Classical music and culture shock

Strange that that we dismiss many early-20th century composers as dead Europeans who wrote downtown music, but find Hitler's record collection so interesting. Neither new music nor discrimination ended in the ruins of Berlin in May 1945, and they both deserve some of the attention devoted to Adolf's proto-Classic FM playlist in the last few days.

Equality and contemporary music converged here in two recent paths about young audiences and the controversial Calliopé cover seen above right. Below are extracts from an inspirational letter received by William J. Zick over at his AfriClassical blog. Read the complete letter here. It is much more relevant to engaging with those important young people than Chaliapin singing Boris Godunov.

Dear Mr. Zick, I have regularly visited AfriClassical with interest and admiration. I am myself passionately interested in the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (portrait above left) and therefore the questions raised by the cover of the Calliope CD retained my attention. That’s why I feel a need to express my point of view.

As the Principal of a junior high school near Vichy, France, I staged a theatre show on the life and music of Saint-Georges this year with the collaboration of several primary and secondary schools, music schools and a fencing school. This show was exclusively interpreted by 14 year old students. The progam included a theatre performance, music, singing, dancing and fencing.

Saint-Georges was first introduced to our children through Saint-Georges raconté aux enfants (Saint-Georges told to children), J.C. Halley’s book, and then we adapted Le Divin Saint-Georges, Daniel Marciano’s play. Most of our students, not particularly inclined to 18th century music, often due to an unfavorable family environment for symphonic music, worked on the show during the whole academic year. It was a hard job and they were at times discouraged.

However, when they started rehearsing with costumes - perfect replicas of the period - things changed. A surprising phenomenon of identification took place: the children became Saint-Georges, Nanon, Georges de Bologne, Texier La Boëssière, d’Eon etc. The fencers tried extra hard to cross blades with style and even their attitudes were those of another century; the singers interpreted Saint-Georges’s Romances with greater conviction and the actresses and actors became different people when playing their roles.

However the highlight of the show was the participation of a group of children who came to Vichy with the Mayor of the birthplace of Saint-Georges in Guadeloupe. The encounter of these two worlds was a great event for both the children of Saint-Yorre and Baillif. In this instance, we may talk about the shock of cultures but also about a spontaneous current of sympathy which was established between the children in the presence of the parents who all wanted to take home one of the Baillif children.

I find the cover of the (Calliopé) CD utterly distasteful. It is, on the one hand, ambiguous and scornful (even racist), and on the other hand, vulgarity is not likely to attract the curiosity of children. They are far more discriminating than one may think!

To add a few more words about our show which was a success – at a secondary school level of course – we are proud of the participation of 150 children, 30 musicians, 20 fencers and 70 young choristers. Over 1000 spectators of the region of Vichy attended the show and I think I can say that it was an opportunity to introduce Saint-Georges’ music to the whole region.

With all my admiration for your work and beautiful website.

Catherine Pizon, Principale du collège Victor Hugo, Saint-Yorre

I make that more than 1270 people who were introduced to the music of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges in Saint-Yorre alone. I wonder how many people will buy the Calliopé CD?

Discover some important new music composed under the Third Reich and not in Hitler's record collection here, and more inspirational community music making from France here.
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JMW said…
Wow, Pliable, what a great post. Stunningly inspirational. Thanks for all this. You continually provide rich paths for us to follow! BTW, I have that portrait of St. Georges framed and on display in my office.
Pliable said…
Email received:

You make an excellent point about the music world's preoccupation with meaningless trivia such as Hitler's alleged record collection, while vital issues of young audiences and classical music go largely unexamined by culture critics.

Your numerous high-profile posts have been a boon to the cause of classical composers of African descent, especially Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges! Many thanks for your support.

Best wishes,
William J. Zick
Pliable said…
And wonderful to see this post resonating in France.
Pliable said…
And today's Guardian reports:

Black teenagers urgently need a new generation of professional role models to divert them from a world of gangs and criminality, a year long government study will say today.

The author of the research will call for a shift of focus "from rap stars, sports personalities and celebrities, to successful businessmen, lawyers and doctors", arguing that there is clear evidence that a deep-seated culture of low aspirations among black urban teenagers has contributed to them dropping out of school and being drawn into trouble.

In Saint-Yorre the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was successfully used as such a role model.

Which is why this story is so much more relevant to society today than Hitler's alleged record collection.
Garth Trinkl said…
Pliable, I agree strongly with John McLaughlin Williams and William J. Zick about the inspirational value and importance of you post yesterday. Thank you for your conscience.


Last night, on Classical WETA-FM, in Washington, D.C., they announced a contest to come up with the best idea on how to connect classical music and opera to a wider audience. (The prize is a pair of tickets to the Boston Pops on August 22 at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, in Northern Virgina, as well as dinner.) I hope that Mssrs Williams and Zick, their colleagues and students, and many others world-wide, will flood the Classical WETA-FM Web-site with their ideas on how to connect classical music to a wider audience.


And then there is the matter of when was the last time the National Symphony Orchestra invited an African-American conductor to the podium of the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I believe that it was many years ago, under the very fine James De Preist.

A recent guest visit from Michael Morgan or John McLaughlin Williams or another African-American or African-European, African, or African-Asian conductor? Not very likely.

I'd wager that given the deeply ingrained American racism against African-American males, that there is a greater chance of Condoleezza Rice being invited to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra (or to play a piano part to 'Carnival of the Animals') than for a qualified African-American conductor to be invited, soon, to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall podium.
JMW said…
Concerning role models: when I was growing up and studying violin, I didn't have any black role models, but I didn't care and never gave it a second thought. A good question is whether the presence of a role model of like ethnicity leads to achievement any more expeditiously than merely striving towards that which is great without regard to racial considerations. The answer to that should give one pause.
Garth Trinkl said…
Good question, jw. With all good intention, my second youth orchestra (in Oakland, CA.), and its exceptionally fine conductor Denis de Couteau (an African-American) decided to hire an African-European (French) violinist with whom to perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto just over a third of a century ago. The experience was not a happy one for either the guest violinist nor the already deeply multi-racial youth orchestra.... First, the guest violinist was extremely arrogant during rehearsals, and repeatedly tried to give instruction to the concertmaster Benjamin Simon, who subsequently went off to Yale, Juilliard, the L.A. Phil, current teaching stints at Stanford and Berkeley, and the conductorship of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Our "guest" became the butt of non-racist (possibly anti-French?) derision.... Later, the guest had to miss a few rehearsals, and the solo part was taken by a young youth orchestra alumnae and the then orchestra librarian (an Asian-American female). She rehearsed the part flawlessly ... At the one performance, the French "guest" seriously and repeatedly flubbed his part and some of the reviews pointed to the 'error' of retaining a guest artist for role-model purposes when the role could have been taken by a few of the orchestra members themselves.... Dr De Couteau later told me that he had felt obligated to try the experiment in order to present a classical music role model for young and poor African-American students in the then, and still, seriously socially troubled East San Francisco Bay Area.
JMW said…
That is an interesting story, Garth, thanks for sharing it. How times have changed, to the point that we no longer have to refer to the hiring of ethnic musicians as an experiment!

I posed the question above to spur conversation about the presumed necessity of role models who look like, well, whatever. My point is that greatness should be the only consideration, and any failure to embrace that concept is to embrace failure itself.

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