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Reflections on tradition, history and culture, no textbook needed

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
web posted July 1, 2019

When we think of the word “extinction” we generally think of a species, one that is long-gone, evidence of its existence limited to a mere fossil. Sometimes we hear about a species being “on the brink of extinction” where only drastic and heroic undertakings can prevent its disappearance. In this age of ubiquitous studies on different cultures and traditions, multiculturalism, cross-cultural exchanges, diversity of thought, belief and identity, it seems impossible to imagine an extinction of another kind---the disappearance of cultural and artistic traditions, ideologies and practices handed down through many centuries, from one generation to the next. 

Five hundred years ago western civilization began a period of tumultuous change. The “Age of Enlightenment”, ending a thousand years of medievalism, was seen as a rebirth (renaissance) of analytical thinking, religious and cultural freedom, scientific discovery. As the reformation gained momentum this new-found freedom brought an explosion of creativity, discovery and solutions in artistic realms. Reformation composer J.S. Bach solved acoustical and mathematical problems inherent in music composition and performance, problems that plagued musicians for millennia. Bach was taught and inspired by legendary keyboardist/organist Dietrich Buxtehude, who was a brilliant innovator and composer as well. Other composers of that time, and their students, drew inspiration from Buxtehude, and his teacher Heinrich Schütz. Names like Händel, Pachelbel, Vivaldi and Haydn. And of course, Haydn was the forerunner of Mozart, having an extremely profound musical influence on the young genius. The highest level of artistic standards are handed down, with each succeeding generation. Tradition and technical skills continue through the centuries, and the most brilliant innovators combine these traditions and skills with new ideas and inventions. So we see a culture evolving, growing and improving, rather than stagnating. 

As this trend continues into the 20th century, it becomes difficult, but certainly not impossible, to combine and mix new technology with tradition. Finding innovative ideas and sounds while maintaining the highest artistic standards, the finest performance practices, has become the biggest cultural battle these past hundred years. Even as world wars, socialism, fascism, and unbelievable censorship are raging, the temptation to slide down into mediocrity has overtaken the desire to create great art. As historical events of increasing magnitude occur---the human loss, ethical and moral loss with equal and opposite growth in polarized ideologies, and an increasingly angry populace never appeased by their own chanting rhetoric---the near-extinction of our artistic standards and traditions only jeopardize us further. In Norman Lebrecht’s book, “Who Killed Classical Music?”, he offers a scathing indictment of greed and artistic decline, the major players and pivotal decisions. Most of all the terrible price, not yet fully known, for relinquishing such institutions.

During the Russian Revolution, as the monstrosity of crime and desolation came fully to bear, thousands of actors, musicians and writers stepped up to help rally their people. With every last ounce of energy gone, under constant death threats, these artists helped breathe life into a country already destroyed. Writers, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote accurately and eloquently on their experiences, inspiring the tired and wounded, to just take one more step; composer Dmitry Shostakovich wrote his greatest masterpiece under the watchful eye of Joseph Stalin, and explicit threats. Its world premiere was an unqualified success--the Soviets didn’t know they were being openly mocked; audiences were thrilled by the exquisite beauty, and pompous brutality, of the orchestra’s performance. 

Can anything help this situation? We are an arrested culture, in decline. Signs of poor health are everywhere: Cultural, financial, mental, physical, spiritual, ethical. What will be the cost, if we can't? Another thousand years? Surely history has taught us something. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2019

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