Thursday, December 22, 2016

Announcement: Musicology Now guest post!

Although I haven't updated the blog recently, I've spent a lot of time writing about it. This week, I wrote a post for Musicology Now (yes, the same Musicology Now that I criticized in a previous post, now with a new editorial board). In it, I reflect on my experience with this blog and what I've learned about doing public musicology on the internet, in the hopes of passing along some advice to others who want to try it for themselves. I don't debunk any musical myths in this essay, but if you're interested in learning about my process and goals, please check it out! Here's a preview:
  • Your job is to stimulate enthusiasm, not quash it. Since I threw myself into the business of debunking myths, I’m at risk of being the pedant who derails an interesting conversation with, “Well, actually…” Sometimes I worry I’m so caught up in correcting misconceptions about music that I give the impression I don’t actually like it. That’s motivated me to write more than just corrections, to explain why the history matters and hopefully replace the warm fuzzies of a feel-good false narrative with an awed appreciation for history.
Read more »
Also, in the wake of articles celebrating Beethoven's birthday on December 16th, I've been working on a post about myths pertaining to his deafness. That post will probably be published early in the new year.

Have a merry Christmas, happy new year, and marvelous any other holiday you're celebrating! I look forward to busting more musical myths with you in 2017.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Is this flute concerto a long-lost Mozart composition? (Probably not.)

Last week, my news feeds were full of stories about musical manuscripts and rediscovered compositions:
  1. On November 27, A manuscript of Mahler’s second symphony auctioned at Sotheby’s set a record for the highest sale price of a musical manuscript.
  2. At the same auction, a manuscript of a Beethoven piece failed to sell, and Sotheby’s blames a musicologist for voicing doubts that it’s in Beethoven’s handwriting. 
  3. On December 2, Austria’s Tutti Mozart Orchestra premiered a long-lost flute concerto purported to be by Mozart.
  4. Coincidentally, that same day saw the revival of Stravinsky’s “Funeral Song,” which was lost in the Russian Revolution and recovered in 2015.
Since this blog’s primary purpose is to debunk musical myths, I’m going to focus on event #3: Is this a lost concerto by Mozart? The answer, unfortunately, is: It’s VERY unlikely.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Did WH Auden "uncloset" Benjamin Britten?

In looking for subjects for this blog, I often rely upon my friends on social media. More people encounter more articles (obviously), but I also appreciate that they possess different knowledge than I do and therefore spot problems that I would probably miss on my own. They also tend to be the type of people who can’t stand when someone is being wrong on the internet and will post that wrong thing to social media so we can all share in the wrongness of the thing. Without that trait, my blog probably wouldn’t exist.

So, when I encountered this post in my feed from UC Riverside musicologist Byron Adams, I had to investigate further:

I asked Dr. Adams to point me toward some context, and he recommended Philip Brett’s essay “Music, Essentialism, and the Closet” from Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, which is available on Google Books.

While investigating the initial link from Interlude, however, I noticed a major discrepancy between the headline listed on Facebook (“How WH Auden Helped Benjamin Britten Come Out Of The Closet”) and the headline of Georg Predota’s article in the link (“Coming out! Britten, Auden, and Berkeley”). So, my blog post is going to address two separate issues, both of which are timely: 1) historical treatment of LGBTQ+ figures, and 2) the spread of false information through social media.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Why is modern music so ugly? (Make Classical Music Great Again!)

So…some election, huh? I don’t know about you, but I was surprised (and honestly, horrified) by the outcome. In addition to my fears for the future, I also feel profound confusion because the results of the US presidential election showed me that the world isn’t exactly how I thought it was. I realize that my perception of the political landscape is shaped by being a white woman who has lived in liberal areas for most of my life. I had no idea that Donald Trump had that much support; I didn’t know how many people supported—or at the very least, could overlook—the very behaviors I found unacceptable. I thought the country was mostly like me, and the election tells me this is not the case.

