Zivilisation’s Cultural Driveway Moments: The Decline of the (Intermountain) West

This post was written by Rob McFarland, HC Faculty Fellow, BYU Department of German and Russian

June of 1980.  We left suburban Glendora late in the afternoon, riding on the Foothill Freeway in a Chevy van with a bubble window and air-brushed beach scenes on the sides. I was a new deacon, and this was my first trip to do baptisms for the dead at the Los Angeles Temple.  When we came to the end of the Pink Floyd tape, we listened to the iconic saxophone of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” on the radio, then searched through the stations for something harder. Doug Nelson was in the front seat, and he moved the dial around through Mariachi stations and commercials, and then settled on a classical station.  All of the boys in the van howled with rage.  “Guys,” Doug yelled, “it is time to clean out our ears a bit before we get to the temple.”  A few curses, rolled eyes, and a violin piece that I can still hear in my head but I have never identified.  I really did feel cleansed, lifted, set apart from the world.

This morning, thirty seven years and four months after that temple trip, I sat weeping in my car in front of the BYU Laundry.  My radio was set to pre-dial station number one, KBYU.  Bells, violin tremolos, a rising melody from the horn section: “The Great Gate at Kiev,” the final section of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel. This was a moment that KUER’s host Doug Fabrizio calls “a driveway moment,” when you just can’t turn off the car and interrupt the music or discussion you are listening to on the radio.

But I was not listening to Handel’s Wassermusik, so why the water works? Anybody familiar with “The Great Gate…” knows that it is an emotionally stirring piece, but in the parking lot this morning I was experiencing tears of loss and sadness.  Yesterday, a glib “oh-well-it-can’t-be-helped” press release announced the end of KBYU’s classical format. I will no longer be able to rely on my radio when the time comes to clean out my ears, when I need to tune my soul to the greatest chords, rests and challenging sounds from the greatest minds of musical history.

After the First World War, a freelance German scholar named Oswald Spengler wrote a book called Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West).  His book was a morphology of groups in different epochs:  The ancient Chinese dynasties, Arabic peoples, etc.  Eventually, Spengler claims, each artistic and pure Kultur will destroy itself as it gradually develops into a Zivilisation that values technical and economic progress more than its own religious, artistic and literary heritage.   The beautiful old Kultur of Europe, according to Spengler, would soon be swallowed up by American Zivilisation with its endless onslaught of cheap, tawdry popular culture.

In the early 1920’s, a cultural critic named Ann Tizia Leitich challenged Oswald Spengler’s dichotomy of primitive Kultur and technocratic Zivilisation. Spengler and others had bemoaned the rise of the radio, with all of the easy, saccharine, mass-produced songs that flooded the world.  Leitich conceded that the radio played lots of dreck, but in a 1924 article she looked at the average American family, who, thanks to the radio, could listen to Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. On the radio, “Ode to Joy” would resonate through working-class homes, refining minds and broadening artistic horizons.  Civilization, in other words, could preserve and even expand and deepen the world’s cultural heritage, and bring it to the farthest corner of the earth.

The classical music on KBYU seeped into my soul over the years. I remember riding down State Street one morning listening to the most beautiful, simple and poignant music played by a violin, a harp and a flute.  When announcer Marcus Smith revealed the name of the music and its composer, I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote with my finger into the dust on my dashboard: “Maria Theresia von Paradies.” In the dust I probably misspelled the name of the piece, “Sicilienne.” Marcus explained that the composer was a blind woman who lived in Vienna at the time of Mozart, and the infamous Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer tried to cure her with his ideas of magnetism, a pseudo-science that has embedded itself in our language with the term “mesmerizing.”

I was mesmerized by the Sicilienne, and I later worked with colleagues to produce a concert series called “Sophie’s Daughters” where we recorded the Sicilienne and other music by German-speaking women composers.  This kind of innovation and inspiration are the effect of what the BYU mission statement calls “a period of intensive learning in a stimulating setting.”  I mourn the loss of KBYU not only because it helped me get through my 2-month media fast after Trump’s inauguration, but because we as a university have stopped cultivating our broader community through carefully curated and commentated classical music.  Our setting is much less stimulating than it was.  Yes, Ann Tizia Leitich might argue that Zivilisation can still bring us Schönberg, Poulenc, Bartok and others through digital streaming. But KBYU is gone from the radio dial, and with it, an oasis of Kultur in the Intermountain West.  How will our deacons clean out their ears?

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1 Comment

  1. A KBYU Devotee says:

    “Each artistic and pure Kultur will destroy itself as it gradually develops into a Zivilisation that values technical and economic progress more than its own religious, artistic and literary heritage.” Unfortunately, we seem to have witnessed our own religious sub-culture suffer a similar decline as we have traded the sometimes primitive but rich and ecstatic art, music, architecture, and theological literature of our pre-migratory and pioneer heritage for the promise of vague technological and economic advantages. The folksy but disarmingly fascinating panoramas of C. C. Christensen, the joyful oil washes of Minerva Teichert, and the stunningly beautiful landscapes and portraits of Paris-trained pioneer muralists have been replaced by fairy-art, picturesque vacuities, and ubiquitous prints of Jesus in every conceivable variation of kitschy causasian. Heartfelt and harmoniously complex hymns have been abandoned for overwrought soft-rock, inventive and unique architecture for cookie-cutter ready-mades, and the glorious visionary musings of early LDS writers for mimetic moralizing. And, of course, we’ve watched one of the Mountain-West’s best bookstores sell off its variety-rich inventory to make way for worthless junk. It was only a matter of time until a unique and irreplaceable radio treasure would also be sacrificed under the banner of revenue-driven progress. KBYU made not only a priceless cultural contribution to our community, but a spiritual one. The loss of that contribution will be keenly felt.

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