censorship of all incoming and outgoing mail and printed material.

I don’t think it is too far a stretch to find similar tension at work in the way we talk about classical music, and the fine arts in general, in the context of the modern mass media. There’s the desire to advertise the wonders of this exotic realm—those inclined to this option can take odd comfort in the fact that Wood’s laudatory New Englands Prospect was a hit back in England, while its critical, polemical counterpart, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, was a flop. But there’s also the caution of creating too rosy a picture, lest the suspicion arise of “lying by authority.” It’s the sort of thing Dave Hickey warns against in a quote that Alex Ross posted a few weeks back:

Seducing oneself into believing in art’s intrinsic ‘goodness,’ however, is simply bad religion, no matter what the rewards. It is bad cult religion when professing one’s belief in art’s ‘goodness’ becomes a condition of membership in the art community.

The “death of classical music” types (they’re back for the holidays!) will often imagine such talking up to do more damage than good, painting classical-music apologists as, basically, latter-day Emmanuel Althams, papering over shortfalls with increasing desperation. Here’s a recent example from Greg Sandow, a standard source. In fact, go back a few months, to that whole dust-up between Greg and Heather MacDonald, and it’s kind of like reading Thomas Morton and William Wood all over again.

Except it’s not, not quite. The dissonance isn’t in the recasting of the classical-music tradition as a colony of a back-home popular mass-media culture. The dissonance is that there is no back home. There is no country to which we could send missives and pamphlets of the marvels of our new world. Everything in culture today, every genre, every style, is, essentially, its own colony. We separate into large categories—”popular,” “classical,” “art”—for convenience, but those are increasingly flimsy umbrellas. Which is why, I think, fashioning discourse about classical music as if it’s a report back to the home country of popular culture, as if there even is a home country of popular culture, misses the point.

This is something that has always frustrated me about the death-of-classical polemics: they’re predicated on a mass popular counterpart that is increasingly illusory. Classical music needs to become more attuned to popular culture, goes the trope—but both “classical music” and “popular culture” have fragmented into free-standing colonies, which individuals are more and more free to visit as they please. (And the trope usually ignores how much the colonies are evolving without any help.) That’s not to say that there aren’t monolithic forces that tend to make such visits less free than we might think they are, but those forces are economic and technological more than cultural.

John Winthrop, in his “Model of Christian Charity,” warned of the need to keep up appearances:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. So that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee have undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

It’s a famous passage, the source of every “city on the hill” citation of American exceptionalism. But I think the cultural landscape is no longer such that classical music, in any of its many overlapping guises, is going to rise and fall based on the perception of the “eies of all people.” Better to amplify what it is than to try and make it behave like something it’s not—as Wood’s subtitle promised, “Laying downe that which may both enrich the knowledge of the mind-travelling Reader, or benefit the future Voyager.” The wonders will always puzzle the belief of some; but they probably wouldn’t be happy living here anyway.

One comment

  1. This post is brilliant! I couldn't fathom how you were going to make a connection, but by gosh, you did. I'm pure amateur in exploration of contemporary classical music (if you're interested, go to http://rainingacorns.blogspot.com/2010/12/slouching-toward-lachenmann-john-cage.html), but have found such a cache of riches that I am trying to shake everyone's cage (no pun intended . . .) to try music they wouldn't ordinarily choose. Your post gives me yet another way to think about this issue. Is it possible to become a follower of your blog?

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