What Does “Musician” Mean? (Part 1)

One of my undergraduate professors was fond of saying that if you tell the world you are a musician, then the world will assume two things: that you can play the piano, and that you can sing. Whether that statement is true depends on what he meant by “the world” I think, but it raises some interesting questions about the meaning of the word “musician”, and by extension, its relationship to music education.

I want to mention upfront that my interests don’t lie in coming up with a definition, mainly because I would never want “musician” to be an exclusionary term. But at the same time there are surely distinctions that can comfortably be made between, say, Beethoven and Eminem, even though “musician” is a word used to describe both of them. Clearly though the meaning of “musician” has changed over the past 100 years, and in many cases, not necessarily for the better.

The question of musicianship was also on Heinrich Schenker’s mind about 100 years ago, evident in the preface to the first volume of his book Kontrapunkt (all of the quotations that follow are from that preface). One of the most entertaining aspects of Schenker’s music-theoretical writing is the exuberant socio-politial commentary that comes along with it. While it’s true that some of it is bound to, and burdened by, the times in which it was written, there is much that could be mistaken for contemporary critique.

He begins with the dire premise that music is lost, and is in need of being excavated from the current cultural excesses and attitudes that have buried it. Chief among the external forces he feels have caused this decline though, is the “performing musician”:

“No master’s authority has ever been able to convince those who merely perform music that it is little, far too little, to do nothing more than to learn to play the violin, keyboard, a wind instrument, or to conduct.”

Perhaps he could have struck a more conciliatory tone by inviting performing musicians to go beyond the printed work. Instead, he indicts performers for simply playing on the “surface” of the music:

“[Performers] play away as if only to get to know the work, when they ought to get to know the work first in order to play it.”

“Performers disregard the fact that notational symbols really hide more than they make explicit, and that […] even today they are hardly more than neumes behind which another world opens wide and deep—a true beyond, like the very soul of art.”

But it’s not all their fault, apparently. Schenker quickly pivots to the fact that music, as an art form, depends on performance:

“After Rembrandt completed a painting, nobody had any further power over it; only the role of the observer was left for others. Works of music, however, have a different and sadder fate.”

He goes on to ask whether what performers play is really the musical work as the composer intended:

“Inferior instinct and (often) complete lack of secure knowledge on the part of today’s performing musicians are the reasons that the masterworks […] have not been heard in our time in their authentic shape.”

But as harsh as his criticism was of performers, he saved his worse for what he called the “dilettante”:

“Vanity and the desire to be entertained drive him to art, but he stubbornly insists that such an impulse be viewed as ‘artistic instinct’ and held in high esteem. It is of no use to explain to him that art exists not for him but for its own sake, like everything in the world: sun and earth, animals and flowers; that Bach, when writing the Well-Tempered Clavier, certainly was concerned only with the nature of the motives and gave no thought to the dilettante; that compositions (which seemingly belong to a transcendental world) often have a far longer life than human generations. Today’s dilettante does not grasp any of this.”

Just as Schenker was able to see clearly through to the fundamental structure of a composition, he was equally invested in delineating what he felt were the eternal and noble aspects of music as art. So to him, the “dilettante” was a kind of double-monster: someone who not only had little understanding of the past, but was also active in the corruption of the future:

“Ever the beneficiary, he still has no notion […] of how completely he is occupied throughout his life with the destruction of the very thing he so imperfectly enjoys.”

The reason Schenker cites for such “arrogant self-deception” is one that seems all too familiar:

“We live in an era in which all values in human relationships are turned exactly upside down, by reason of false, unworthy sentimentality. [The] child is pampered as an ‘individuality’ and excused from work before even having learned to work.”

The fake’s progress
The consequences of being willfully ignorant of the musical past, according to Schenker, are compounded by the demands made by the “dilettante” on the present:

“Often it is simply this way: if a dilettante has listened only a few times to a symphony by, for example, Beethoven, and thus has become accustomed to it, immediately he makes so bold as to claim that he impudently knows the symphony very well, and then he asks—this dilettante!—for something else, something new, something else and new: in short, he wants what is called “progress”.

The stage is being set for Schenker to espouse what he believes to be the essential properties of music and musicianship—knowledge in need of “excavation”—but he hasn’t finished pointing the finger just yet.

Coming in part 2: the value and place of technique and music theory in musicianship.

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2 Responses to What Does “Musician” Mean? (Part 1)

  1. Kenneth Goodenough says:

    I’m looking forward to the next part(s), Sean. I’ve been asking myself this question for quite some time and I wonder if I would ‘qualify’ if there were to be an answer found. Same goes for being a ‘composer’, a word that seems to have lost less meaning than ‘musician’.


    • Sean says:

      Kenneth, while there are levels of distinction to be found in every endeavor, I don’t think of music (or the word “musician”) as being exclusionary. In other words, I don’t think there’s any reason for you to hesitate thinking of yourself as a composer.

      What I’m hoping to get at with this series of posts is how the word “musician” has meant different things over the centuries, with regard to what people would expect of you in terms of knowledge and ability, rather than there being some kind of cut-off point for who should or shouldn’t be called a “musician”.


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