I take my identity as a scholar very seriously, not just in my work, but in my life. When I am confronted with evidence that contradicts something I believe to be true, I should not ignore it. Though it would comfort me to look for other, different evidence that would confirm my previous worldview, that’s ultimately bad practice for a historian. I’m still trying to make sense of the information we received last week, and this blog post is part of that.

A few weeks ago, I received a message from reader Kenichi Ikuno on Facebook. He sent me a link to a blog post proclaiming that “Modern Classical Music is Dead,” and feminism killed it. He thought it would be a good addition to my ongoing series on snobbery, since the author, Max Roscoe, repeatedly asserts the superiority of classical music (up to a certain era) and supports his opinions with assumptions not supported by history. Normally, that is ideal fodder for this blog!

Monday, October 10, 2016

What is unique about classical music? (Snobbery in Classical Music, Part 4 of ?)

This blog is almost exactly five months old, and in that short time I’ve noticed a bit of mission drift. I started this blog with the intent of correcting mistakes, acting like a classical music Snopes to inform people that no, Salieri didn’t murder Mozart, and Tchaikovsky didn’t commit suicide after writing his Pathétique symphony. But as I started thinking about what gives these myths their staying power, I found myself explaining my view of history and articulating how I practice musicology. This morphed into a defense of the discipline, calling out misunderstandings, misapplications, and snobbery.

I bring this up because it’s important to point out that my definition of “musicology” is not shared by everyone, even fellow musicologists. Fortunately, the internet is a big place, and there are plenty of other musicological bloggers out there doing their own thing and showing the world how they do musicology (I list a few of my favorites at the end of this post). Anyone can read these blogs, which makes blogging a powerful activity in the practice of “public musicology”—another term on which musicologists have yet to achieve a consensus.

Many musicological blogs are like mine in that they’re the independent musings of one (or maybe two) scholar(s). This blog is not affiliated with any institution; the views expressed are mine alone. While I’d like to think of myself as a good example of a musicologist, I don’t speak for the discipline. However, there is an American Musicological Society (of which I am a member), and in addition to publishing a prestigious research journal and holding a huge academic conference as its annual meeting, it has an official blog: Musicology Now. Given that the blog’s header describes it as “lively facts and opinions on music, brought to you by the American Musicological Society” and is hosted on AMS’s website, one might assume that it’s representative of the discipline, and it’s the way the society chooses to present musicology to the public at large.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Did 18th-century artists "struggle"?

This week, a lot of my music friends have been sharing links to the “about” page on pianist Khatia Buniatishvili’s website. It’s one of the purplest things I’ve ever read, and since I research 19th-century writing about music, that’s saying a lot. If you need a laugh, go read it right now. If you’d prefer an audio version, check out Matt Marks’s dramatic reading (which adds a suitable soundtrack).

Make no mistake, this is atrociously bad writing. My favorite sentence features one hell of a mixed metaphor:
For fun, her mother would leave a new musical score each day on her piano and, hungry, Khatia’s long, octopus-like arms would devour them.
Image by Reddit user NeokratosRed
What an image! This biography, written by French music journalist Olivier Bellamy, probably suffers from translation issues, but even that doesn’t account for the complete lack of meaning in sentences like,
By lifting one’s eyes skywards one might notice her playing hide-and-seek with either Venus or Mercury. 
Okay, okay, okay. Enough! So, as much as I relish the absurdity of it all, I didn’t think there was any reason to put it on my blog. Then my friend Temmo posted a link to the dramatic reading on his Facebook page, and we had the following conversation:

That got me thinking. Yes, presenting Buniatishvili as a superhuman Artist plays to 19th-century tropes, but what strikes me is how often Bellamy invokes the 18th century.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What makes the arts different from sports? (Snobbery in Classical Music, part 3 of ?)

