Bringing Some of Yale to Carnegie Hall

May 8, 2008

In the 19th century, education in the liberal arts and the professions was handled in very different ways in different places. For example, in Germany a university education generally resulted in a law degree, but then that credential might be employed in a great variety of ways. In England a lawyer might or might not have had university studies at all when he began to “read law” in preparation for the Bar. Though lawyers like Abraham Lincoln followed that traditional path, Americans began early on to ally the study of the law with universities, but as a specialized study within the larger institution.

Musicians have been trained just as variously. Robert Schumann did the university law curriculum, while studying music privately with an acknowledged master, but Johannes Brahms — from a working-class family — eked out a living as a musician-for-hire while he found instruction where he could, and the rich and esoteric Mendelssohn family sequestered their children and nourished their almost unbelievable talents in elevated privacy. Meanwhile in Paris, Camille Saint-Saëns, brought up by women zealous for his career as a virtuoso, after winning all the prizes at the Conservatoire fiercely exerted himself to become an acknowledged figure in fields as various as astronomy, philosophy, and the writing of plays — a musical prodigy who made himself a polymath. In England, on the other hand, so iconic a figure as Edward Elgar never belonged to the class that could aspire to either university or music school until his own genius and efforts — and an advantageous marriage — raised him to the level of the higher professional classes and then a baronetcy. The ideal in much of Europe, for the music student whose intellect and bankroll could sustain it, was a university education pursued parallel to conservatory training.

In the United States, a wholesome variety obtained from the beginning. The New England Conservatory (1867), riding the bullish prosperity of the winning side in a tragic War, courageously founded the first American conservatory designed along European lines. The first conservatory partnered with a liberal-arts college was the one at Oberlin (1865). Eventually their models would be elaborated upon by other independent conservatories like The Institute of Musical Arts (1905; later renamed The Juilliard School of Music) and The Curtis Institute (1924) and music schools within large universities, as at Michigan (1880) or Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (1921) — sometimes, as in the latter instance, all but eclipsing its parent institution in fame and influence.

There was yet another category, however, that had not existed in Europe or America: a professional conservatory within one of the “ancient universities” (as the English call Oxbridge) or the Ivy League (the American term drawn from intercollegiate sports). There was a new view of professional status available to American musicians when Yale started its own conservatory within the university, and it equally implied a new social status for professional musicians. Yale was saying that, among the educated classes, music need not just be an ornamental accomplishment but could be a profession worthy of its place in a great university. It is still the only Ivy League institution that has attempted that step.

Unlike many of the fine music schools or departments within state institutions, Yale has always distinguished clearly between music as a liberal art (within Yale College and the Graduate School) and as an advanced applied art (within a School of Music designed only for a few advanced performers and composers originally drawn chiefly from the musical cream of Yale College but increasingly from other colleges and conservatories).

The first Dean of the School of Music, Horatio Parker, though the leading American composer of his day, is now perhaps best known as the professor who bedeviled the young Charles Ives, as he endeavored to discipline original genius with more universal ideals. While that often results in Parker’s being portrayed as a fuddy-duddy, Ives’s keenest admirers must admit there was some need for a bridle there. And the Yale Music School’s mission continues to be one of balance among the many demands made upon the complete musician in our society. While providing the most intensive conservatory instruction among professors and colleagues at the highest level, a Yale student can never be unaware of the larger intellectual and professional world so vividly encountered there in concentrated form. While the curriculum is rigorous, chance encounters with the memorable great are often as determinative for young careers just launching.

Even an eminent ivy tower, however, is still a tower. Even if the people living in it are fully aware of all that is around them, the surrounding world may still see it only as a more or less intimidating unknown. Thus has Yale increasingly exposed some of its wares in the rather different glare of the New York musical marketplace. It was with some curiosity that, last Sunday night, I went to an appearance of the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale in Carnegie Hall. Among Yale’s orchestras, this is the one made up of players from the School of Music, that is, the advanced specialists in their instruments. More quietly in New Haven (under Yale professors as mighty as Parker and Paul Hindemith and visits from the leading conductors of the day) this ensemble has been cultivating a refined approach to playing that has fed American concert life with first-class soloists and members of our leading orchestras. (And it is emblematic of their educational influence in other styles of conservatories that the exorbitantly vital President of the Juilliard School is a bassoonist graduate of the Yale Music School.)

The occasion had another purpose — one characteristic of a school whose mission allies virtuosity with broader, deeper projects: the evening marked the launch of the new Prokofiev Society of America, which will “encourage and support the study and performance of the works of the eminent Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in this country.” In inauguration of this venture the orchestra was to play the evergreen Classical Symphony, selections from the ballet suites of Romeo and Juliet, and the far less known Piano Concerto for the left hand.

Even as a veteran of processions of the world’s great orchestras through Carnegie Hall, I was frankly stunned by the vigor and refinement of this young orchestra. Under Shinik Hahm’s conducting, and with the pianism of Boris Berman (both professors in the School), the players plunged into this colorful Russian repertory with an enthusiasm that one hopes they never lose. An elite school of only about 200 students (many of them not orchestral musicians: singers, pianists, organists, harpsichordists, composers, jazz specialists) that can display an orchestra like this is a treasurable force in our musical culture.

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