What is culture?

Egyptian Culture DepictionsAbout 10 days ago, I had an interesting discussion with my father about culture. We were talking about why culture is necessary in society and what its benefits are to our society. Yet, what puzzled me was the fact that not once did we really talk about what culture is. Culture seems to be one of those things that is subjective. For instance, we talk about the African culture or the Western culture. Other people use the word in a derogatory way to insinuate that they are somehow better than their neighbor, when they imply that the said neighbor does not have culture. Needless to say, I do not mean to invoke the latter definition of culture.

So again, what is culture? If I do a quick search by typing “define culture” into Google, I get this definition:

the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”

Let’s talk about the “manifestations of human achievement regarded collectively“.  Albert Einstein, one of the geniuses of Western culture, has been regarded collectively as a principle mover and shaker in the Twentieth Century. Furthermore, although his European homeland had basically cruelly vomited him out of his native culture, Einstein can rightfully claim that he was a product of both Germanic and Jewish cultures (not least to mention also a new American culture) and furthered them throughout the Twentieth Century in ways that still impact us today.

So due to Einstein’s theory of relativity, his pivotal role in developing the atom bomb, and his support of civil rights all allowed Albert Einstein to shape our American culture today. What Einstein did was to leave a legacy for our civilization that relates to our own individual day to day existence, whether it be in the understanding of the universe, the ability of our countries to defend (and not to mention, destroy) themselves, and in his support for the rights of minorities in pursuing education and equal rights.

So the big question for classical musicians is “How does culture relate to classical music”? If we take the definition of culture above, we see that a collective recognition of the importance of art (in the larger encompassing sense of the term) results in culture (a manifestation of human achievement collectively) . We see that in order for music to be part of our culture, it must impact us on some way or another. We can learn a lot about a culture by looking at the lyrics of a country’s national anthem – or at the very least, the culture from the time the anthem was written.  For instance, the national anthems of France and the United States (La Marseillaise and The Star Spangled Banner, respectively), are battle hymns.

An analogy can be made then, between the best classical music and the national anthems of countries worldwide. Why? A piece of music is only relevant to the collective consciousness of a nation or group of people when it leaves something meaningful for the next generations. For instance, although most of us in America have very little, or no connection to the War of 1812, the lyrics of the National Anthem still resonate with us today, even if they tend to be associated by many with baseball games, for the most part. Likewise, the musical languages of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras still speak to many of us across the generations. Why is this so?

I conjecture that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were worldly individuals who understood that there are elements of the human experience that we all share in common. These basic and raw emotions, such as love, pain, fear, and happiness transcend language and it is the music that gives voice to these feelings and ideas in such a way that the listener will relate in his or her own unique way. The composers mentioned above understood that the basic building blocks of tonal harmony were linked to nature and that the concepts of harmony and dissonance, normal parts of our day-to-day existence in society, could be represented through the interaction of sounds as they relate to each other through tension and resolution.

Therefore, unless we can find some way to rewire our own brains and hearts (G-d forbid!), classical music will be here to stay as a reflection of the basic human experience. It will continue to be part of our culture, no matter what anyone says. The challenge of classical music in the Twenty-First Century lies not in the music, but in each and every individual artist’s interpretation of that music. It is up to the artists of our generation to share with the audience this music in a uniquely personal way so that the audience can empathize with the story of the performer that is just waiting to be told.

Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Music to Warm the Heart
Maestro Musicians, LLC
Greater Boston and New England