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.
When I complained about this article on Facebook, my friend Michael Cooper (a musicologist at Southwestern University) pointed out that Germans have historically been the ones who decide what "progressive" means and which composers it can apply to, withholding the term from various groups into to make them as outsiders. Dvořák is Bohemian, so by nineteenth-century standards, his music isn't German enough to be progressive. In the twenty-first century, we should be more wary of these labels.
Secondly, even if "progressive" does mean "Wagnerian," then it's false to claim that Dvořák's music can't claim that label. As my friend Emma Parker (a Czech opera scholar) points out, Dvořák employed several of Wagner's techniques in his operas, including leitmotif and continuous melody. He was conscious of these trends and implemented them in his own works, particularly in his most famous opera, Rusalka.
So, here's my advice: Stop categorizing composers as "progressive" or "not progressive." It implies a hierarchy that historians don't really adhere to anymore, and the word itself carries a lot of baggage. Also, please stop making claims about composers' abilities to engage people intellectually as though this is objective fact. Your brain is plenty active when listening to any music.
Next post: Does a recently discovered libretto prove Salieri killed Mozart? HINT: No.
Source: "Simple Pleasures? In praise of Dvořák's music" by Antony Bateman in The Guardian