On musical and political harmony in Plato’s world and ours.
How do you assemble people from different places and cultures and create a happy, functioning society? Plato had a simple answer: make them sing together. In his final work, the Laws, he imagines founding a city, Magnesia, where political harmony is fostered through musical harmony. According to Plato’s scheme, new citizens of Magnesia, all foreigners from different lands, are to divide themselves by age group into three choruses. Then, at regular festivals throughout the year, these choruses will sing and dance for one another, performing pieces that, through form and content, instill in the citizens a desire to be virtuous, to work towards the good of the city.
Plato is often charged with promoting political indoctrination, and this peculiar section of the Laws may be cited as an example. But I think he was onto something. I spent ten years of my childhood singing in the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The composer and conductor Francisco J. Núñez, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, founded YPC in 1988 because he wanted children to make music—and, more importantly, because he wanted music to make better children.
YPC is as diverse as the city it represents—racially, religiously, socio-economically. There were those who showed up to rehearsals in private school uniforms and those on scholarship (a great many) for the choir’s $300 annual tuition. We brought our disparate backgrounds and experiences to the rehearsal room, but when we sang together, like the imagined settlers of Plato’s Magnesia, we forged a culture of our own. There was no such thing as “cultural appropriation” in YPC. We could sing Gospel, Chinese folk songs, and Tomás Luis de Victoria with authenticity and heart, and the choir regularly commissioned new music by such luminaries as Meredith Monk and Paquito D’Rivera. We learned to feel a collective sense of ownership over every song we sang.
Of course, not everything was harmonious. Cliques formed along racial and socio-economic lines, and there were surely what some would now call microaggressions and jokes in poor taste. But Francisco, for his part, taught us to have a sense of humor about our differences. He treated everyone equally, laughing at and with each of us. A Dominican from Washington Heights, he would call out the Puerto Rican for showing up late to rehearsal, deride the Asian for doing her math homework, and inform the blond sopranos that he couldn’t tell us apart. Since he made fun of everyone equally, no one took it personally. We always laughed. We were a family, and that’s how families are.
What really mattered, from 4:30 to 6:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, was how we sang. Music was our common purpose, and Francisco taught us that every voice could and should strive for musical excellence. “We are only as good as our weakest member,” he would say, encouraging us all both to be the best versions of ourselves and to lift one another up. This commitment to excellence brought us musical accolades while also engendering success in our other endeavors: choristers who might otherwise never have graduated from high school gained admission to top colleges across the country.
Plato wrote the Laws in the wake of a plague and tremendous political unrest. Speaking of his rulers as “doctors,” he was interested in healing society, both physically and psychologically. Choruses, he thought, were a medicine, helping to produce the kind of “friendship” among citizens that a healthy society demands. He observed two conditions for political friendship: likeness and equality. That is, citizens must feel that they have something in common with one another, and they must feel equal before the law.
The demonstrations and unrest of these past few weeks have made obvious that many Americans do not feel equal before the law. Fixing inequality, however, will not alone heal the gaping wounds in America. Our nation also suffers from an ever-increasing dearth of “likeness.” The more identity politics preaches that our differences define us, the less we believe we have in common with one another. Others have said this, but it bears repeating: we need a common culture. This is not to say that we should be erasing our differences, but, like the choristers in YPC, we should take those differences less seriously. We should forgo fears of “cultural appropriation” and forge a culture that both acknowledges and transcends our differences—a choral blend, as it were. We should sing one another’s songs, as well as new songs, together.
It sounds quaint, even naïve, but I mean it quite literally. In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, videos circulated of New Yorkers jokingly trying to recreate the musical moments that had transpired on Italian balconies with arias and accordions: the comedian and commentator Trevor Noah, for example, began to sing “A Whole New World,” only to be interrupted by a neighbor shouting, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” It’s classic and funny and very New York. But it also speaks to a sorry truth: we do not have a national tradition of making music together. We get celebrities singing the soporific “Imagine” at us, but “we the people” are not singing.
Consider our national anthem. In my undergraduate years, a professor memorably gave our Greek lyric poetry seminar a pop quiz: write out the first two lines of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The point of this exercise was to demonstrate how easily famous texts can be misremembered and therefore incorrectly transcribed. I got it right, but the only other student who came close was not even American. She was, however, a singer. Only singers can be counted on to know our national anthem because only singers sing our national anthem. The song is basically unsingable. Imagine trying to recreate the scene of the dueling anthems in Casablanca. Could you replace “La Marseillaise” with “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Of course not. “Die Wacht am Rhein” would win hands down.
But there is great American music—and a great deal of it—written by Americans of every creed and color. The United Kingdom has the BBC Proms, an eight-week season of concerts every summer that culminates in the Last Night: a stunning display of musical unity, as Brits in Royal Albert Hall and at watch parties around the country wear their silliest and most festive outfits, wave flags, and sing. Why doesn’t the United States have something similar? A nationally celebrated (and nationally televised) music festival of beloved American classics, old and new. Hold it at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, or in New Orleans’s Congo Square. We can skip the flag-waving if it seems too unbearably patriotic, but let’s use music to remember or, if need be, learn for the first time what we have in common as a nation. As Plato knew so well, music makes us feel things, and collective feeling brings us together.
We are, of course, especially deprived of collective feeling during the coronavirus pandemic, since our theaters, concert halls, museums, and sports arenas have had their doors shut. Indeed, singing supposedly spreads the virus, and experts say that choral singing should be one of the last activities to resume after the lockdown. And yet, the deprivation of collective feeling has been a long time coming. Spotify, Netflix, and the like enable us to listen to or watch whatever we want—and therefore to feel whatever we want—on our own time, “on demand.” Forget theaters: gone are the days of even gathering around the radio or television, knowing that millions of your fellow Americans were, at that very moment, laughing or crying alongside you.
There is much talk of a “new normal” after coronavirus. I, like many others, hope it will be a kinder and more equitable normal. But it will not be kinder or more equitable if we hasten the loss of fellow feeling, allowing our movie theaters and concert halls, already on the verge of bankruptcy, to close permanently. As we work towards political solutions for our national pain, we must not neglect the cultural ones. Samuel Francis Smith said it best: “Let music swell the breeze, and ring from all the trees sweet freedom’s song; let mortal tongues awake; let all that breathe partake; let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.”
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