The Purpose of Music

An acquaintance recently stumbled across some old musings of mine on the Arts Journal site. It brought memories flooding back of memorable conversations with enigmatic, deep, controversial composer John Tavener.

originally posted @ August 6, 2004 10:46 am as a comment on Arts Journal

During two years as General Manager of Soundstreams Canada, a new music concert presenter in Toronto, Canada–the conversation we hosted that most animated the music community here was a lecture given by Sir John Tavener. He was in town at our invitation for a concert we were presenting of his music. It might be added that unlike the small attendance at most new music concerts, this was an SRO concert. We crowded about 1200 into an 1100 seat cathedral and had to send hundreds home in disappointment. Clearly this is a voice that is reaching people musically.

Prior to John’s arrival, he and I had discussed by phone, the fact that both the music community and the theological community wanted to sponsor a lecture and there was insufficient time in the schedule for two such events. At his suggestion, and with the cooperation of the two sponsoring faculties, we had combined the two into a lecture entitled, “The vocation of the sacred artist”.

In the lecture Tavener presented the view that music had a purpose and that purpose was to reach the soul of individuals in an uplifting, encouraging and enobling way. The purpose of music was fulfilled when the audience left the concert hall feeling troubles lifted and with a desire for a better world, filled with beauty. He continued in voicing the opinion that music had lost its way when composers began to use music as a way to express their personal tragedy and turmoil, unloading that depression and tortured visions on the audience. In so doing, he continued, the composer was contributing to a negative world-view and the entropy of a corrupted civilization.

Although I found myself uncomfortable with a certain black-and-white nature to his arguments, I found myself fundamentally agreeing. The idea that “if the world is to be saved, it will be saved by beauty”– a Tavener quote that so struck me that I made it the featured quotes in our marketing campaign–was certainly the central theme to my own love of music and what I want to achieve in music and also what is at the root of my own assessment of “good music” and “bad music”. I don’t necessarily want music to make me “feel good” but I want to leave the concert hall with the sense that my soul has been touched and nourished.

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Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers

Rostropovich, the world loses an authentic artist

Mstislav Rostropovich, dead at 80, fulfilled in life–not just some–but all of the functions that great artists play in our society. First and foremost he was a virtuouso master of his instrument, but that alone did not make him an important force in our society or in the living life of music.

He not only requested, he demanded that the composers of his own time created new works for his instrument and his virtuosity and style of playing was a living part of the creation of new music. In premiering 245 new works for cello, he took risks and played some works that audiences never wanted to hear again, but also gave birth to some wonderful music that are already standards in the cello repertoire.

He embraced the role of artist as truth-teller, independent of political pressure. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, said of Rostropovich in 1990 that “he took a stand … for the basic truths of life, and he did not compromise.” He not only spoke out against political suppression and control of the arts in the Soviet Union but took great personal risk in sheltering dissident novelist and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Retaliation for this act of courage led to the great cellist being ostracized by the Soviet arts establishment at the time.

Celebrated as both a hero and an artist, Rostropovich could have dedicated himself to a few concert appearances and recordings but instead he kept pioneering new music but also was dedicated to the development of young musicians as a mentor, conducting and working with a number of youth orchestras and presiding over a great number of masterclasses.

It is interesting that Rostropovich’s father was a student of Pablo Casals, because he was definitely a cellist in the Casal’s mold. Brave and uncompromising, Rostropovich spoke truth to power in words, deeds and music.

The challenge is there for all of us in the arts to have the courage to follow in his footsteps.

See also: The LA Times, The Washington Times, Robert Amsterdam’s blog on Russian Politics,, The Guardian

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Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers