Beneath the Pinnacle in the Musical Pyramid
By Mark Small
Mark Small '73 is editor of Berklee today
In a brief essay titled "Why Do We Make Music?" British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (18721958) stated, "We do not compose, sing, or play music for any useful purpose. It is not so with the other arts: Milton had to use the medium of words whether he was writing Paradise Lost or making out his laundry list; Velsquez had to paint both for his Venus and to cover up the dirty marks on his front door." Vaughan Williams's point is that music is purely music and for him, "that is its great glory."1
Several years ago, there was much talk about "the Mozart Effect," which contends that listening to classical music could heighten one's intellectual powers, even if only temporarily. Studies were also released indicating that children taking music lessons and/or playing in their school band achieved better grades in other subjects. While such theories may be true, music's importance doesn't need to be justified by quantifying its collateral benefits. Music making is justified by the effect it has on those who play and listen to it. Many of us formally study, practice hours a day, and sacrifice much in an effort to develop the skill to create music that has an effect on listeners.
Even among the acclaimed masters, it is a rare thing to discover music that is so exquisite that it almost becomes intoxicating. I have listened to a lot of music in my life, but only a handful of artists has cast so deep a spell on me that I felt compelled to seek out their whole body of work. Over the years, two musicians that have remained high on my list of personal favorites are the previously mentioned Ralph Vaughan Williams and Pat Metheny. While the two are worlds apart culturally and stylistically, both have made major contributions to the present and future of music.
Born into a well-heeled British family, in 1872, Ralph Vaughan Williams studied music with eminent English instructors. He later studied composition in Berlin with Max Bruch and in Paris with Maurice Ravel. His vast catalog contains nine symphonies and numerous other works large and small. Branded a musical conservative, he declined to embrace atonality, 12-tone techniques, and other theories that attracted numerous adherents during the 20th century. He rightly claimed that there was still much to say with tonal materials and proved it by creating a large body of contemporary work of enduring beauty.
Perhaps better known to readers of Berklee today is composer/guitarist Pat Metheny, three generations further along the continuum from Vaughan Williams. As a baby boomer raised in a modest home in the Midwest, Metheny is a product of American jazz, popular, and other musical influences. Largely self-taught, he is a virtuoso on the most popular instrument of our time. An adventurer in his musical genre, Metheny has attracted a huge international audience and won 14 Grammy Awards.
I first heard Pat Metheny in the summer of 1976 with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses playing music from Metheny's debut album, Bright Size Life. I'd never heard anything like it and was hooked immediately. I bought the album, listened to it repeatedly, and learned many of the songs.
Aside from the virtuosic playing, I was moved by Metheny's highly developed and vivid harmonic vocabulary, a unique and defining element of his style. Hubert Parry, a teacher of Vaughan Williams, used to pore over the assignments of his composition students looking for "something characteristic" - evidence of a distinctive musical voice. I heard much that was "characteristic" in Metheny's music. From that day forward, I have attended his concerts and bought most of his recordings. Like the ripples that move out from a stone cast into a pond, Metheny's inspiration rippled outward, prompting me to seriously study jazz. That led me to strange and beautiful musical lands inhabited by many other great artists.
Several months after I first heard Metheny, a friend played for me an album of orchestral music by Vaughan Williams that contained his "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," "The Lark Ascending," "Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus,'" and "Fantasia on Greensleeves." It happened again. I sat there overcome by the emotional depth and ravishing beauty of the music. After the record finished, I wanted to hear the whole thing again. The next day, I got the album and practically wore it out. I have since bought many recordings of Vaughan Williams's music, attended performances of his works, and studied his life as well as his scores. I was initially affected by his "characteristic" use of modal harmony and the influence of folk melodies that make so many of his pieces instantly appealing.
This transforming introduction to classical music presented a view of another gorgeous musical vista and motivated me to study that genre formally. The ripple effect initiated by this great composer has been far-reaching for me. As we develop as musicians, we are often motivated by the greats. Although many earnestly try, few ever enter the pantheon of musical giants where those like Metheny and Vaughan Williams will live on. Nevertheless, our personal contributions to music are important on many levels.
Last fall, while working on this issue's cover story featuring Pat Metheny Group drummer Antonio Sanchez, I had several conversations with Antonio and a few with Metheny. As I watched them play together at the Schubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, once again I was awestruck by the breadth and depth of the music that Metheny, Lyle Mays, and company created. Probably not unlike many who attend the group's shows, I sat in the audience realizing that only in my dreams would I play the guitar so brilliantly or compose such deeply affecting music.
While in New Haven, I found a copy of Vaughan Williams's book National Music and Other Essays in a used bookstore. It gave me perspective on the value of known and unknown figures in the music community. In the chapter titled "Making Your Own Music," Vaughan Williams states that those of all skill levels must participate to perpetuate an art form. He repeats the opinion of fellow British composer Gustav Holst: "If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly." Vaughan Williams agrees, but adds the caveat that this "doing" must be "a sincere attempt towards self-expression."2 He goes on to say that, in essence, the great virtuosi of any age form the pinnacle of the musical pyramid, but their successors will come from the great number of those honestly making their own music. He describes them as the "general practitioners of our art, competent and enthusiastic . . . the musical salt of the earth, a great army of humble music makers." No matter how humble our music may sound next to that of the greats, it is vitally important that we continue to make our music. Those who do form the foundations of the pyramid, sustaining those above them at the pinnacle and in the process, receiving strength and inspiration from them. Some among the ranks of young music makers will ultimately take the torch from the hands of their elders.3
Continue to enjoy and learn from the greats and don't feel envy or be overwhelmed by their gifts. We should keep on practicing and composing even when it becomes clear that a spectacular career will not be our destiny, because we are a vital part of the pyramid. The efforts of every sincere music maker have their effect. At very least, our labor gives us personal spiritual nourishment; but, according to Vaughan Williams, both the humblest and highest join in the service of music.
1. Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music and Other Essays, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 205. 2. Ibid, p. 238. 3. Ibid.