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Arts and Ideals

I am a pianist and filmmaker, and teach courses in music theory, history, aesthetics, writing about music, and performance technique. I also have a number of private piano students, and recently I had a conversation with one of these students about his career aspirations. After almost a decade spent in the military and raising a daughter, he returned to school to study dentistry. Before this break, he had begun a promising career as a pianist, which he had been forced to put on hold because of the aforementioned obligations. Now, as he resumed academic studies, he also wished to resume music studies, and so began working with me. Our conversation was not a happy one: he understood that it was too late to pursue his earlier concert career, but he felt viscerally attached to piano playing and could not abandon it. He similarly understood that dentistry would provide the income to support city living with a family. Torn between the pragmatic and the ideal, he needed to hear from me what he already knew. While a career in music was now practically impossible, his life nonetheless could be inspired by art. With time and future success in his field, he could become an arts patron and be able to support in others the artistic life he so idealized.

At Yeshiva College, having taught Sense of Music for many years, I begin each term with a description of two student types I encounter occasionally: the pragmatist and the idealist. The pragmatist recognizes that Sense of Music is a two credit course that meets three hours per week, and takes offense that even with this mismatch, the course requires homework and exam preparation. Furthermore, the pragmatist downgrades this elective against major requirements, and considers how to score as highly as possible with minimal effort. For the idealist, however, grades are an incidental byproduct of systemized education and have little meaning in knowledge acquisition. Thus, the essential purpose of every course is to progress through the endless depths of learning. In reality, most people fall somewhere between these extremes, attempting an optimal balance between principle and practice. I conclude my introductory remarks by stating that we must err on the side of idealism: during each class session, we should explore ideas from within and without subjective and objective frameworks, and our efforts should be honest and patient. Avoid looking at the clock; I will dismiss class on time. Once outside the classroom, distractions complicate our ideals, and our decisions may be compromised by doubt.

Reconciling needs with desires—dentistry with music performance, or academic achievement with uninhibited scholarship—remains a core undergraduate experience. For undergraduates, the realization that college imposes unprecedented freedom as well as limitation is vivid, and for many is the start of a complex relationship with this dichotomy. Education, the foremost component of undergraduate life, demonstrates that boundaries and sometimes-chaotic freedoms are not mutually exclusive. As such, I wish to retract an earlier assertion that these relate dichotomously. The frame and its contents, whether developing inside or evolving outward, complement one another, and form a duality within our existence. Among the many disciplines, those in the humanities, and music in particular, engage this concern directly.

To be specific: my Sense of Music course defines the forms and aesthetic purposes of European art music during the 18th and 19th centuries. The limitations of this curriculum are obvious and potentially troubling—as a student once asked, “Why aren’t we studying rock music?” One answer is because by restricting our focus, greater and more interesting truths emerge. Knowing one subject thoroughly opens many possibilities, as depth yields breadth. We discover the history and psychology of an aesthetic movement bound by the Enlightenment and unhinged by its corresponding social, political, and technological revolutions. We discover that important Western composers—musicians such as J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Wolfgang Mozart, and Franz Schubert—were more corporeal than iconic, not quite the museum busts we see today, and that their music reveals an awesome emotional and architectural logic; these were spatial thinkers supremely capable of manipulating how listeners perceive events unfolding in time.  We discover that societies favor particular forms, and that such forms involve processes mirrored in contemporaneous visual art, literature, drama, and other narrative structures. A cyclic form’s process, for example, restates initially articulated patterns. In music, listeners often perceive this return as affected by intervening material. While recapitulated music may sound identical to its first appearance, we are influenced by its development through time. We may perceive it as a necessary resolution to preceding contrast, or as profoundly changed and so transcending its initial meanings. As in Greek tragedy, a return to first principles restores order and balance, but may be cathartic as well.

Ultimately, we discover that pursuing knowledge requires that we not dilute our subject; that we define boundaries while seeking to unify an aesthetic movement with its purpose; that we transcend those boundaries having understood the potential and actual conflicts inherent to a form and its contents; and once transcended, that we see a generalized theory delimited by analysis. In short, the arts place emotional and organizational thinking within the purview of human experience and creativity, in the process blurring superficial distinctions between the humanities and sciences. These broad areas share many of the above epistemological concerns, contextualizing variation, development, and evolution within a variety of genres.

Returning to Sense of Music, the questions posed and issues addressed by 18th and 19th century European music are applicable beyond the immediate curriculum. With this perspective, for instance, tonal music’s syntactical evolution after the First World War may be understood as paralleling society’s unprecedented destruction of earlier norms. Discovering cross-disciplinary reverberations are the challenges that this music course, and, more broadly, the arts pose to students. These may be met through flexible and critical thinking, vigorous attention to detail, and the disciplined patience to reconcile immediate and long term events and superficial and deep structures. Critically, our daily challenge is to courageously pursue undiluted ideals.

Daniel Beliavsky, Ph.D., teaches music at Yeshiva College and is a visiting professor at The City College of New York, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.  He is a concert pianist, music theorist, composer, and documentary filmmaker.  Visit for more information.