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.
People who study the history of classical music (that is, musicologists like myself) know this is a problem. For example, I specialize in how people talk about the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Even today, you'll read people describing his work as pretty, but not deep. It's formally clear, but it lacks the soul of Beethoven or Brahms. It's more Classical than Romantic, and so on. These descriptions then get linked to his biography: Mendelssohn had a happy life, so he didn't experience enough pain to create true art. (SPOILER: Mendelssohn did in fact experience pain.)
The "Happy Felix" cliché has a troubling history. One main reason why Mendelssohn is called superficial is that Richard Wagner said he was...in a scathing essay against Jews in music. It was a way for Wagner to deny Jewish composers their humanity; their music may seem good, he claimed, but since they lack souls, their music can never be more than an imitation of true art, and the evidence is in the music itself. Can't you hear it?
Now, not everyone who says Mendelssohn's music lacks depth is being anti-Semitic. Wagner's comments filtered through the centuries, becoming more innocuous as people repeated these ideas so often that they mistook them for historical fact. But there's no reason for writers to continue resorting to the same few phrases when we should know better.
That brings us to the purpose of this blog. Here, I'll be collecting published articles that resort to lazy clichés and debunked anecdotes when writing about classical music. I'll point out what's wrong, and I'll propose alternatives. Moreover, I'll do so without using jargon or resorting to abstract academic theories. My aim is to reach that broader audience who loves classical music but didn't major in it in college, the same audience that these articles are trying to speak to.
Please send me classical music clichés as you find them, and I'll publish them on this blog. I am also open to having guest posts. There are plenty of examples to keep us going for awhile, but my ultimate goal is that this blog will no longer be necessary because writers will find more accurate (and more original) ways to write about music. Enjoy!