A few weeks ago, I posted a response to an article in the New York Times which asked, “Why Not a College Degree in Sports?” I had no problem with the idea itself, since a sports program could be structured in a way that introduces students to the humanities. I did quibble over Roger Pielke, Jr.’s misconceptions of Victorian culture. Recently, the Times published a response from the President of The Juilliard School, Joseph W. Polisi, which serves as the basis for another installment in my series on snobbery.

Thanks to Eric Saylor for this
splendid image of Elgar playing golf.
As I also did, Polisi attacks Pielke’s assumption that sports are for the masses while the arts are for high society. He points out that buying tickets to a sporting event can cost more than attending an opera, which is a casual conflation of money and class. (The two are related, but they’re not exactly the same issue.)

But if Polisi is willing to admit that this imagined class barrier between sports and the arts doesn’t actually exist, doesn’t that work in favor of Pielke’s point? I think they’re talking past each other. Both are arguing against the perception that “arts = highbrow, sports = lowbrow.” Polisi probably wants to assure people that the arts are for everyone, whereas Pielke’s original article hinges on whether sports deserve a higher cultural status.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Can Music Treat Cancer? Snake Oil Musicology (or, He Blinded Me with Science)

A friend of mine sent me this link with his apologies—he’s aware that, as a cancer patient, I receive a lot of well-meaning links about things that supposedly treat or cure cancer. I’ve developed a thick skin about it; my treatment is going about as well as I can hope for, and I trust my doctors and nurses. I’m not feeling desperate or hopeless about my condition at the moment, so I’m not as vulnerable on this subject as I have been in the past.

But this video about treating cancer with music strikes a nerve for reasons my friend didn’t even anticipate. It’s odd enough that it’s a video about “musicology” posted by ESPN, a sports network. It’s a little more personal than my usual blog post in that I’ve been in the same room as Nolan Gasser, and my prior experience has left me with a very negative view of his work.

In this post, I will do my best to address my problems with what he is saying, rather than the many problems I have with how he presents himself to the world. While I tend to have an inclusive view of musical scholarship and hesitate to point to anything and say, “That’s not musicology,” ultimately I find Gasser’s take on musicology is reductive and harmful.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What did the Victorians think of music and sport?

I awoke yesterday morning to find that two different people had sent me links to the same New York Times article: “Why Not a College Degree in Sports?” In it, Roger Pielke, Jr. argues that college sports have a lot in common with the performing arts—they require specialized skills and training, and people pay to see the students perform—so it should be possible to earn a degree in basketball, just as someone can currently get a bachelor’s degree in viola performance (like I did).

I’m not opposed to the idea. There is a lot of overlap between athletes and musicians, between the psychological pressure of performing in the moment and the need to maintain physical health. Just as I had to take several classes in music theory and history, Pielke cites a proposed curriculum of “sports history, sports law, sports finance.” The sports history aspect is most appealing to me, as that can become a student’s entre into the humanities—pretty much any human endeavor reveals something about the society in which it developed, so I can envision classes like “Politics and the Modern Olympic Games,” or “Ancient Precursors to Soccer: Global Perspectives.”

The proposed sports degree does enter into the ongoing debate about what the “true” purpose of higher education should be. Is college supposed to train you for a career in a specific field, or provide you with a broader knowledge base? Few sports majors would become professional athletes, just like few performance majors are be able to support themselves purely by playing. Yet such a program could help develop the skills to find alternative jobs within the field—and, ideally in my view, intellectual skills that they could apply to other fields, as well.

But that debate is not really in the purview of this blog. This statement, however, is:
And beyond such economic disparities, class distinctions of 19th-century England still shape thinking about sport: Classical music is valued by high society, while sport is for the masses.
The second half of the sentence is a cliché. The sentence as a whole is inaccurate.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Do you have good taste in music? (Snobbery in Classical Music, Part 2 of ?)

If you follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter, then you know that I promised you this post over a week ago. Sorry for the delay, but I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation, tracking down signatures, and filing forms to complete my PhD. So, I’m now officially Dr. Shaver-Gleason, or at least I will be once all the paperwork goes through.

