WNPR

Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn't Hard to Do

Oct 15, 2015

As I write this, 271 mass shootings have been verified in the United States this year.

Maybe it's that my two older daughters have both gotten married in recent weeks. Or that my youngest daughter (married two years ago, for the record) is about to have a baby. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that Donald Trump -- Donald Trump -- is being taken seriously as a presidential candidate. 

Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about the future of our beleaguered country lately.

And bear with me, this has led to thinking about... classical music and gun control. I know: it's not one of the standard themes.

Here’s how I got there: Like everybody, I was sickened by the latest mass campus shooting a few weeks ago -- the incident at the small community college in Oregon, in which nine people were gunned down.

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their "thoughts and prayers" to the victims' families and friends. The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we're called upon to use it so often. (As I write this, 271 mass shootings, defined as an incident in which at least four people are killed or injured, have been verified in the United States this year.)

And I'm starting to feel the same way about the following quote:

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

Leonard Bernstein's handwritten words in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Credit The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Leonard Bernstein
Credit Christina Burton / The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
What if the classical musical community could find a way to be more present in the gun violence conversation?

As many of you probably know, the quote is from Leonard Bernstein, written in the aftermath of JFK's assassination in 1963. The words were written down but apparently never spoken by Lenny in public. They weren't even published until many years later.

Now these words turn up regularly.

I'm tired of reading this quote. It's not that I don’t like it. It’s a characteristically passionate, even elegant statement from a man who was not reluctant to speak about social and political issues.

And I certainly support making music more beautifully and devotedly, whatever the stimulus.

What I'm bothered by is that this quote, at least in musical circles, has become our version of the "thoughts and prayers" trope. The quote was all over social media after the Oregon incident, as it currently tends to be after many of the gun atrocities we now live with. It has become the classical music world's automatic, default response.

It got me thinking: What if the classical musical community could find a way to offer a more active and concrete response, to be more present in the gun violence conversation? I realize that musicians often tend not to be political people. But they are usually sensible people. And in the present debate, sensible is all we're looking for.

It could work like this: the major organizations representing the classical music world -- the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, the American Federation of Musicians, Musical America, the Grammy organization, maybe a few others -- would take a moment to craft a very simple and direct statement on this issue.

The statement would be something like: "We deplore the growing gun violence in our country and we call on lawmakers at the local, state, and national levels to enact common-sense legislation that will make America safer for all of its citizens -- including and especially our children."

The statement, then, would be issued by a newly-minted entity to be called something like Classical Musicians for Common Sense Gun Policy. Or perhaps something a bit snappier. In any case, this umbrella group would simply exist as a website and a Facebook page.

These sites would be easily administered in a few hours a week by a staffer from one of the above-named organizations, or even by volunteers who might be, say, retired players. The website would furnish links to relevant articles, as well as to established gun control organizations such as the Brady Center, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, etc. And of course, both sites would invite comment and anecdote sharing.

And here’s the kicker: if the statement can be agreed to, and the web addresses established, then printed concert programs from around the country, and around the world, could routinely begin to carry, at the bottom of the page, a line that said:

The musicians of the Smallville Symphony Orchestra support Classical Musicians for Common Sense Gun Policy. To learn more, please visit [website and Facebook addresses].

I'm not naïve. This effort won't decisively alter the national debate. But it would be a gesture, and maybe not a completely empty one.

Minuteman statue in Lexington, Mass.
Credit Aldaron flickr.com/photos/aldaron/9099309 / Creative Commons

I've tried this idea out an a few people. One of them said, "It’s good, but what about musicians in these groups who might not support the goal of common sense gun control?"

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that possibility, since no musician I know -- and I know a lot of them -- would oppose such a statement.

But if there really were to be a handful that would find the effort objectionable, then I think the response from the rest of us should be obvious:

We would keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.