"Are You A Highbrow?"

Email a Friend
Mme. Olga Samaroff-Stokowski in a 1943 publicity photo.

From the December, 1943 WQXR Program Guide:

When you think of interesting approaches to music you think of Mme. Stokowski, whose Layman's Music Course at Town Hall, New York, has been famous for years. To know why she is so successful in her method, we suggest you listen to her WQXR program every Sunday morning at 10 A.M.

In the Oxford Dictionary, we find the definition of the word high-brow is "adjective and noun, (U.S. slang), (person) of detached intellectual views on politics, etc."

Unhappily, we have to include great music in that all embracing "etc.," although there is nothing "intellectually detached" about this art to which the word is so often applied. Definitions of words are not nearly so important as the reasons behind their use. The word "impressionistic" was originally applied by a waggish critic in Paris as a term of ridicule to certain paintings exhibited by a group of artists whose works had been rejected by the reactionary Parisian Academy. In the course of time it became the serious designation of an important school of painting.

The word "high-brow" (strangely adolescent for present-day America) may have been invented by one of those unhappy husbands who found himself more or less obligated to accompany his enthusiastic wife to concerts and operas when his own longings took the direction of vaudeville and musical comedy. There are many such musically uninterested and rebellious males in the United States--perhaps more than in European countries, where parental authority was strong enough in the past to force unwilling little boys to make friends with art music through playing the piano or the violin. In the new world, on the other hand, we allowed the legend to persist that music is an unmanly pursuit.

As far as I can make out, the word "high-brow" in its current connection with music is a synonym for "undesirable." It is used by some as a term of ridicule, much as the traditional tourist of former times in Europe regarded every language he did not understand as funny. Every world traveler has met such tourists and heard them make feeble jokes about "parley-voo." Still other people use the word "high-brow" as a term of rejection. Among these we find the aforementioned unhappy husbands whose frame of mind before the ordeal of sitting for an hour-and-a-half on stiff chairs at a symphony concert is probably akin to that of a woman who said (before being taken to a political meeting), "I have a perfectly unprejudiced and unbiased mind. Therefore I am going to listen to what I am firmly convinced is utter rubbish."

It is amazing how vigorously and tenaciously people who think they cannot understand great art music will resist the possibility of enjoying it!

The most musically unhappy husband I ever knew endured symphony concerts in Boston for twenty-five years and managed to keep his prejudice against them completely intact. Instead of listening to the music, he took refuge (paradoxically enough!) in the "intellectual detachment" of reading the program notes and disagreeing with every word. Once--according to his own account--he turned over two pages instead of one and 'was sad at the wrong time," a neat satire on the futility of telling people what they should feel while listening to music!

Perhaps we are at the crossroads where the word "high-brow" will either change its meaning or be dropped altogether. Looking back along the road we have already traveled, we find grave errors committed by professional musicians in what might be called the field of music public relations. People who could not carry a tune were pronounced by them to be tone-deaf and were cast into outer darkness. By the same token people who were not endowed with a singing voice they cared to listen to, or people who did not play an instrument were made to feel that they were rank outsiders. Professional musicians, while constantly stressing performance, neglected the development of intelligent listening.

Peering ahead on the road we must still travel in our changing world, things look very different. The radio and phonograph are doing for music what the invention of printing did for literature. They are making it universally accessible as one of the great experiences of life. The invention of printing would have been of little avail if there had not been the increase in literacy that accompanied it. The wonderful possibilities created by the radio and phonograph demand a musical equivalent of literacy--and everyone who has a real contact with the every-growing public for art music realizes how keen is the demand for such a development of receptive powers. The first efforts in this direction were christened "music appreciation." This is undoubtedly a misnomer. People can no more be taught to "appreciate" than they can learn how to react emotionally. What is really important is to become aware of the element that "gives sense to sound"--not through association of ideas with things outside of music, but through recognition of the fundamental elements of one of the greatest means of expression of joy, grief, love, anger, and jealousy. Human beings not only experience emotion but have the capacity to express it in one way or another; and when a Shakespeare expresses those same emotions, the inspirational way in which he does it achieves immortality. An appreciation of the way in which musical geniuses express emotion proves that the same thing is true of music. In order to have a complete experience, the listener must react not only emotionally but must also be aware of the magic of the art through which he receives the composer's message. The listener who has found the road to such musical awareness will have no place in his vocabulary for the word "high-brow."


Photo: Olga Samaroff-Stokowski circa 1917, Library of Congress.