The Conductor and his Audience

David Whitwell [2017]

Writ­ten in hon­or of the retire­ment of Dr. Ronald John­son from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North­ern Iowa

On the final day of my 2017 con­duct­ing tour of Italy I took advan­tage of a rare non-pro­fes­sion­al day to vis­it the famous medieval cathe­dral in Milano. As I was sit­ting in the nave enjoy­ing a qui­et moment of con­tem­pla­tion fol­low­ing a very full five weeks of con­duct­ing and teach­ing sem­i­nars, not to men­tion the time con­sumed by trav­el itself, I began to con­sid­er my fel­low vis­i­tors to this great archi­tec­tur­al marvel.

The plaza before this cathe­dral is always filled with hun­dreds of vis­i­tors to Milano and a great many of them stand in very long lines wait­ing to obtain a tick­et to vis­it the cathe­dral and then in addi­tion­al long lines to actu­al­ly enter the church. Why, I began to won­der, are these hun­dreds of ordi­nary tourists, most of whom had prob­a­bly not been in any church dur­ing the past months, will­ing to stand an hour or more in lines to see the inside of this cathe­dral? To be sure, the build­ing is promi­nent­ly fea­tured in all tourist pub­li­ca­tions as one of the things to see in Milano, but is there any­thing else in Milano, save the famous paint­ing by Leonar­do, for which they would make this phys­i­cal sacrifice?

Once inside the great expanse of this cathe­dral, except­ing a few in prayer, these tourists, in their shorts and base­ball caps, with cell-phones and oth­er means of pho­tog­ra­phy at hand, seemed to me to be notice­ably lost. Most were walk­ing with­out direc­tion, look­ing left and right and appear­ing some­what con­fused about what to admire. They were tak­ing pic­tures of tombs and memo­r­i­al stones of obscure, long for­got­ten arch­bish­ops, pho­tos of the stain glass win­dows of course, but most­ly tak­ing pic­tures of them­selves — doc­u­ment­ing their pres­ence in this famous tourist destination.

Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the effort and sac­ri­fice to actu­al­ly get into the cathe­dral and the appar­ent con­fu­sion on many faces regard­ing what to do once they were inside, I began to con­tem­plate on the ques­tion, Why are they Here? What in some sub­con­scious aspect of human nature draws them here? And what will they take away with them from hav­ing been here? On fur­ther reflec­tion, it seems to me that there is some­thing involved in human nature here from which it fol­lows that per­haps the very same ques­tions may be asked regard­ing the audi­ences who pop­u­late con­certs of clas­si­cal music.

Whether from the per­spec­tive of sci­ence or phi­los­o­phy, it is clear that we are a bicam­er­al species. We have a ratio­nal side, which involves most of the com­mon activ­i­ties of life, and an expe­ri­en­tial side, which involves only our own per­son­al expe­ri­ences, feel­ings and emo­tions and aware­ness of our sens­es. Almost all of edu­ca­tion is designed for the ratio­nal side, and is, inci­den­tal­ly, entire­ly past tense. Because our expe­ri­en­tial side is entire­ly per­son­al in nature, and is the real present tense us, there is a kind of void with respect to the world of facts and data of which most of soci­ety depends. It is this void which caus­es a cer­tain inse­cu­ri­ty in one’s cog­nizance of his own spir­i­tu­al life. Adding to this inse­cu­ri­ty is the fact that our expe­ri­en­tial side, the right hemi­sphere of our brain, is mute, it can­not write or speak. It is the con­se­quence of this inse­cu­ri­ty in our spir­i­tu­al aware­ness which, I believe, is the ori­gin of our uncon­scious need for con­tact with the spir­i­tu­al world, includ­ing both music and reli­gion. We are drawn instinc­tive­ly to both music and reli­gion in the need for expe­ri­enc­ing an uplift­ing in our spir­i­tu­al life. This need for uplift­ing the spir­i­tu­al side of our­selves, as opposed to mere enter­tain­ing or pleas­ing our­selves, is what Aris­to­tle rec­og­nized when he cre­at­ed the new branch of phi­los­o­phy, Aesthetics. 

It falls, there­fore, to the choice of every con­duc­tor to be either an enter­tain­er or a source of uplift­ing and enlight­en­ing the audi­ence. It is this choice which I believe will deter­mine the cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty of Ital­ian civic bands in the future. What does this mean in terms of the selec­tion of the musi­cal lit­er­a­ture you set before your play­ers and your pub­lic? We must begin with the recog­ni­tion of two long accept­ed prin­ci­ples regard­ing aes­thet­ic music, music which uplifts and enlight­ens the listener.
First, there is no mid­dle posi­tion. When the lis­ten­er leaves the per­for­mance he will feel either enter­tained or enlight­ened. There can be vari­ety in the pro­gram­ming, but there can be no doubt that in ret­ro­spect the lis­ten­er will in the end feel hav­ing been enter­tained or hav­ing been enlight­ened. The sec­ond long accept­ed prin­ci­ple is based in part on the first; aes­thet­ic music can have no pur­pose oth­er than the direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the lis­ten­er’s feelings.

The ques­tion for band con­duc­tors con­cerned about the role of their medi­um in the soci­ety of the future is there­fore whether they choose to enter­tain their audi­ence or be a source of spir­i­tu­al enlight­en­ment. For those who wish to enter­tain their pub­lic they must face the fact that their choice will be in com­pe­ti­tion with the extra­or­di­nary vari­ety in enter­tain­ment already offered the pub­lic. In my hotel room in Milano was a cable TV with a pre­set choice of 1,000 chan­nels. Not all are yet filled, but the very prospect of the plan­ning is stag­ger­ing. And then there are sport­ing events, cin­e­ma and an end­less list of oth­er enter­tain­ment pos­si­bil­i­ties. Can the band com­pete with all this as an enter­tain­ment medi­um? Sure­ly most con­duc­tors will fore­see that being a source of spir­i­tu­al enlight­en­ment of the pub­lic is the greater con­tri­bu­tion to their town and soci­ety at large.

Anoth­er very impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion regard­ing the selec­tion of musi­cal lit­er­a­ture for the civic band is the spir­i­tu­al growth and edu­ca­tion of the con­duc­tor him­self. The music we play is the great­est sin­gle con­tri­bu­tion to our own growth. I recall hear­ing a beau­ti­ful recital by the great pianist Emanuel Ax dur­ing which the pro­gram of the music of Schu­bert was heard con­sist­ing of the most sen­si­tive and free inter­pre­ta­tion of phras­es and cadences. In lis­ten­ing to this beau­ti­ful inter­pre­ta­tion it occurred to me that the per­for­mance was not the result of the pianist’s for­mal edu­ca­tion, or even the result of his own study as a stu­dent. Rather it was the music itself, the music of Schu­bert, which taught the pianist the musi­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ty he com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the pub­lic. How much music in the band reper­toire is capa­ble of teach­ing us greater musi­cal­i­ty? Very lit­tle I am afraid and so we must look for reper­toire from which we also grow. 

Final­ly, for the con­duc­tor who desires to enlight­en his pub­lic, he must learn to also under­stand and com­mu­ni­cate the non-ratio­nal con­tent of the score, for obvi­ous­ly it is this which com­mu­ni­cates with the audi­ence. This entire sub­ject is not taught in music schools whose sole cur­ricu­lum is only the gram­mar of music. For exam­ple, in ref­er­ence to a ques­tion about pre­cise tem­pi Beethoven observed that “feel­ing has its own tem­po.” In what aca­d­e­m­ic music class is this discussed?

Because music schools teach only the gram­mar of music they lead the young con­duc­tor to believe his job is to present a faith­ful per­for­mance of what he sees and under­stands from what is on the page before him. But this is not the pur­pose of con­duct­ing; the pur­pose of con­duct­ing is to repro­duce the music, not the nota­tion. Con­sid­er the won­der­ful com­po­si­tion by Mil­haud, his Suite Française. If one only stud­ies the musi­cal gram­mar on the page, chords, coun­ter­point, etc., one often ends up pre­sent­ing to the audi­ence only anoth­er of many pleas­ant “folk-song” com­po­si­tions. But this is far removed from what the com­pos­er him­self was think­ing. He wrote that he was think­ing of “war, destruc­tion, cru­el­ty, tor­ture and mur­der.” In what the­o­ry or con­duct­ing class will we find this discussed?