Thursday, January 4, 2018

Is Music a Universal Language?

Hello, and happy new year! I hope your 2018 is off to a good start. I’m starting the year by tackling one of the most pervasive musical clichés, one that goes beyond any individual composer or even a particular musical style. Some readers may be upset with me for debunking this aphorism, perhaps because they believe it and that belief has done some good in their lives. Other readers have been waiting for this post since the blog began. So, here we go:

Is music a universal language?

Since this question is the title of the post and I’m big into Betteridge’s Law, you have probably already figured out that my answer is a resounding NO.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Myth of the Canon's Invisible Hand (Guest post by Anne C. Shreffler)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! This year has been remarkable for (among other things) public debates about women's experiences in our society, from the Women's March to the #metoo campaign. Just as the previous two posts on this blog have featured a multitude of voices, this post comes from someone else: Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler. Many thanks to Dr. Shreffler for contributing to our continued discussion of the classical music canon.

The name of Beethoven engraved over the proscenium at Symphony Hall in Boston.
Beethoven, the disembodied name of a
musical deity, in Boston's Symphony Hall
“But isn’t musical quality more important than gender?”

Anyone who has ever proposed a greater inclusion of women composers and composers of color—into a curriculum, a concert program, or an archive—is familiar with this kind of response. One of the most persistent myths in music history is that the classical music canon came about as the result of a rational, inevitable process that ensured the preservation of only the "best" works, those that "stood the test of time." An influential proponent of this view was the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, who maintained in 1977 that the musical canon was not made but "found." According to Dahlhaus, we can't shape or change the canon, since it was created long ago by the invisible hand of tradition.

How exactly is this selection process supposed to have worked? One imagines a fictional court of justice in the heavenly spheres, presided over by—whom? (God? St. Cecilia? Herbert von Karajan?), that conducts annual reviews of ALL the compositions by ALL the people, and hands down impartial judgment on their "musical quality." The verdict: Sibelius, yes; his contemporaries Amy Beach and Will Marion Cook, no.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The "reception and perception of women composers" (Tweets about Women Composers, part 2)

Cécile Chaminade wonders when she'll be heard on the radio as often as Maurice Duruflé.
Cécile Chaminade wonders when she'll be heard on
the radio as often as Maurice Duruflé.
Hello, and welcome to part 2 of our recent discussion on Twitter about women composers in history. If you want to see what prompted the conversation, check out part 1, in which musicologists point out that, just because you haven't heard of woman composers at a particular time, doesn't mean they didn't exist.

Again, I've chosen to embed the Tweets rather than transcribe them so you may interact with them if you'd like.

As the conversation went on, "symphonic rabble rouser" Emily E. Hogstad had a substantial amount to say:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

If we've never heard of women composers from past centuries, does that mean they didn't exist? (Tweets about Women Composers, part 1)

Amy Beach, an actual woman composer of the 19th century!
Hello, everyone! This blog post is going to be in a different format due to a recent, complicated, multi-threaded Twitter discussion. Since there's no platform that organizes Twitter threads as intuitively as the human brain, I'm going to do my best to untangle them here. I chose to embed the Tweets so you can explore some of the branches I've left out, if you so desire. However, the post is so long that I'm going to have to break it into two parts! Here we go:

It began with musicologist Kendra Leonard asking a music history account about their OTDs ("On This Date"):

And THERE is the myth! Dr. Leonard summoned me:
Note: She used my personal Twitter handle (@LindaHypen) instead of the one I use only for this blog (@MusHistCliches). Feel free to follow this account for musicological discussions like this one, but be aware that I also tweet about my cancer, my son, and my cat.

Like many myths, it is based on a bit of truth: Women have historically been discouraged from composing. (Unfortunately, this continues today, for reasons that will be explained by someone else later in this post.) I've even gotten into a different Twitter discussion about this, with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel as the prime example.

Just as women in general have been encouraged to focus on domestic matters and not work outside the home, they were discouraged from seeking advanced training in composition because it would distract from their household responsibilities. As Abraham Mendelssohn told his daughter Fanny, "for you [music] can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing."

So, what makes this a myth?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Did Bach raise 20 children? Writing composer biographies for kids

Hello! It’s been months since I’ve last updated, and I regret that the hiatus lasted so long. It was mostly due to medical issues; after my successful round of brain radiation, I started a particularly brutal chemo treatment that saps me of energy and makes it difficult to walk. But I’m still recovering.

As I mentioned in the intro to Andrew Dell’Antonio’s guest post, I was indeed on Jeopardy! You can watch the full episode online (assuming Sony hasn’t had the video removed), or if you just want results, you can check J!-Archive. (I was wearing a wig for that episode because radiation left me bald.) If you watch the show, you’ll see that I talked about this blog in my one-on-one with Alex Trebek! I made a passing reference to Mozart and Salieri before mentioning that Bach wasn’t quite forgotten after his death. Wrapping up the interview, Alex mentioned Bach having “lots of children,” and I agreed.

In the very first post on this blog—indeed, the very first sentence—I mention that Bach having a bunch of children is one of those facts that nearly every classical music lover already knows. It is technically correct that Bach fathered twenty children.
Futurama meme: You are technically correct...the best kind of correct.
And technically correct is the best kind of correct.

However, I’ve discovered that this fact leads some people to create a mental image that is inaccurate. For example, I recently found a description on Amazon of a Bach biography that says it shows, “how he helped his wife Magdalena put the twenty children to bed every night.” This is completely false.