So! A little over a week ago, Classic FM posted a quiz to help you determine “How good is your taste in music?” It asks you about the last album you bought, whether you approve of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s existence, and which recording of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations you prefer, then passes judgment on you. You might be told,
You have great taste in music
You are a denizen, a cultural and musical gatekeeper and tastemaker.
Or it might conclude,
You have awful taste in music
You're awful. We don't have time for you and your blanket praise of terrible music.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Do you have to be so snobby about classical music? (Part 1 of ?)

I have to confess, my original intent for this post was much grander than what I ended up with. I had two recent examples of classical music snobbery from opposite ends of the silly/serious spectrum: a listicle about being a classical musician, and an online discussion about a scholarly book about musicology. Both of them make assumptions about what should be considered “real” classical music, and I wanted to use them to make a greater point about how classical music is policed at every level: Is the audience knowledgeable enough? Do the performers play the right repertoire? Do the composers write in the proper style? Do the scholars say the right things? When it comes down to it, these questions are built on snobbery.

But the cliché of snobs liking classical music (or classical music being for snobs) is just too big for any one post, and trying to tackle all of it at once gave me writers’ block. So instead, this might just turn into an ongoing series where I call out classical music snobbery as I see it and offer suggestions to help steer things in a more constructive direction.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Did Clara Schumann sacrifice her career to her family?

I’m currently in Syracuse, New York, getting ready to read a paper at a conference for the North American British Music Studies Association. (The paper is about an obscure 19th-century British composer named William Sterndale Bennett, and why he’s so obscure, even though this year is his bicentenary.) Last night, I was unwinding at my motel, and I came across this Tweet from University of Iowa musicologist Marian Wilson Kimber:
Familiar but inaccurate? Well, I can’t let something like that stand, even when I’m dealing with nausea on the other side of the country.

The original article is from the San Diego Reader, “Female composer Clara Schumann let her opinions be known” by Garrett Harris. He is woefully inept as a classical music critic. He first came on my radar when Byron Adams spite-shared a link to this review, which includes the sentence, “This is hard core impressionism and it’s not really easy listening even though there is a harp involved.” It gets worse. Will Robin directed me to Matt Marks's dramatic reading of one of Harris’s other reviews (NSFW language!). Harris is uninformed about the music he covers, but at least he’s also a terrible writer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Opera! So highbrow, amirite?

I haven’t updated the blog in a while, mostly due to medical issues (I’m adjusting to a new chemotherapy regime). That hasn’t prevented people from writing stupid things about music, sadly. The study about how Mozart is better than ABBA for lowering your blood pressure is continuing to circulate, and I’ve already said my piece about articles like that.

Fortunately, for some bits of bad music journalism over the past month, other writers were quick to respond. Around Independence Day, a picture of Stravinsky made the rounds, purporting to be a mugshot from when he was arrested for his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Carly Carioli of The Boston Globe thoroughly debunked this myth. Accuracy triumphs again!

As for clichéd topics, Philip Clark of The Guardian lamented “Where have the great composers gone?”, yet another article about how music just isn’t as good as it used to be, you know, in the past. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle took him on directly and answered, “Looking for the great composers? They’re all around us.”

So, even though I wasn’t keeping my own blog current, I was at peace with how others were handling things and decided it wasn’t so bad to focus on my own recovery for a bit. But then the clichés struck in a medium very dear to my heart: the comic strip.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Did Bach Hate Pianos?

In the comment section of my post “How ‘forgotten’ was Bach?”, reader Cleverson wrote:
Speaking of Bach, you could also write something against a myth that exists among some music teachers, at least here in Brazil, who say that “Bach hated pianos.” They use such a lie to discourage students from making use of specific features of the piano as an instrument when playing Baroque repertoire.
Cleverson also mentioned coming across the explanation that Bach played an early piano and didn’t like that particular model, but when he came across an improved version later, he liked what he heard.

