Was Bernstein right?



Harrogate Festival’s Artist in residence, Saleem Ashkar, considers Bernstein’s statement on the power of music.

“This will be our response to violence, to make music more intensely, more beautifully more devotedly than ever before”

Leonard Bernstein 

I’ve often had an ambiguous feeling towards this Bernsteinian declaration on behalf of music’s power in the face of existential threat. It seemed to me somewhat naive and wishful. After all, what can music do for a starving child or a war struck family?

Part of my suspicion towards such statements is triggered by the fact that we live in a world where increasingly music has to defend its existence by claiming an array of functional benefits. Listening to Mozart raises the IQ of your baby (thank god for Mozart then!). If you study music you will get better at Mathematics and other “useful” subjects. And that’s before we get on to music being “the universal language” and “the language of peace”.

Have we really come to a point where society regards beauty for beauty’s sake as superfluous? Where the highest expression of the human mind and spirit needs a functional role to justify an ever declining funding from a new generation of philistine politicians?

Music is existential. One has only to think of the concerts played on broken instruments in concentration camps, and the way singing helped sustain the struggles of the civil rights movement, to realise just how existential it is. In fact, I would even say it is biologically existential, something I realized fully when I became a parent; children are born with a need for music. But what do we mean when we speak of the power of music? Mostly, the implication is the power to do good, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story, does it? After all, over the centuries music and art in their highest form have played a part in justifying politics of cultural and racial superiority, leading to many of humanity’s most horrific acts, even whilst at the very same time they have been able to console and nourish the souls of the victims of such acts. So, music has no inherent moral attribute. It can both drum up a soldier to battle and soothe a baby to sleep.

Listening to better music does not automatically make us better human beings, either. Yet, at its essence, music is an experience of sharing. To my mind, if you listen to the Funeral March in Beethoven’s “Eroica”’ symphony for example, it is not only an expression of and reflection on your sorrow, grief and rebellion in the face of death, but also a constant if subconscious reminder that others have felt and feel the same. And therein lies the potential for music to be a transformative vehicle for empathy, when its glowing intensity melds millions separated by time and place into a shared human experience. That happens, though, only if we seek to listen for that inner voice of music. If we actively think about our relationship to it and what it reveals to us.

Music’s vulnerability makes it all the more our responsibility to protect it for its sheer glorious beauty. For its ability to safeguard our inner sanctity and the way it reminds us of what is truly human and precious in us. Lenny was right after all.

Saleem Ashkar, July 2015

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