Cultural Literacy and Music

The dust cover for E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy reads:

"In this forceful manifesto Professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr., argues that children in the United States are being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society. They lack cultural literacy: a grasp of background information that writers and speakers assume their audience already has. Even if a student has a basic competence in the English language, he or she has little chance of entering the American mainstream without knowing what a silicon chip is, or when the Civil War was fought. An important work that has engendered a nationwide debate on our educational standards, Cultural Literacy is a required reading for anyone concerned with our future as a literate nation."

It’s a little thing — hardly a trifle, really — but there is something to being culturally literate in music. American culture used to be so inundated with classical music that it pervaded popular culture; knowledge of and playfulness with classical music (or art) was part of the zeitgeist. It’s the reason many of Disney’s earliest animations were the Silly Symphonies. It’s why Fantasia‘s scene of Mickey Mouse in a red robe and blue wizard hat commandeering thousands of brooms to carry water is such a well-known image, even to the 7-year olds for whom I play the famous clip that they’ve never seen before!

But there’s another side of cultural literacy that’s less necessary, but very important and very special to me.

Peter Schickele (pronounced “Shih-ka-lee”) was a trained composer with an excellent sense of humor. He toured for decades performing classical music — with a twist. He parodied many of the famous works of classical music. Some of my favorites include:

  • Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (as a sports match, complete with referee and commentators)
  • Four Next-to-Last Songs (a parody of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”)
  • The Stoned Guest (a parody of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was based on the story “The Stone Guest”
  • The 1712 Overture (a parody of the 1812 Overture, but using “Yankee Doodle” as the theme and balloons instead of cannons)

“P. D. Q. Bach” as he became known, was renowned for his excellence in comedy and only recently stopped touring. However, his fame could only have come in an age in which people were familiar enough with classical music to understand the jokes he told and played.

This is by no means the final case for classical education, but the fact that most students in public schools wouldn’t begin to understand the comedy of Schickele’s work does show the priorities of our culture. That’s part of why we do enjoy the work of Schickele and Anna Russell (a classical music comedienne) in my classroom from time to time.

Why not teach our kids great works and have a laugh along the way?