Friday, January 18, 2019

Announcement: Why the Blog is not Updating Right Now

Hello, everyone!

Happy new year! I’m sorry that it’s taken me more than midway through January to wish you a happy 2019, but I suspect you’ll forgive me when you learn the reasons for my lack of posts in the past few months. In addition to holidays and travel (which aren’t unique to me, I know) and family responsibilities (also not unique to me, though some of you know the complications I face), and medical issues (I had brain radiation again in October 2018, and I’m in the process of trying a new chemotherapy regimen, which can be unpredictable), I have some exciting news:

I’m working on a proposal for a book based on this blog.


Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds. It's also used as the "WTF am I reading?!" meme.
You'll be as fascinated by what you read as
Samuel Johnson in this portrait by Joshua Reynolds!
I’m still in the earliest stages, but so far, I’ve received a lot of positive and enthusiastic responses to this idea, so I’m optimistic that some press will want to publish it. My plan for now is that the book will be similar in tone and aim of the blog—debunking myths, challenging clichés, explaining why certain narratives persist even when they’re false, etc. Much of the book will be essays take directly from the blog, with some revisions and, I hope, improvements. However, it would be foolish to expect people to pay for content that they can already get online for free, so I’m going to come up with additional, new material. As a result, some content I would normally put up on the blog I’m now saving to be exclusive to the book.

So, I’m taking a hiatus from the blog. I don’t know how long this break will last, and I can’t announce an expected publication date for the book—it’s too early for me to know, as it hasn’t been accepted or even proposed yet! I will still be active on Twitter, mostly on my personal account (@lindahyphen), but also on the blog account (@MusHistCliches) when something relevant happens. I’ll also keep posting relevant updates on the blog's Facebook page.

In the meantime, I invite you to go back through the archives, and I’m asking you a favor: If you’re willing, can you please let me know any classical music mysteries that you’ve been wondering about but that I haven’t addressed through the blog yet? I already have some ideas for the new essays (including a question that took musicology by storm thirty years ago!), but I’d love to know what questions have been burning in your mind. You can email me at linda@shavergleason.com. I prefer email to social media for this purpose, as it lets me archive and retrieve correspondence easier.

Thank you so much for sticking around enough to find this announcement, and I hope the potential book will be worth your patience!

Too Long, Didn’t Read: The blog is on hiatus because I’m working on turning it into a book. If you have questions or stories I haven’t addressed yet, please email them to me at linda@shavergleason.com.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Did Stravinsky say the Vivaldi wrote “the same concerto, 500 times”? And if so, is it true?

Among classical music fans, there’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t actually compose 500 concertos, he just wrote the same concerto 500 times. The quip is established enough that a 1986 book—Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys by David W. Barber—riffed on it: “People who find [Vivaldi’s] music too repetitious are inclined to say that he wrote the same concerto 450 times. This is hardly fair: he wrote two concertos, 225 each.”

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi: A one-hit wonder, five hundred times?
“People say” is good enough for a book of classical music humor, but for this blog, I wanted to trace the joke to its origin and discuss why it caught on—and why it persists.

A Google search for the phrase shows attributions mainly to two different twentieth-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and Luigi Dallapiccola. Overall, people seem more willing to cite Stravinsky as the source, probably because his name is more recognizable. Even someone as informed as pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen attributed the quote to him when asked which composer he found most overrated:
“I'm tired of [Vivaldi]. Stravinsky once said that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times. I disagree. Instead, I think he began 500 concertos and never achieved anything in them. So he kept trying over and over again without ever quite succeeding.” 
—Charles Rosen to The New York Times, 1987
Yet Stravinsky’s fame also provides the means to discount him as the source of the quote. Stravinsky was a self-mythologizer, intent on shaping his own legend through press releases and publications, which makes it easy to find why so many people think he said this.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Would Beethoven prefer a modern piano if he had one?

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for The Avid Listener that debunked several myths about Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness. I relied a lot on research and feedback from Robin Wallace from Baylor University, who was then working on a book about the subject, which I mentioned in my promotional blog post. Well, that book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery, was released earlier this month (October 2018). I’m reading it right now, and I’m stunned by all the assumptions he calls into question.

Cover of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery by Robin Wallace
Hearing Beethoven: Marvel as it systematically undermines
every Beethoven myth your music teacher told you!
In Hearing Beethoven, Wallace reexamines how Beethoven’s life and compositions were affected by his gradual loss of hearing, with insight gained from his late wife Barbara’s reported experience with her own deafness. Wallace examines journals, letters, conversation books, old listening devices, composition sketchbooks, and recent scientific developments to put many aspects of Beethoven’s adult life into context. By doing so, he challenges many assumptions and overturns some generally accepted Beethoven lore—which is the kind of work I aspire to!

I was most impressed with the fifth chapter, “The Artifacts of Deafness,” by the way that Wallace shifts the assumed relationship between Beethoven and the contemporaneous developments in piano manufacturing. As he points out, the piano was constantly changing throughout Beethoven’s lifetime, expanding the range of keys, changing the mechanisms to evoke louder sounds, experimenting with materials to ultimately make the instrument bigger and bolder.

Now, doesn’t that seem just ideal for a composer who was gradually losing his hearing? One might even speculate that there’s a reason Beethoven’s style and pianos co-evolved—perhaps piano manufacturers were even influenced by his new piano sonatas, challenged to create instruments to accommodate their idiosyncrasies. After all, didn’t Beethoven once rave at a famous violinist, “What do I care about your damned fiddle when the Spirit seizes me!” I mean, Beethoven, the great innovator, wasn’t constrained by what was, only concerned with what could be! Surely, if he were alive today, he would be impressed by our pianos, finally able to produce the powerful sounds that had only existed in his imagination!

Except…no, probably not.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Who wrote the symphonies, and why should it matter?

I’ve devoted much of this blog to challenging the stereotype that classical composers are all “dead, white men,” even though the canon makes it seem that way. So far, I’ve only addressed the “men” part, in several posts and a guest post.

Yet I haven’t written as much about the “white” part, mostly because it’s uncomfortable to discuss racism as a white person in the US—especially in connection to something I love, something I’ve built into my identity. It’s hard to talk from the privileged position without inadvertently making assumptions (which is why I’ve sent drafts of this post to many people for feedback).

But recent events have challenged my perspective, to the point that the “whiteness” of classical music is something I can’t not address anymore. I must push beyond any discomfort because this is a conversation that needs to happen, especially in the current political environment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Report from "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" (with link to the paper I delivered there)

Hello! If you haven't been following this blog on Facebook or Twitter, you may be wondering why I haven't updated the blog for a few months. I was preparing for a conference last week in Dublin, Ireland, where I delivered a paper and had some incredible conversations with fellow music scholars who share some of my concerns about music and its role in today's society.

When I saw that the  conference title was "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" and read the call for papers, I knew it was a great fit for my views as a scholar and the mission of my blog. Mythbusting is a quest for verifiable truth, and I do my best to explain how certain myths endure and why people choose to believe them.
Program booklet for the conference, featuring a collage of images alluding to several of the different topics covered by the papers.
Programme booklet for the Music and Musicology
in the Age of Post-Truth conference.

Since this conference intended to reflect on present culture, I realized I had to step away from my nineteenth-century comfort zone and find something recent to investigate. I pitched a paper that would be an offshoot of the lecture I delivered at Utah State University last January, which dealt with the perception of classical music as cultivating better morals in its listeners. Since the presentation could only be twenty minutes long (with ten additional minutes for questions and discussion), I had to narrow my focus. So, I chose one of the hottest topics in classical music at the moment: the scandals surrounding former Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine.