Benjamin Crocker is an Australian American music aesthetics expert, journalist, and writer, a contributor for The Federalist and Music Editor at Common Sense Society. He has recently visited Hungary to give a lecture in Debrecen, Hungary about the current state of classical music. He was also kind enough to sit down with Hungarian Conservative for an exclusive interview.
Last night, you had a lecture at MCC about the current state of classical music and where the art form is headed. My first question would be: what’s your definition of classical music? What differentiates that, either in terms of musicology or aesthetics, from popular music? What’s the distinction there?
We can talk about it two ways. The first way is to say that classical music is the music that comes from a particular period in history, to the end of the 18th century, and the early 19th century perhaps. But probably the best way to understand the difference between classical music and popular, modern music is that classical music has a very deep interior development. So there is a lot of internal working out that needs to happen in a piece of classical music. That’s why the pieces are much longer, not always very long, but you have the form of the symphony compared to the pop song. You have the exhaustive working out of ideas, a really exhaustive development of a musical idea. That is usually something that uniquely belongs to classical music.
You were making the point in the lecture that young people are less and less attracted to classical music. Right?
Would you consider composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams classical musicians? Is it possible that the film industry is sucking up that talent that would normally be these symphony hall, concert hall composers?
This is a difficult situation to, kind of, understand. When you already have the film, then you have something that is not pure, not purely about the music. Film is a little different than opera because, even in opera, the idea is for them [the story and the music] to be joined in live performance. But one good thing that will happen through composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer is that you’re going to have people who keep giving orchestras music to play. So, it will keep orchestras practicing, there will be demand for musicians. I don’t think it’s the same as classical music, normally speaking. And I don’t think that art form is quite as high. Film music is perhaps performing a role carrying on the way in which orchestra music is made.
In your studies about music, have you encountered the works of Hungarian composers, like Kodály or Bartók? As a foreigner to Hungary, how do you see the placement of Hungary in the history of music? Either Liszt, or, as I mentioned, Bartók or Kodály? Have they had a great impact?
Oh sure, a huge impact. I think there’s two big areas where Hungary has really impacted. The first is the impact of ethnomusicology. So, Béla Bartók, the great Hungarian composer, is really the person that is credited with inventing ethnomusicology. Now, ethnomusicology is the field of study where you’re really trying to uncover the native influences of the music of the people. And, usually I would say, as a consequence of that, you’re trying to bring that influence into high art, or into the great tradition of classical music. So,
Hungary is one of the nations that has really been a leader in finding a marriage between the music of the people, the dances of the people and the best high art.
You see composers like Kodály and Bartók as really being that example.
Now, the second great achievement that Hungary has given to the music of the world is in education. And that is really largely through Kodály. You know, in my home country in Australia, people all over would say ‘we use the Kodály method’. It is very common. Most music teachers in most Western countries would be familiar with the Kodály method, even if they’re not using it themselves. So, it’s really a huge contribution that Hungary has made to the world of classical music.
How do you see the state of music education and musical culture here in Hungary or in Australia, or in comparison to each other right now? Do you think that we, Hungarians and the Hungarian government are doing an adequate job of nurturing a high culture of music?
Well, I’m not an expert on what is happening in the Hungarian education system. I can say that in the Australian education system, there have been times in the past when government money has been actually spent quite well. I think in compulsory music education, making sure that every child in certain states can learn an instrument, a classical instrument to a good standard if they want to. I would say that in my country, things are very unequal between cities and between different states. There’s not a good way of making a judgment on the whole country, but in general, a lot of classical music is perhaps dying a little bit in Australia.
I think that what you see happening in Hungary is that, I said this to the students in Debrecen last night, you have a country that is clearly taking its culture seriously. And that’s not just music, that’s also the rebuilding of architecture, the idea that we have an identity that is Hungarian, and that we need to look after it. When you do those, it becomes easier for classical music to survive. It may not be perfect, but
if people realize that we need to look to our past as Hungarians to conserve something good, then classical music fits naturally into that picture.
I’m a bit confused, because on the MCC website you were listed as an American musical aesthetics expert. Have you lived in America?
Yeah, it’s a bit confusing.
Because my next question was going to be about maybe in America it doesn’t make as much sense to distinguish between classical and popular because the popular music genres that are popular worldwide, they have origins in American or British culture. Like pop music, its musical origins are in jazz and blues, and these are really embedded in American culture. Would you agree with me that, in the US, there should be a smaller distinction between the two because these popular genres are actually an expression of American culture, and they didn’t import it like Europe and the rest of the world did?
Yeah, that’s a great point. And I sort of said this to the students last night: if you are a Hungarian, then I think you have a duty to conserve Hungarian culture. And there is certain music that is native to Hungary. If you’re an Austrian, or a German, then really the most important people in your musical culture are Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, these names.
What I would say is that other countries, especially new world countries, like America, and, to a lesser extent, maybe Canada or Australia, places like these, America can look at the great Hungarian music, the great Austrian and German music and say ‘we recognize that this is something very, very special, and we will pursue that’. But the real duty that they have is to look after the music that is organic to them. And so jazz holds a special place in American culture. Blues holds a special place in American culture. And, even though maybe we have lots of problems with pop music and understanding what pop music is and how much we should or shouldn’t listen to it,
America does have a duty to look after the best parts of pop music.
You know, the old songs, the Great American Songbook, the kind of music that people could sit in their homes and sing together pretty easily. I think that’s what America needs to be concerned with conserving.
The commercialization of music is also an American idea. The first big record sales, and the whole music industry grew out of America. Musicians started to build up wealth through the selling of music, that’s an American innovation too.
I would say it’s an Anglo-American phenomenon. You can’t discount the role of Britain. A lot of America’s market-driven systems come from Britain, maybe the origin was even Dutch before that. This idea of being able to make music into a commodity was something that accelerated in the US. Now, it’s not that we didn’t have some kind of system before World War II, before America really became the world leader. You know, in the 19th century, composers would still write music and send it to America, and Americans would buy music from Europe.
International copyright laws didn’t exist back then.
You’re right. It’s a completely different game now. Music is something that had really been broad, linked to the Divine, and had been something that is not just easily transferred into a marketplace. And now, music has been made into a commodity. So, if you have a three-minute song, that’s very tradable. You can really put an easy dollar value on it, you can trade it, managers get involved, there’s a global marketplace. And that has definitely contributed to shortening people’s listening attention. It’s not the only thing, but the marketization of music is a big thing.
Were the old, great composers wealthy? Like the Bachs, the Mozarts, were they wealthy people in their communities?
In some cases they became wealthy. I don’t think that you would say they were ever the most wealthy people in society. And you have different variations. Some of them would live comfortably, but they lived under patronage. So they weren’t independently wealthy, they had to keep producing.
Composer Anton Bruckner, one of my favourite composers of the great 19th-cenutry Austro-Germanic sound, he lived a life of relative poverty. He was quite poor, wasn’t really until his seventh symphony came out that he managed to find some commercial success. Verdi—we had the Verdi Requiem playing in the Opera House this week—was reasonably wealthy. You know, not absolute top of the tree, but he had enough to have his own estate where he built his own chapel. He lived a life of relative comfort.