In the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter is very upset about Kids Today.
For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste.
Okay. That’s debatable, by which I mean wrong, but moving along.
Here’s where it gets real. Emphases in original:
Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.
To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.
“Why should we know anything about Beethoven?” The question was asked in all seriousness by a sophomore just a few months ago. When I dredged up old, tired clichés, he listened carefully—and seemed convinced! What could be sadder? He was only waiting for the smallest bit of encouragement.
I told him (approximately), “You must know Beethoven’s music because no one has ever said anything deeper about what it means to be human, to look life and death in the eye, to know beauty at its purest and most intense—if you can take it. Because Beethoven asserts his own mere human self against the whole cosmos and makes it listen; he addresses God face-to-face, like Moses, whether God listens or not. And so people all over the world study and listen to and perform his music with reverence.” Clichés, but they were news to him.
No one has ever said anything deeper! NO ONE. Beethoven makes THE VERY COSMOS listen. He GETS UP IN GOD’S FACE. Can you take it? You can’t. You can’t even take it. This is you trying to take it:
Anyway, Gelernter goes on to discuss some specific ways that Spotify and iTunes could present classical music better. Which they indisputably could! The information ontology of music metadata is designed for pop songs. It’s awkward at best for classical music. The online music services could do a better job with their metadata all the way around.
And that’s where the sensible part of the article ends. When Gelernter gets into his specific educational solutions, his argument goes off the rails. He suggests a listening package aimed at first graders, which includes Schubert’s song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” and he includes this parenthetical:
(if you want to know what the song means, we tell them sternly, learn German!)
Has this guy ever met a first grader, much less taught one? Has he ever said this to someone? Did it work? If a teacher said that to me, I would immediately stop paying attention for the rest of the semester.
The next level is easy. The music stops occasionally and asks simple questions. Is the key here major or minor? Did we just hear a cadence? What instruments do you hear?
Nothing supports a sublime listening experience better than having it be interrupted periodically so you can be asked pedantic questions.
We also have the means of building a great music city in the cybersphere, a central market where serious music comes from all over the world—in performance, in manuscript or in new or old printed editions, in scholarly and popular studies, photos and videos and biographies.
People should not, in the year 2015, be using the word “cybersphere.” But yes, this would be cool. I mean, it more or less exists already, through the combination of Google and Wikipedia, but it would be nice to have a well-organized central portal.
But this is the thing. The obstacles to the kids knowing and liking Beethoven are not technological. Kids scour the internet for information that they consider to be pertinent. The discipline they bring to bear on the study of Minecraft is humbling to behold. If a kid wants to dive deeply into Beethoven, it has never been easier to do so. The problem isn’t that kids don’t know how to use Google. The problem is that the kids don’t care about Beethoven. Or is this actually a problem?
I like Beethoven’s music fine. Some of it I love. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
But Beethoven can be, well, exhausting. Even in the piece above, once we go into the fast part, I find it be kind of strident and over the top. It gets to be like reading ALL CAPS IN BOLDFACE WITH A LOT OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!! The long strings of perfect authentic cadences are oppressive after a while.
It would be great if everyone had the opportunity to engage with Beethoven and the rest of the brilliant dead white guys. But inflicting this music on kids as if it’s bad-tasting medicine is poor pedagogy and even worse marketing. Kids respond well to enthusiasm. They don’t respond well to authority for the sake of authority, or humorless hectoring, or being told to go learn German when they ask a simple question. Music teachers, if you want your students to like what you like, it’s not hard. All you have to do is not be an overbearing pedant about it.