Apr 162008

The classical arts serve a purpose far more important than to just entertain us, though that is one of their important by-products. They demonstrate that humanity shares the same myths, and the same concerns and troubles, and that through art and history, we can understand them

Occasionally I am transported by some real-world experience beyond the mundane everyday world in which political and economic problems seem to dominate our consciousness to a more instructive world of myth, history, and imagination. I made such a journey recently, and it took me only an hour west of Washington — to Warrenton, Virginia. There I heard the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra join with the American Centre for Puccini Studies to present the great Italian composer’s very first opera, “Le Ville”.

Warrenton doesn’t seem very special at first glance — a middle-American town that is not in Middle America. It started as a crossroads in its earliest days and grew large enough to be incorporated as a town 200 years ago. In those 200 years its population has grown from a handful to about 6,700 inhabitants. It is close enough to Washington for very hardy souls to commute every day to work, though the traffic along the main artery, Route 66, is fierce. A long historical tradition of independence and pride, as well as a dynamic population, enables this small town to maintain its own cultural identity and economic core despite the magnetism of the nearby capital.

The trip reminded me once again that, despite the many lamentations one hears about the coarse popular culture of the US (and it often is), there is a depth and breadth to this country that often goes unnoticed abroad, or even at home, almost drowned out by the pervasive assertiveness of that popular culture. In a country of 300 million people, I suppose it is not surprising that so much of what one could call the “classical” arts — music, dance, theatre — survives and prospers, even though there is almost no government support for it.

Almost any American city of any size has its own symphony and many have an opera company. Just recently, for example, I received notices in the mail that Puccini’s “Tosca” will be performed at the Sacramento Opera (my hometown) and his “Madame Butterfly” at the Baltimore Opera (is this a Puccini year?). Dance companies have multiplied, and theatre companies abound. For Americans across the nation, there is a feast of such cultural choices in towns as small as Warrenton, and they do not have to always be in such proximity to a metropolitan area such as Washington.

As a reminder of the strength and depth of the American classical arts, April 11 marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most memorable high points for classical music in America. On that date in 1958, a 23-year-old Texan named Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, a competition which the Soviets had designed to demonstrate their superiority over the US in the classical arts. They planned to add this to their claim of technological superiority (having just launched Sputnik six months earlier). Legend has it that the Soviet judges had to ask permission of Premier Nikita Kruschchev to award an American the prize. Cliburn is the only classical musician in US history ever to receive a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City.

The Piedmont Symphony is, like most of the other groups that are the bedrock of this thriving tradition of classical arts, an amateur group. Its members are not professional musicians, but typical of the individual talent and private effort that brings dedicated and talented amateurs together into symphonies, opera and dance companies, and theatre groups, and drives them to find the time and resources to perform at a professional level. They all work at “day jobs” and find the time in their private lives to practice and rehearse, learn new scores, and become more expert. Their rewards are psychological, and those include the praise of their neighbours, family, and friends who turn out in droves in borrowed or rented halls to hear and see them perform. It is, as the economists say, psychic income.

It is usually the “classic” itself — the opera, the play, or the dance — that is the star of the show. Classics have remained classic because they speak to some fundamental part of the human condition; they portray the myths, “the mystic chords of memory”, to use Lincoln’s words, that evoke either the common fears or the common hopes of humanity. These mystic chords bind us all together to resist the anti-human forces to which some of our fellow humans become enthralled. It is the myths that often describe the punishment society will demand for those who have failed to listen to those mystic chords and ignored “the better angels of our nature”.

Puccini’s “Le Villi” epitomises these classical virtues. It also demonstrates that classics may fade in and out of our perception, but they never really disappear. Puccini’s first opera was a smash success when first performed in 1884 and played often in the next 50 years, only to fall into disuse in the middle of the 20th century. It has been rediscovered recently.

“Le Villi” is a fable that incorporates four of the most common mythological themes. The first is the young male, not yet mature enough to understand the danger that surrounds wandering outside the moral limits the community has set, and that those who transgress these limits risk tragedy. The second is that ever-present mythological creature, the destructive female that lures these weak males to their death. The third is that other common mythological creature, the long-suffering and pure heroine, who loves the wayward male and is abandoned to her lonely death by him. The fourth is, of course, the power of the community to extract revenge on those who shatter strongly held traditional community values, such as fidelity.

It is interesting that Puccini’s first opera and his last, “Turandot”, treat the same four myths. They were bookends, so it seems, for a string of great operas that take up some of these mythical themes from a more realistic perspective and with more specific human dimensions. “La Boheme” gives us the suffering heroine fighting against terminal disease while life goes on about her. “Madame Butterfly” gives us the maturing male and the suffering heroine in the context of an ineluctable conflict between East and West, exacerbated by the corrosive nature of cultural prejudice and insensitivity.

As I leaned back and listened to the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra, and the singers of the Centre for Puccini Studies, I realised that it all sounded very familiar. The ancient mythological themes of Puccini’s operas are as easily recognisable in this decade as they were 10 to 12 decades ago, and could have been written, without much change, in the last few weeks.

In Bangladesh, are those Islamist organisations now demonstrating against the Women’s Development Bill not simply still in thrall to their version of the myth of the archetypal destructive female who lures men to their death? Is the feeling that has developed in both the West and the Islamic world of a predestined civilisational conflict between the two not the result of the myth that East and West are naturally incompatible, and that the culture of the other is, by definition, inferior?

These classical arts serve a purpose far more important than to just entertain us, though that is one of their important by-products. They demonstrate that humanity shares the same myths, and the same concerns and troubles, and that through art and history, we can understand them, and use them to find commonalities not differences between cultures and peoples.

These myths serve, according to Joseph Campbell, author of the “Power of Myth”, “as bits of information from ancient times which have to do with themes that support human life, the deep inner problems and passages in life, and transformations that we all experience as we confront new challenges.”

We are fortunate indeed that the Piedmont Symphony, and the thousands of other anonymous orchestras, operas, and dance companies bring illumination and insight to this diverse and confusing world in which we need to live peacefully and productively.

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. His columns reflect his personal views and not those of the United States Government
Courtesy: Daily times, 16/4/2008

 Posted by at 12:36 pm

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