High Culture and Pop Culture

  Jerome Shea       December 17, 2012      Weekend Wonk

All the while that I was wrestling with issues reflective of Steve Goodman, Francis Thompson, and Joyce Kilmer, to name three—those people who are known mostly for just one work, be it good (Goodman, Thompson) or not so good (Kilmer)—I was having a running discussion with my friend Joe Kolupke, another professor emeritus and my go-to polymath. I thought I had another couple of really good examples in Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. But Joe took exception—no, he took umbrage—at my seeming to compare a second rate poet like Ernest Dowson to an accomplished and prolific composer like Elgar. Indeed, if you call Barber or Elgar “one-hit wonders,” you will see, by implication, how insulting that is. And the question of audience raises its head again. I maintained, and still do, that “most people” know only Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and not the rest of their fine work that classical music buffs know. But how do you define “most people”? How wide or how narrow a net do you cast?

So, “calm of mind, all passion spent,” I would like to revisit this idea. In no way did I mean to imply that if a work—be it a poem (Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), a painting (Leonardo’s Mona Lisa [La Gioconda]), a piece of music (Handel’s Messiah), or anything else—stands out from an artist’s other works in the popular mind, then it suggests that his other works are second rate. Far from it, which is why I deliberately chose, above, those three genuine artists with extensive bodies of work. I am afraid what confused the issue was my romantic conceit that if an artist is known for only one or two works, it means that in creating those works he was divinely inspired and then, as I said in “Steve Goodman,” subsided back into mere talent (or even mere facility). I do think this visitation of genius was true in Francis Thompson’s case. It wasn’t true in Joyce Kilmer’s case or, arguably, in Ernest Dowson’s case.

So how does this happen, this lifting of one work above others in the popular mind? The first requisite, if you will permit me to beat a dead horse, is that the work has to be good or at least it has to be appealing. This often feeds on itself. A work will slip (or be slipped) into popular culture because it is wonderfully moving or spectacular, and become a mainstay for that reason. A lot of people did not know Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings until they heard it in the soundtrack of a movie such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon. (“More people go to movies than go to concerts,” says Joe wryly). They may not even know the title or the composer, only that it is one of the most sad but beautiful pieces of music they have ever heard, irresistible as the Sirens’ song. Carl Orff’s over-the-top “O Fortuna,” from Carmina Burana,* has been featured in more than a half-dozen films, not to mention a hilarious ad for Carlton, an Australian beer. Some others occur to me, such as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in Elvira Madigan, a hit movie in the Sixties. And what Fourth of July concert in the park would be complete without Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (cannons optional)? Other pieces, like Pomp and Circumstance and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March are inextricably linked to occasions. (More people get married or graduate than go to concerts.) And what is Christmas without the Messiah (even though it was composed for Easter)? Or the Nutcracker Suite? At this point you are probably itching to provide more examples of your own, so be my guest.

You thought that I had forgot the most striking case? Shame on you. Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major is the most astounding phenomenon of all. Pachelbel was a contemporary of Bach, little known except among serious music historians. And the Canon wasn’t recovered from among his works until 1919. I first heard it about 35 years ago, when it was complementing a documentary about something or other on PBS. Like everyone else, I was transfixed. That music was what the angels play in Heaven. It still can make me quietly ecstatic.

It took popular culture by storm. About three years later, when versions of the Canon could be heard wherever one turned, 24/7 as it were, I remember a cartoon in The New Yorker where a bearded fellow in rags is shackled to the wall of a dungeon while musical notes waft through the air. The caption was “The Prisoner of Pachelbel.” But that’s our fault, not Pachelbel’s.

*For what it’s worth, after Carmina Burana debuted to wild applause in 1937, Orff said that he wished that all his previous works, even published ones, could be destroyed.

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