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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Punishment by Puccini

by Norman Lebrecht / April 12, 2000

NEWS of a revolution in arts education reaches me from a little-known college on the eastern American seaboard. According to the Associated Press, students at East Connecticut State University who infringe campus rules are being forced to attend a classical concert or opera by way of punishment and absolution.

More than 50 freshmen and sophomores have suffered the penalty so far, and faculty members who originally opposed the disciplinary procedure have come round to support it, recognising that it is doing the youngsters some good.

The lightest sentence is watching a production of Tosca. This is presumably inflicted on first offenders who were late with essays or caught drinking in the dorms. The real hard cases, plagiarists and pot-smokers, will perhaps have to be exposed to a full Ring before federal inspectors can tell with empirical certainty whether the experiment has worked.

The wizards of Willimantic, leafy home of ECSU, are convinced of its efficacy. Their website promises "an education for a new century", and their dean must imagine that he has come up with the best form of remedial treatment since chain-gangs.

There is something appallingly appealing about the notion of being chastised with culture. Who among us would object to being sent to Devil's Island for a few years, if we could take the contents of the British Library and the National Institute of Recorded Sound?

But the thrust of the Willimantic Alternate Restitution Program (WARP for short) is founded on a dangerous misconception: the notion that high art is, like jogging, painful at first but probably good for you in the long run. Artists themselves are not immune to this delusion. Wagner, when he stacked Bayreuth with wooden benches, did not intend his customers to have a comfortable night out. Close to the heart of most modern art lies an ascetic artery of purification-by-pain.

The writer Brian Kellow, in the current issue of Opera, describes how when he first visited the Met he was more nervous after a four-hour Rosenkavalier than before, because courtesy required him to say something about the performance and he didn't yet know what, if anything, he felt. He went on to become a professional critic and earn a living from his torment, but many non-critics pass their opera nights in a similiar ecstasy of post-curtain anguish and embarrassment. No pain, no gain.

I recall from my own childhood piano lessons and opera matinees an adult expectation of faked gratitude on my part, founded on the assumption that I could not possibly be enjoying myself. Music at school was designed to be endured.

The notion that art must be arduous before it can be enjoyed is a late-Romantic fabrication of dubious provenance. Bach did not make his audiences share the agonies in his Passions. Chopin evoked pathos and rage without hurting sensitive ears. Mozart's highest praise for a piece of music was that "it flowed like oil". Art by duress was alien to the early masters and entered the canon only when composers sought to impose the mastery of their ideologies.

Inflicting art by force is tantamount to brainwashing. And as for the WARP idea that music makes better citizens, history teaches otherwise. Hitler was a devout Wagnerian, Mussolini was an avid violinist, and the best pianist ever to occupy the White House was Harry S. Truman, who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What good did music do in them?

I get letters, from time to time, from prisoners who discover Radio 3 in the nick and consider themselves redeemed. I hate to tell them that music has no morally improving quality. It is a neutral gift, like water. In moderation, it raises crops and quenches thirst. In excess, it ruins property and lives. Music is what we make of it, pure and simple.

Which is why I get worried when scientists claim to be "doing" things with music, whether increasing child IQs on a diet of Mozart or turning college cheerleaders into Stepford wives by threatening them with Puccini. Music, in the hands of mad boffins, is a misguided weapon of incalculable force.

But let's not mock the warpers of Connecticut. The question of whether good music is good for you sits at the centre of the debate over state subsidy and public broadcasting. Britain, the last European state to begin supporting the arts, did so in 1945 because Maynard Keynes argued that publicly funded art would create a better society. Whether he was right or not is immaterial. The interventionist case is unsustainable in the 21st century's plethora of choice.

The arts need to define a better case for public subsidy than the eroding Keynesian and Reithian formulae. Let us accept that music has no improving qualities, unless the listener is predisposed to self-improvement. But let us also recognise that music is an essential utility, again like water, and should be supplied on tap for all to make of it what they will.



Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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