This year, my daughter Jessica has been singing, from our home in New Hampshire, for a choir based in England—the Self-Isolation Choir—composed of singers from all over the world. They perform mostly individually, and then their performances are combined by the wizardry of modern technology for an impressive and beautiful result. A few days ago, we listened to their rendition of Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, a little over two hours of sacred music, comparable in many ways to Handel’s earlier and much-beloved Messiah.
She sang her part from a cloth-cover edition of the work published by Oliver Ditson and Company in the middle of the 19th century; the book bears no specific date. As was common in those days, the inside covers and the nearby pages carry advertisements: in Ditson’s case, mostly for books of music, along with a goodly library of biographies and appreciations of the great composers. The music ranges from classical (Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart) to what the company bills as “gems” from this or that folk tradition; from symphonies to polkas to “Nellie Gray.”
The books are for beginners, serious students, and people advanced in skill; there are singing-books for grammar schools, high schools, and colleges; books for community singing clubs, for all-male choirs, for all-female choirs, and for mixed choirs; books for church organists with the great pipe instrument, and books for churches and for families that have the “melodeon” or reed organ instead.
Of course, in those days, there were no recordings, so the only way you ever heard Bach’s stupendous St. Matthew Passion was to be a singer or a player in a performance, or to be present when it was performed. The whole musical world depended upon innumerable people everywhere, from an opera house in Peoria to Covent Garden in London to the great halls of Vienna, who knew how to play and how to sing. Life, I might say, was more complicated in that time, inasmuch as you had to be skilled in a great many things just to get through the day, let alone to live a life graced with beauty and the good cheer of a human community.
And you did require others: there is no such thing as solo harmony.
But what does this have to do with freedom? A great deal, I think. I will choose one direction here out of many. Oliver Ditson, the head of the company, graduated from his grammar school in 1823, when he was 11 years old. He went straight to work in the Boston bookstore of Samuel Hale Parker. Colonel Parker was particularly interested in music; he was one of the founders of the Handel and Haydn Society—still very much alive—and he had introduced Americans to Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation. Young Oliver worked in that store through the rest of his boyhood and into young manhood. When a fire destroyed the store in 1834, Colonel Parker and 22-year-old Ditson regrouped and founded a new business: Parker and Ditson, selling music, and selling and mending musical instruments. Oliver Ditson went on to become one of the foremost publishers of music in America.
No one at that time, I suppose, thought it was odd that a mere boy would leave school, go to work, learn a great deal there about literature and the arts, and become, at so young an age, a fully fledged businessman. Again, I do not want to hear about our greater sophistication, requiring so many more years of youth spent within school walls. Consider what you had to know to carry on that business, apart from bookkeeping and the countless skills of a printer, especially a printer of music for which a single sheet for a hornpipe dance requires work of excruciating detail and precision, let alone more than 150 pages of four-part singing accompanied by three-part organ, such as the Elijah.
There is no way that you take two steps in that business if English is your only language. You must be conversant also with German, Italian, and French, at least. Ditson had a large lineup of sacred music for Catholic churches—Masses, requiems, motets; he must have been able to work a bit in Latin, too.
Nor was it only the languages. Ditson required expertise in a wide range of musical traditions, genres, and styles, as his advertisements show, and that included knowledge of musical instruments, what they were made of, how they were constructed, how you should tend them, and how to repair them. That in turn required knowledge of materials: different kinds of wood, metal alloys, catgut for strings, and so forth.
What made it possible for Oliver Ditson to be thus on his way at age 11, reading the Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott, much loved by the colonel and by Americans who could not wait to order them from him and read them, when our college students find David Copperfield a challenge, let alone the slightly antiquarian Scott of Old Mortality? Our schools have become institutions for protracted and perverted infancy, even imbecility; and that is part of my point, but only part. Why have they become so?One of the reasons is that we are disturbed by the freedom that young Oliver enjoyed.
We do not consider it that way, of course; we drive cars, and he had to walk or go on horseback or ride in a carriage. We can buy a ticket to fly to any part of the world and be there within a day. But we have accepted a rather drab narrative for life, despite our attempts to trick it up with the rouge of licentiousness and other dreary and self-enslaving vices.
You go to school, which is mostly dull, and which wastes countless hours just riding the buses. If you are smart you go to college, which is, setting government aside, the most expensive and most egregious racket and swindle in the nation. When you graduate, you are very likely still to be ignorant of almost all the literature, art, and music of your own heritage; you probably are not good with numbers; you will have picked up a few evil and self-destructive habits; you will have plastered on your brain the sociological and political jargon of the day; and you will be over the gables in debt. But you will have the diploma, the ticket, and without that ticket, who is going to hire you?
This narrative is ready to be smashed. Some people say we should assist the poor by financing their college education. In our context, that is to reward the racketeers. How about this instead? Let us work to break the college-employment nexus. Get rid of compulsory schooling; for there is no such thing as compulsory education. Give employers again the permission to hire whomever they please, for whatever reasons they please; let them know that they need no longer turn to colleges as a mind-bogglingly wasteful credentialing service.
By coincidence, in the last several weeks I have come upon one person after another who did not graduate from high school, but who achieved remarkable things, and when they did so, no one thought they were prodigies, no one thought it was even unusual. Life is for everyone. Learning is for everyone. School is not. Colleges—such as they are now—certainly are not.