This “Bach hated pianos” idea intrigues me, mostly because of how Cleverson says it’s used to dictate performance practice. I’ll share my thoughts on that in a bit, but first I have to take care of the myth itself: Did Bach hate pianos?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

What happened to English music between Purcell and Elgar?

In addition to sporadically updating this blog, I write program notes for classical music ensembles. Part of the reason my posting schedule is erratic is that summer is my busy season; many orchestras like having all notes for their entire season in one booklet, so I have to write them well before their first concert in the fall. When researching my own notes, I sometimes consult program notes by other people, and too often I find examples of how not to write about music.

When researching a piece by Henry Purcell, I found a sentence that made me facepalm:
Purcell's early death, at the age of thirty-six, not only cut short one of the most promising of careers, but also sidetracked the development of a specifically English musical style until Elgar and then Britten emerged some two centuries later.
This was published for one of the world’s most prestigious ensembles, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! My home city should do better than this.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What is a “Masterpiece”?

UCLA musicologist (and friend of the blog) Robert Fink tagged me in a link to an essay about the watering down of the word “masterpiece.” As a lover of language, I do mourn the loss of specificity of certain words. Even though I acknowledge that language changes (and that it has to), I love the 18th century definitions of “sublime” and “picturesque,” and I wish that the former still conveyed a sense of overwhelming vastness while the latter still connoted variation and interesting juxtapositions.

But while Terry Teachout claims to be defending a dictionary definition in his article “‘Masterpieces’ Without Masters,” his sense of the word is tied up with a lot of Romanticized ideas of art and its production. And by “Romanticized,” I do mean that his way of addressing this topic is filled with ideas that originated in the 19th century. I have two main problems with Teachout’s essay: his rigid division between “popular culture” and “high art,” and his idea that a masterpiece must by definition exclude collaboration. To support this second point, Teachout makes many erroneous assumptions about how works of art, particularly classical music, are created.

Monday, June 20, 2016

You can’t change the canon…or can you?

Earlier this month, the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras met in Baltimore to discuss, among other things, the future of live classical music. Music critic Anne Midgette covered the conference for The Washington Post with an article about how musicians are tackling existential questions, reconsidering orchestras’ missions and even the purpose of concerts in the 21st century. One quote from the conference caught a lot of attention, particularly on Twitter:
I re-tweeted Simon Brackenborough’s response, thinking defiantly, “Hells yeah! We can change the canon!” As a Good Musical Citizen and Friend to Composers, that’s the reaction that feels correct. Despite the religious connotations of the term “canon,” it wasn’t ordained by God. Humans made the canon, and humans can change the canon—in fact, it’s been in a constant state of change since its inception. So, in the literal sense, Laing’s statement is false.

But I don’t think Laing meant his words literally, so I’m not going to pillory him. He’s a musician; I suspect he said it with resignation, maybe even some frustration. Yes, you can change the canon, but inertia has made it difficult to do so. The concept of the canon developed about 200 years ago, and while individual works have gained and lost canonic status, the idea of THE CANON remains a significant influence on concert and radio programming.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Is Tchaikovsky’s "Pathétique" Symphony a Suicide Note?

I haven’t updated this blog in a week, mostly because I graduated from UC Santa Barbara on Sunday, earning a PhD in Music. I’ve been preoccupied with the logistics of visiting relatives and the hooding ceremony. But my personal celebration has been tempered by a national tragedy, the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people. It’s an attack on humanity, and it’s an acute reminder to my friends in the LGBTQ+ community that their lives are in danger by virtue of who they are.

Among the many discussions on social media in response to the massacre, UC Riverside musicologist Byron Adams linked to an article in The Guardian about how some news coverage has glossed over the fact that the victims were targeted for being gay. He has studied the erasure of gay identities in music reception over the centuries, and the conversation on his post turned to a topic that fits with the mission of this blog: The myth that Tchaikovsky committed suicide from shame over a homosexual affair. This entry was shaped by my conversation with Dr. Adams on this topic, and I am grateful for his assistance.

