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.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Did Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring incite a riot at its premiere?

I knew this entry was inevitable from the moment I had the idea to start this blog. Of all the classical music myths, this might be the one most deeply entrenched in the popular imagination: the riot at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The ballet depicts ritual sacrifice in prehistoric Russia, or at least what Stravinsky and his collaborators imagined “prehistoric Russia” to be. The premiere was expected to be a major cultural event, given the talent involved.

The Ballets Russes—literally, “Russian Ballet”—was a hot ticket, as Parisians were drawn to the Eastern exoticism of previous productions, including Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), both of which had music composed by the young up-and-comer Stravinsky. Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, was known for his shocking and often risqué choreography (such as his 1912 performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d'un faune, reproduced in this video).

The performance was unlike anything the audience expected: the costumes were ugly, the choreography heavy, and the music harsh. In the words of 21st-century music critic Ivan Hewett:
“The audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh…The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way.”
Some in the audience booed and jeered at the performance, causing others to defend the artistic integrity of the ballet with shouts and insults, causing such a ruckus that no one could even hear the music, including the dancers. The fighting in the audience got so bad that some resorted to physical violence, causing a riot that overshadowed the actual performance.

So the story goes.

Even sites that aren’t devoted to classical music have published articles covering the riot, especially in light of the premiere’s centenary in 2013. As for classical music sites, you can count on it to appear on lists like “Top Five Crazy Riots in Classical Music” and “10 OMG moments in classical music” Radiolab devoted an episode of their podcast to reimagining the premiere “through the lens of modern neurology.” And, I confess, as a grad student I even taught this to a bunch of unsuspecting undergrads in a music appreciation course. But here’s the problem:

The riot never happened.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Musicology and the Arab Origins of Solfege (Guest post by Michael Vincent)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! I want to alert you to the fact that this essay is a guest post by Michael Vincent. Not only is it informative and thoroughly researched, it fits with the overall mission of this blog. I am grateful that he shared this with me, and I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

When in doubt, ask a musicologist. As Linda has noted elsewhere, musicologists are great for contextualizing music and history with larger ideas. But our discipline has blind spots. We train in European-style universities, where we sometimes continue to work. We tend to be Eurocentric, incorporating other perspectives but safely cordoning them off as secondary areas of interest. Owing to this blog’s mission, Linda hasn't shied away from the issue.

When I read this post from WQXR Blog on the origins of solfege, I was happy to see that the author consulted musicologist Andrew Dell’Antonio, who has contributed to Not Another Music History Cliché. Everything that James Bennett II (the WQXR author) writes conforms with what is commonly understood in our discipline—an improvement over an earlier essay that caught the attention of this blog. Bennett acknowledges complexities, since solfege is “found in musical cultures all over the world.” He specifies the subject of the post as “the form [of solfege] most associated with western European music.” He has done his due diligence in researching and presenting the information accurately. So what’s the issue?

It’s where Bennett writes “Guido d’Arezzo (ca. 991–after 1033), the monk to whom we attribute the beginnings of staff notation as we understand it today, also gets credit for solfège.” Bennett smartly hedges the language, noting that Guido “gets credit.” Yes, he does! While this level of information is appropriate for the reader of the WQXR blog, here we can get into why Guido gets credit: because of the Eurocentric perspective adopted by musicologists.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Will following Beethoven’s example lead to success?

A friend of mine who goes by the handle MusicologyDuck alerted me to a listicle with a title I found impossible to ignore:


Since this list appears on a general life advice site rather than one focused on, say, musical composition, I anticipated that I’d find factual inaccuracies that would necessitate a list of corrections, as I did earlier for a listicle of Mozart myths. What I found instead was information that wasn’t quite factually wrong but lacked crucial historical context and was twisted to serve an anachronistic agenda.
Portrait of Beethoven
People who received ACTUAL lessons from Beethoven (above):
Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Ries, Josephine Brunsvik
These “lessons from Beethoven” have much in common with the sanitized composer biographies for children that I’ve previously criticized. Instead of presenting Beethoven as a moral role model for leading a virtuous life, however, this list offers the composer’s life as a model for a successful career. In the process, the complex, contradictory life of a real person is distilled to twenty-five aphorisms that cherry-pick events for anachronistic support of current economic practices.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Announcement: Guest spots on "The Listening Service" and "Are We Okay?"

Hello, everyone! I am currently working on an essay about a listicle which mines a composer's life for business advice, which I plan to post either this week or next. In the meantime, you can listen to me chat about music on two different shows:

For Tom Service's show "The Listening Service" on BBC Radio 3, he consulted me on the issue of whether music is a universal language. As you may recall from my post on this topic, my stance is that it is not. I state my case beginning at about 16:00 in the show.

"Is Music a Universal Language?" on The Listening Service
What is music good for? In our concluding link with the BBC's Civilisations season, The Listening Service asks one of the most fundamental questions we can about music, a claim often made on the art-form's behalf in a list of reasons why it's an essential good: is music a universal language? More »

I had a much longer conversation with Chris Lambert for his podcast, "Are We Okay?" We talked about music a bit, but we covered a lot of other topics, as you can read in the description. If you ever wondered how my life is doing outside of this blog, you can find the answers somewhere in this hour of off-the-cuff rambling.

"Rock the boat before I go" on Are We Okay?
I drop by musicologist and blogger Dr. Linda Shaver-Gleason's apartment to talk about female composers, Florence Price, playing the viola, musicology, Felix Mendelssohn's reception, finding something compelling in pop music, writing a blog, Harald Krebs' Fantasy Pieces, escaping school through logic puzzles, reading Mahler scores with her dad, being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, auditioning for Jeopardy! during brain radiation treatment, outliving a prognosis of six months, the process of chemotherapy, the BRCA2 genetic mutation, what she wants to be remembered for, and why she still feels lucky. More » 

And since this is an announcement post, I want to thank the readers who have sent me a total of 80 "coffees" via Ko-fi, as of the time I'm writing this. I write the blog for personal reasons and not as a stable income source, but I do put a lot of research into every essay I publish here. Using Ko-fi to buy me a $3 coffee is a way for readers to express support encouragement. You are, of course, under no obligation to send me anything, but I appreciate every coffee and note I receive.

Thank you for reading and (potentially) listening! More classical music culture critique coming soon.