Maybe it is merely a coincidence that directly or indirectly through professional musicians I recently received emails with the text of Karl Paulnack’s welcome address that was given to entering freshmen at the Boston Conservatory. Although this was made last September it is just making the rounds via email.
The timing of this address, at least the timing of it becoming well known at this particular moment in our economic malaise, is noteworthy. For the past decade we have “mortgaged” the country’s future for fast, easy gains, and government, corporate America, and consumers alike have been complicit in this unprecedented moral breakdown, perhaps similar to the roaring 20's, resulting in the depressed 30's which only WW II could rescind. Today we are left with the consequences of failing financial institutions, declining residential and commercial property, and other gathering storms, bad consumer loans and ultimately failing municipalities as their taxing power is dependent on a strong labor market and real estate values, and finally inflation. And the global nature of the crisis just makes it more frightening. This collapse is building a crescendo of anxiety.
It is easy to think of the arts being irrelevant in such an atmosphere. This is the very idea that Paulnack’s address contradicts. In fact, music is not only relevant but also essential to our survival. This address by the director of the Boston Conservatory music division who is also an accomplished pianist should be required reading during these tumultuous times.
Paulnack reminds as that even in WWII’s concentration camps there was music. “Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, ‘I am alive, and my life has meaning.’”
Or after 9/11 the author remembers, “people sang around fire houses, people sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event…was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.”
The essence of his message is “music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.” He therefore charges the incoming freshman: “I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”
The full address can be read here.
Perhaps this is one of those times when music “is needed to make sense of our lives.” Music is among the oldest of human activity (certainly predating economics!) and as Daniel Levitin states in his innovative work This is Your Brain on Music, an argument “in favor of music’s primacy in human (and proto-human) evolution is that music evolved because it promoted cognitive development. Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”
One of my favorite melodies is from a similar era, the depression years, the plaintive, ironical song, Smile, written by Charlie Chaplin, for the 1936 film Modern Times, in which he starred. In the film, Chaplin’s Little Tramp struggles to survive the Great Depression and the indifference of the modern industrialized world. The song’s melody captures the sadness of the times while the lyrics remind us to “smile and maybe tomorrow, you'll see the sun come shining through.” This is my own brief piano rendition of Smile in Windows Media format.