The New Musical Snobbery

Just yesterday I picked up the newest edition of the Choral Journal. Some articles I found particularly helpful, such as Patrick Freer’s article on rehearsal practices. One article, however, concerned me. It was titled “The Influence of Znamenny Liturgical Chant on the Nineteenth Century Russian Choral School” by Jeffrey Wall.

Why was I concerned, you may ask?  It certainly was not because Dr. Wall is inexperienced or ignorant. The article is full of information. Dr. Wall is an extremely knowledgeable Russian musicologist. He has a greater knowledge of znamenny chant than I will ever have. And it certainly was not because I hate znamenny chant.  Back in college I had the privilege of singing 4 of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. It was and still is counted as one of the best musical experiences of my life.

What concerned me was something Dr. Wall said at the beginning of the article. He said, “The ancient znamenny chant was largely saved from Italianate abuses and permutations, but derivations of znamenny chant morphed into younger forms like Kievian, Gree, and Bulgarian chant, that were not so fortunate.” Dr. Wall’s concern was that the chants were nearly lost because of the “infiltration and influence of the Italianate and Germanic styles.”

The loaded language of this article highlights a current attitude I have seen in music. Notably, a reverse discrimination of Western European music. Instead of simply seeing the infusion of new musical styles into Russian music as a change, the author makes a value judgment. The change was bad because the old way was almost lost. Western European musical conventions were to blame. The change could not be because certain people within the culture decided to make changes to their music.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against learning, practicing, and maintaining musical traditions from other cultures. Cultures and their music have always fascinated me. When I teach about music from other cultures, I regularly tell my students that some of the music might seem strange to them. This does not mean the music is not quality music. It just means it is different. And that is okay.

My problem is not with teaching about, understanding, and valuing cultures, but about cultural purism. Instead of appreciating that all culture changes, new ideas and techniques imported from outside the culture are seen as corrupting. Culture changes, and those changes themselves become a new culture. Many times this fact is neither good or bad. It just is. Perhaps znamenny chant was itself a mixture of imported techniques and traditional music.

The Western influence on world music has been a profound one. Our notation is taught across the world, from Asia to South America. Students from non-Western countries regularly come and study at Western colleges and conservatories. This does not devalue the students’ traditional music. It merely brings change to them.

In order for music teachers to be effective, they must be able to appreciate different kinds of music. Teachers must recognize the value in all music, including music from the West.

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