The world’s most brilliant, most successful civilizations all have promoted culture, the arts, and especially music. The Zhou Dynasty (c.1100–256 B.C.), the longest running dynasty in China, established the importance of cultural achievement with special emphasis on good manners and music. Its greatest philosophers, particularly Confucius (551-479 B.C.), in his required courses, "Six Arts," emphasized as its top priorities: 1. good manners, 2. music. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), Japan enjoyed one of the longest stretches of peace in its history. During this time a culture of arts and literature thrived. Although still under a feudal system, it realized the foundational importance of a highly promoted culture, which would propel Japan into its next brilliant period, the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), bringing it into the modern age. Throughout history, artists, writers, composers, and poets are remembered as central figures.
The arts may be our last great hope. Our society, indeed our civilization, is being ripped apart at the seams. In a declining civilization, now more than ever we desperately need to bring the arts back into schools. The arts are the cornerstone of who we are as human beings on this earth. Great art by its very nature is so powerful that it bypasses the intellect and launches a direct pathway to the human emotions and spirit. At the heart of the arts is music, the one truly universal language. It speaks volumes, eliciting meaning in the listener way beyond what words can communicate. Our young people need to be exposed to the arts, because exposure is a powerful educator. The arts have a way of teaching children intangible things like creativity, personal expression, individualism, discipline, and the rewards of sustained effort. The arts can inspire troubled youth with an alternative to delinquent behavior. Increased self-confidence and academic performance are a frequent by-product. When those fortunate to have been exposed to the arts become young adults, they become supporters of the arts: wherever a community establishes an arts center, concert hall, opera house, or the like, the economy thrives.
In Asia, including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, and China, inhabited by billions of people, every town, no matter how big or small, has its own resident orchestra. Maybe the Asians are onto something.
James Kreger (below, second from right) performed in a student orchestra of the Brevard Music Center (North Carolina), on the South Lawn of the White House, in August 1961 (James Christian Pfohl, conductor, and Beverly Wolff, mezzo-soprano). The program included Hail to the Chief; remarks by President Kennedy; Overture to Rienzi (Wagner); Lullaby (Brahms); Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees; Climb Every Mountain (Rogers and Hammerstein); and Children's March (Edwin Franko Goldman).
The president's remarks call to mind his speech at Amherst College, in October 1963, a short month before his assassination, in which he said:
“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
The American Federation of Musicians accomplished a wonderful thing in the 1960’s when they sponsored the Congress of Strings and moved mountains to establish a successful nearly ten-year program aimed at promoting string playing in the United States and Canada and intensifying a nationwide interest in live music.
The photo in the video below shows Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, putting the Congress of Strings summer scholarship orchestra through its paces prior to conducting an enthusiastically received public concert Friday evening July 12, 1963 at Michigan State University. The 100-piece unit consisted of youthful instrumentalists, 15 to 22 years old, chosen in competitive auditions throughout the United States and Canada to attend an all-expenses-paid eight-week summer session under the top first-chair symphony teachers of the day, wholly sponsored by the American Federation of Musicians and some 700 affiliated locals. in the photo, James Kreger is seated on the second stand of celli.
We all were looking forward to working with Eugene Ormandy, who for many years, along with Leopold Stokowski, cultivated the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra string sound. Ormandy asked to begin with the Barber Adagio for Strings. As Maestro Ormandy held up his arms and began to conduct, what an incredible sound filled our space! It was an indescribable, unbelievably massive but hushed, wide sound, pregnant with pathos, enveloping everyone in its grandeur and majesty. I now realize we were experiencing what some would later describe as an epiphany.Return to top