Edward T. Cone
A few years ago a little book by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy, promised to reveal, according to its subtitle, "What Every American Needs to Know." Its eloquent plea for a more rational system of education based on a modicum of shared knowledge was supplemented by a list of "What Literate Americans Know." So far as music is concerned, at least, that list made melancholy reading; it still does in the updated and expanded edition, whether we take it as detailing what literate Americans actually do know, or what they ought to know.
The list is, as one would expect, limited to Western music since 1700; even within those limits it reveals many biases and blind (or deaf) spots. No English composer is mentioned, and only one French. (No, you're wrong: it's Bizet.) Of the four operas that make the list (guess which), none is German. Schubert is there, but not Schumann; Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but not Schoenberg and Shostakovich; Berlin and Gershwin but not Kem; and certainly not Copland or Carter. The only instrumental tide specified, beyond Sousa marches and Strauss waltzes, is Handel's "Water Music"! The most numerous category of composition is that of popular song: nursery songs, hymns, the standard Foster repertoire in detail, modem "folk" songs, "White Christmas" ......
One can, of course, deplore certain inclusions and exclusions. More important, however, is the attitude suggested by the "classical" choices that do make the grade. By mentioning Beethoven but none of his symphonies, Schubert but none of his songs, Wagner but none of his music-dramas, the list seems to be saying: what is important is not familiarity with works of art, but knowledge of facts about them. The book actually makes this point of view explicit in its recommendation of what it calls "schemata." A schema is a rough model that supplies just enough relevant information about a given subject to enable one to read or converse on a superficial level. Such a schema for Beethoven might be: "Austrian composer, Napoleonic period, nine symphonies, deaf." Obviously one need not know any of Beethoven's music to construct such a schema; one may never have heard a note. But one can carry on what Sigmund Spaeth, I believe, called cocktail conversation: "To think that he wrote his best music when he was stone deaf!"
Is that what we mean by literacy in the arts? Isn't the view of culture presented here the one illustrated by the cartoon, "Quick, Mac, where's the 'Mona Lisa'? We're double-parked!"? And isn't the type of music education that such a view encourages the one that Virgil Thomson excoriated years ago as the "Appreciation-racket"? The only kind of schema that makes sense for dealing with composers—or with artists of any kind—is that of style. When we hear the word "Beethoven" we must respond, not with a bunch of facts about the man, but with an aural concept of the style of his music—of the way it sounds. And the only relevant schema for the individual composition is the work itself: not words about it, but the memory of it.
In a word, the way to understand music is through first-hand experience. Only on that basis can one begin to appreciate the role of music in our cultural history; only then can one realize that Western music is one of our proudest intellectual achievements. In other words, only experience of music as a fine art can lead to understanding of music as a liberal art. That is the common belief that inspires the participants of the current symposium. By their several approaches, they demonstrate what cultural literacy in music really means.