A Declaration of Independence for the Listener

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Howard Hanson, Composer and Director of the Eastman School of Music

Howard Harold Hanson (1896-1981) was a composer, conductor, educator and music theorist. He was Director of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his Symphony no. 4. A year earlier he wrote the following essay which appeared in the March, 1943 WQXR Program Guide. 

Ten years ago, a few weeks before Hitler's assumption of the Chancellorship of the Reich, I was in Germany at the invitation of the then German government to conduct a series of concerts of American symphonic music. During my visit to Berlin I was shown the magnificent equipment of the central station of the Reichs Rund Funk -- built, as my guide slyly informed me, "with American money" --and introduced to the German method of state radio control. In examining the musical programs of the station I was impressed by the large proportion of time devoted to contemporary music of the atonal school. I asked the radio director how the listeners responded to such large quantities of this music. He replied, "We are not interested in what they like -- we give them what is good for them."

Fortunately there is no Kultur-Kammer in America. There is no such word as ought in the vocabulary of the American listener. He can enjoy the songs of Stephen Foster, the works of Alban Berg, or the melodies of Irving Berlin. In fact, he can enjoy them all if his tastes are sufficiently catholic. No one, as far as I know, is pontificating on "what is good for us."

Yet in art, as in any other form of human expression, eternal vigilance is the price that we must pay for the preservation of our intellectual and artistic freedom. There are always forces at work which seek to codify, standardize, and limit what we are privileged to hear. In the United States this takes the form not of an official Kultur Kammer but of a series of forces, each working to establish its own beliefs. It is our good fortune that these forces are so frequently antipathetic that each tends to offset the other.

There is, first of all, the basic conservatism of the patron group in music and musical management. This group is apparently convinced that the music of the world has already been written, and is indifferent to and suspicious of any presumption which would add to the world's musical literature. A glance at operatic repertory for the last ten years illustrates this point. The thesis of the members of this group is that their duty is not to experiment but to present the masterpieces of the past in what they consider to be the best tradition. Their philosophy is not without its merits but it is easy to see that if it had been followed consistently in the past music would have died of dry rot long ago.

A second group is the group which is strongly, almost violently, in favor of contemporary music but which has already decided what aesthetic path contemporary music should follow. The composers who follow this path are admitted to the select circle, those who do not are relegated to the outer darkness. The neo-classicists frown upon the exponents of the "tone-row," and the latter frown upon everybody.

Just to be on the safe side let us as listeners, performers, and composers reassert our declaration of independence. If the listener wishes to escape from too-depressing realities and roam the seas with Debussy, delighting in the play of light upon the waters and listening to the dialogue of the wind and the waves, who shall say him nay? Or perhaps he prefers a trip to the circus with Walter Piston's delightfully incredible flutist. Or, if he is in a retrospective mood, he may accept my invitation to go back to the dim days of the past and observe the rites of the Vikings as they bid a final farewell to Beowulf, their chieftain.

A plague on those who say we should not use music as an escape. Of course music is an escape, an escape to the forest, to the sea, to the cathedral, to the past, to the future. But it is more than an escape. It is a renewer of life, an invigorator of the spirit. It is both solace and inspiration. Let us accept music as the great minister to the human spirit and take from its bounteous store of beauty whatever is our greatest need.