Here’s the myth: Tchaikovsky had an affair with a young nobleman, and alumni of the School of Jurisprudence (where Tchaikovsky studied in the 1850s) thought it would discredit their institution. So, fearing blackmail and/or wishing to preserve honor, Tchaikovsky poisoned himself. As he died just nine days after the premiere of his sixth symphony, the work can be considered his suicide note, the last testament of a dying man.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

How "forgotten" was Bach?

Today, I'm getting back to one of the original goals of this blog: debunking myths about composers that have been repeated so many times that they're accepted as truth. This particular myth has resurfaced because Sotheby's recently auctioned the original publishing contract for J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the work that rekindled interest in Bach's music when Felix Mendelssohn performed it in 1829, over a century after it was written. Or, as our friends at Classic FM put it, "Bach would’ve been completely forgotten by history without this document."

The myth is that Bach's music had been forgotten until Mendelssohn resurrected him. You'll find it in biographic profiles and lists of interesting facts. It's an appealing tidbit because it seems so contrary to our perception of Bach today. Bach is one of the few classical composers that most people have even heard of; even if they can't name him, people can at least recognize a few bars of his work. Whenever we see a television character appreciating some Bach, we know we're meant to understand that their brain is processing information at a higher level, thanks to popular culture linking Bach's music to depictions of genius (a phenomenon that started in the twentieth century, as studied by my friend Kristi Brown-Montesano). Since Bach is ubiquitous nowadays, it would be easy to assume that it’s always been that way. Finding out that it was the exact opposite way for decades after his death is pleasantly surprising, in that it's something you can say to impress people at parties.

Like most myths, this one is based on a kernel of truth. Bach was not famous in his own time, certainly not an international superstar like Handel. Mendelssohn did organize a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and that concert did much to popularize Bach. But it would be inaccurate to call Bach "forgotten" up to 1829, and Mendelssohn is not solely responsible for launching Bach's posthumous career. Though the myth of Mendelssohn "discovering" Bach might lead one to imagine him as a musical Indiana Jones stumbling across a dusty manuscript, eyes widening as he gradually realizes its brilliance, that just wasn't the case.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Will these suggestions make classical concerts less "stifling"?

Classical music needs to attract new listeners. This isn't news. Pretty much anyone who cares about the future of classical music realizes this, and to believe otherwise is to be in denial. This isn't another  hand-wringing pronouncement that "Classical music is dying!"—it's an acknowledgment that classical music is subject to cultural forces and needs to build audiences with each generation in order to endure.

How to attract these new listeners remains the subject of debate. Some have proposed augmenting the concert experience, adding features that might help the highly sough-after "millennials" feel more at ease during a live performance—such as these listening guides by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which use notation that resembles video games such as Rock Band to explain form. Some argue that the concert experience itself need to change, due to classical music's image problem: it's too stuffy and old fashioned, and concert traditions are alienating.

Toronto critic Michael Vincent falls into this latter camp (though the positions I mentioned are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive). Earlier this week, he published a list of "Nine Things That Should Change About Classical Music." He explains, "[T]he concert etiquette at classical music performances can be a stifling experience for newbies attending symphony concerts."

Having taught music appreciation classes at UCSB, I agree with that assessment. Many of my students expressed confusion over certain traditions, including ones on Vincent's list. I like that Vincent focuses on the rituals surrounding music rather than the music itself; despite the headline, he is pointing out aspects of classical concerts he thinks should change.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Is this the ugliest piece ever written?

"Most musicologists would argue that..." is a Bat Signal for this blog. Okay, so it did take UCLA musicologist Robert Fink to bring this to my attention (thank you!), but I'm setting up a Google alert for variants of this phrase, since I doubt there are many things most musicologists agree on, and the things on which we do agree are probably so mundane that they don't merit comment.

