I have mentioned to students that, as music teachers, we are sometimes guilty of using superlatives too often. I attribute this (in part) not only to simple enthusiasm but also because the time that we have with students—though it may seem interminable to them—is relatively brief. Teaching the history and context of composers and their compositions become so compacted (if not harried) that qualifying expressions such as “…one of the most influential…”, or “…without peer…”, though meant to elevate, become a kind of counterfeit; a currency of accolades that only wanes in value. Stated another way, constant and over-amplified acclaim can have the unintended effect of desensitizing a student’s imagination—lessening the very impact you’re trying to convey.
This notion especially comes to mind when discussing the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Not because his legacy has been overestimated, but because even the most superlative language still fails to capture the impact his work has had on seemingly every aspect of music and musicians—composers, performers, conductors, theorists, historians, musicologists, etc.—and that it continues to do so today.
The infamous premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps—a piece that still sounds impossibly “modern” despite being nearly 100 years old—is the stuff of music legend. Students who have never known a world without the Internet—whose attention span has become immeasurably small—often have difficulty comprehending the impact of (and therefore, enjoying the study of) such an event, but it’s for a reason that is not necessarily their doing. Rather, it’s due in large part to a consequence of the ‘data-on-demand’ culture fostered in the “Information Generation”: the seemingly unstoppable atrophying of their imagination.
What was the musical world like before Le Sacre, when recordings were not immediately available; when hearing a new piece of music meant attending a performance and could only be “re-played” by the listener’s imagination; when the news of a riotous premiere travelled slowly by newspaper and by word-of-mouth; when one waited in a state of wonder and excitement for any news of it; when one waited for anything?
Here is a photograph that captures my imagination:
This isn’t a photograph of a Blackwing, another pencil, an eraser, and about 2 1/2 octaves of a piano keyboard. This is a photograph of entire universes of possibility.