In “the transformative power of classical music,” Benjamin Zander describes and plays a two-minute piece by Chopin. He asks his audience to “think of somebody who you adore who’s no longer there [and] bring that person into your mind and at the same time, follow the line all the way from B to E, and you will hear everything that Chopin had to say.”
He had done this exercise before. “I was in Ireland during the Troubles, and I was working with some Catholic and Protestant kids on conflict resolution. One of them came to me the next morning, and he said, ‘I’ve never listened to classical music in my life, but when you played that shopping piece . . . my brother was shot last year and I didn’t cry for him. But last night he was the one I was thinking about, and I felt tears streaming down my face and you know it felt really good to cry for my brother.’ So I made up my mind at that moment,” Zander said, “that classical music is for everybody.”
I thought of that this morning, and watched the 20-minute video yet again, in light of a Trump budget that defunds the arts and the humanities altogether. It’s not the money – the $148 million the NEA and NEH each stands to lose is an infinitesimal fraction of the $1.1-million proposal. Nor is it the debate over the government’s role in funding the arts, a debate that has been going on for years.
It’s the clear statement that the arts and humanities are so peripheral to Americans’ lives. But these are the stories people have told about themselves since the beginning of time, the efforts to make sense of this world and to understand what it means to be human. Art is not some bauble for the despised elites. It is where we look for the beauty that expresses our common humanity. It is for everybody.