So, what would most musicologists supposedly argue? According to mathematician Scott Rickard in a TEDx Talk from 2011,
Most musicologists would argue that repetition is a key aspect of beauty. The idea that we take a musical idea, we repeat it, we set up the expectation for repetition and then we either realize it or break the repetition. If repetition and patterns are key to beauty, then what would the absence of patterns sound like—if we wrote a piece of music with no repetition in it?
Rickard claims that it would be the least beautiful, therefore The Ugliest Piece of Music. Tim Edwards of Classic FM ran with that idea when he reported on Rickard's talk in an article titled, "This is the most monumentally ugly piece of music ever composed, according to science."

Yes, this is another blog post about "science" and music, and once again it involves Classic FM. In my previous post, I looked at the ways in which Classic FM reports on scientific studies involving classical music in order to confirm their readers' cultural biases. This article reveals a different problem involving music in science: when the scientist (or mathematician) misrepresents musicology (or music theory).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Science Proves Your Favorite Music is the Best

Instead of examining a single article for this post, I'm going to discuss a trend: using science to imply that classical music better than other styles.

Journalists in all fields love to report on scientific studies, but very often the science is misunderstood or misrepresented, as the journalists are usually not specialists themselves. My previous post shows one example of this lack of understanding (assuming that mistake was in Vanderbilt's reporting and not in the actual study, though I suspect the scientists wouldn't have picked the name "Buxtehude" out of the ether, so someone knew what they were doing). Comedian-journalist John Oliver discussed the media's misrepresentation of science on a recent episode of his show Last Week Tonight; if you don't have 20 minutes available to watch this funny and informative clip, you can look at this diagram from covering the same topic.

When it comes to scientific studies involving music, there's a cultural component that complicates reporting. Very often, scientific studies are presented in ways that conform to our cultural expectations. That is, people love reading that classical music is good for us.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Buxtehude is not "a fictitious composer"

I'm preparing a longer post on bad reporting of scientific studies involving music, but I came across this in my Facebook feed and couldn't let it go by without a brief comment:

In his book You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Tom Vanderbilt writes,
In one study, people liked the same piece of music more when it was described as being by Bach versus a fictitious composer named Buxtehude.

Buxtehude is not a name made up for the sake of this study. Dieterich Buxtehude (1637?-1707) was a superstar in his day. In fact, when Johann Sebastian Bach was about twenty years old, he walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck—280 miles each way!—just to hear Buxtehude play.

You can read more about Buxtehude on the website of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society. Or you can look him up on Wikipedia. You can listen to his music on YouTube—like Bach, he wrote works for organ, harpsichord, chamber ensemble, and chorus, so choose according to your preferences.

Please enjoy the music of this totally real, non-fictitious composer who did indeed exist, and remember that pop science writers are not experts in everything they write about.

Thank you to Robert Fink for posting the link to this quote!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Beethoven's Humanity vs. Mozart's Divinity

In my previous post, I looked at an article written by someone who probably does not have much experience covering classical music (at least, judging by the other articles she's written). It addresses some of the problems that arise when publishers assign staffers who do not have the background to write knowingly about their given subject. For this post, however, I examine an article by The Telegraph's regular classical music critic, Ivan Hewett. While his article also contains historical falsehoods, I'm more concerned about the way Hewett resorts to the most familiar stereotypes to preach to the choir.

First, some background: In a survey conducted earlier this year by Classic FM, a UK-based radio station, Beethoven had more compositions on the favorites list than Mozart. This was the first time this has happened since the annual survey started in 1996, which is enough of a change to warrant some comment. The first article The Telegraph ran on this coup, "Beethoven beats Mozart to be crowned most popular composer for first time," offers an explanation: Beethoven's seventh symphony serves as the soundtrack to an intense scene in the popular movie The King's Speech, which prompted people to seek out more of his music.

