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.