Perhaps this article was a bit too dry in its cold reporting of facts and analysis. Where is the breathless adulation of these Great Masters? So, Hewett offers his own explanation in "Why Beethoven rules supreme over Mozart."  Rather than discuss why people might have adjusted their answers in the poll, he effectively proclaims that the poll has finally gotten it right.

"Beethoven is classical music's titan. More than that, he is the perfection of the romantic artist-hero," Hewett declares. Here's where my perspective as a musicologist differs from that of most music fans. I cannot argue against Beethoven being a "romantic artist-hero," but rather than using that as proof of his greatness, I see it as an interesting product of nineteenth-century culture. Our concept of the "artist-hero" is based on the Romantic perception of Beethoven, so of course he's the best example of it; it's a tautology. This statement should be unpacked and explored, not taken as evidence in itself.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Can this "libretto" prove Salieri killed Mozart?

No. It can't. That's ridiculous. Yet Jess Staufenberg of The Independent wants us to think it can.

Antonio Salieri is now best known for something he didn't do: killing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The 1984 movie Amadeus is most responsible for the persistence of this myth into the twenty-first century (and it is a fantastic movie!), but the idea predates the Oscar-winning film by over 150 years. The movie is an adaptation of a Tony Award-winning play from 1979 by Peter Shaffer, which itself was based on Alexander Pushkin's play Mozart and Salieri from 1830, which was based on rumors that circulated after Mozart's death that were proven false.

The story resonates with viewers because it touches on one of our most powerful emotions, jealousy. We all know a Mozart--someone who is just better than you at something without even trying. No matter how diligently you work, someone will always be able to beat you, and it's particularly infuriating if they mock your efforts in the process. It's a common human experience projected onto famous historical figures, which is often a recipe for successful entertainment. It's historically false, but it's really good fan fiction.

So, when a Czech museum finds a collaborative composition by Mozart and Salieri that has been lost for two centuries, the Amadeus angle is the obvious route to generate page views. Frankly, if you don't at least mention the rivalry, your reader will be distracted by the thought, "Wait, didn't Salieri kill Mozart or something?" It'd be irresponsible not to mention it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dvořák never tried to be progressive?

This is the article that prompted me to start this blog.

When I found this article about a Dvořák festival, I skimmed past the subhead, so I missed that the author led his story by explaining that Dvořák is "sometimes dismissed as having little to offer intellectually." That statement in itself isn't so bad; surely, some do claim that (including, apparently, the author).

The story never debunks this claim. Instead, Antony Bateman reaffirms it:
As the festival will hopefully remind us, Dvořák’s music never tried to be progressive. It might not engage deeply with the intellect, but it does with the heart and the imagination in the most direct way possible (does music really have to engage the intellect anyway?).
There are quite a few problems with this paragraph. First of all, what does it mean to be "progressive"? This is a loaded term in music history. The idea of music being "progressive" is tied to the nineteenth century and usually implies that the composer is following the ideas of Wagner and Liszt. This is in contrast to more "conservative" composers like Brahms. But "progressive" does not automatically mean "innovative," as Brahms (and indeed Dvořák) developed a lot of original ideas in their compositions. Nor should "progressive" imply "intellectually engaging," as Bateman does here. Plenty of people find Dvořák stimulating.

Not Another Music History Cliché: Introduction

If you consider yourself a classical music lover, chances are you know a lot of stories about composers: Bach had a bunch of children. Beethoven went deaf. Schumann went crazy. Spend enough time reading concert reviews, and any composer's name sets off an array of associated phrases in your brain: Mozart = child prodigy, classical, perfection, crude humor, makes you smarter. The stories surrounding classical music are as familiar and as old as the pieces themselves--or so you might think.

However, not all of these stories are accurate. Some of them were invented years after the fact, then repeated so many times that people came to accept them as truth. Some are not exactly untrue, but they're reductive. Some are actively harmful. Yet people who write about classical music continue to recycle the same phrases and factoids because that's what their readers expect.