Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Myth of the Canon's Invisible Hand (Guest post by Anne C. Shreffler)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! This year has been remarkable for (among other things) public debates about women's experiences in our society, from the Women's March to the #metoo campaign. Just as the previous two posts on this blog have featured a multitude of voices, this post comes from someone else: Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler. Many thanks to Dr. Shreffler for contributing to our continued discussion of the classical music canon.

The name of Beethoven engraved over the proscenium at Symphony Hall in Boston.
Beethoven, the disembodied name of a
musical deity, in Boston's Symphony Hall
“But isn’t musical quality more important than gender?”

Anyone who has ever proposed a greater inclusion of women composers and composers of color—into a curriculum, a concert program, or an archive—is familiar with this kind of response. One of the most persistent myths in music history is that the classical music canon came about as the result of a rational, inevitable process that ensured the preservation of only the "best" works, those that "stood the test of time." An influential proponent of this view was the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, who maintained in 1977 that the musical canon was not made but "found." According to Dahlhaus, we can't shape or change the canon, since it was created long ago by the invisible hand of tradition.

How exactly is this selection process supposed to have worked? One imagines a fictional court of justice in the heavenly spheres, presided over by—whom? (God? St. Cecilia? Herbert von Karajan?), that conducts annual reviews of ALL the compositions by ALL the people, and hands down impartial judgment on their "musical quality." The verdict: Sibelius, yes; his contemporaries Amy Beach and Will Marion Cook, no.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The "reception and perception of women composers" (Tweets about Women Composers, part 2)

Cécile Chaminade wonders when she'll be heard on the radio as often as Maurice Duruflé.
Cécile Chaminade wonders when she'll be heard on
the radio as often as Maurice Duruflé.
Hello, and welcome to part 2 of our recent discussion on Twitter about women composers in history. If you want to see what prompted the conversation, check out part 1, in which musicologists point out that, just because you haven't heard of woman composers at a particular time, doesn't mean they didn't exist.

Again, I've chosen to embed the Tweets rather than transcribe them so you may interact with them if you'd like.

As the conversation went on, "symphonic rabble rouser" Emily E. Hogstad had a substantial amount to say:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

If we've never heard of women composers from past centuries, does that mean they didn't exist? (Tweets about Women Composers, part 1)

Amy Beach, an actual woman composer of the 19th century!
Hello, everyone! This blog post is going to be in a different format due to a recent, complicated, multi-threaded Twitter discussion. Since there's no platform that organizes Twitter threads as intuitively as the human brain, I'm going to do my best to untangle them here. I chose to embed the Tweets so you can explore some of the branches I've left out, if you so desire. However, the post is so long that I'm going to have to break it into two parts! Here we go:

It began with musicologist Kendra Leonard asking a music history account about their OTDs ("On This Date"):

And THERE is the myth! Dr. Leonard summoned me:
Note: She used my personal Twitter handle (@LindaHypen) instead of the one I use only for this blog (@MusHistCliches). Feel free to follow this account for musicological discussions like this one, but be aware that I also tweet about my cancer, my son, and my cat.

Like many myths, it is based on a bit of truth: Women have historically been discouraged from composing. (Unfortunately, this continues today, for reasons that will be explained by someone else later in this post.) I've even gotten into a different Twitter discussion about this, with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel as the prime example.

Just as women in general have been encouraged to focus on domestic matters and not work outside the home, they were discouraged from seeking advanced training in composition because it would distract from their household responsibilities. As Abraham Mendelssohn told his daughter Fanny, "for you [music] can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing."

So, what makes this a myth?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Did Bach raise 20 children? Writing composer biographies for kids

Hello! It’s been months since I’ve last updated, and I regret that the hiatus lasted so long. It was mostly due to medical issues; after my successful round of brain radiation, I started a particularly brutal chemo treatment that saps me of energy and makes it difficult to walk. But I’m still recovering.

As I mentioned in the intro to Andrew Dell’Antonio’s guest post, I was indeed on Jeopardy! You can watch the full episode online (assuming Sony hasn’t had the video removed), or if you just want results, you can check J!-Archive. (I was wearing a wig for that episode because radiation left me bald.) If you watch the show, you’ll see that I talked about this blog in my one-on-one with Alex Trebek! I made a passing reference to Mozart and Salieri before mentioning that Bach wasn’t quite forgotten after his death. Wrapping up the interview, Alex mentioned Bach having “lots of children,” and I agreed.

In the very first post on this blog—indeed, the very first sentence—I mention that Bach having a bunch of children is one of those facts that nearly every classical music lover already knows. It is technically correct that Bach fathered twenty children.
Futurama meme: You are technically correct...the best kind of correct.
And technically correct is the best kind of correct.

However, I’ve discovered that this fact leads some people to create a mental image that is inaccurate. For example, I recently found a description on Amazon of a Bach biography that says it shows, “how he helped his wife Magdalena put the twenty children to bed every night.” This is completely false.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monteverdi at 450: Don’t Believe the Hype (Guest post by Andrew Dell'Antonio)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! I completed my eighteen treatments of brain radiation a little over a week ago, and as far as I can tell, I’m not experiencing much in the way of cognitive impairment. That’s particularly good news, considering that in the past month I’ve had some fantastic opportunities: I received a commission to write program notes for a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I’ve been selected as a contestant for Jeopardy!, with the taping next week. So, even though I have a clear idea of what I want to blog about next, I haven’t had the time to write the posts.

But people keep being wrong on the internet, and I’m not the only one who cares. My friend and colleague Andrew Dell’Antonio (co-editor of The Avid Listener) spotted a trend in the way newspapers are using Claudio Monteverdi to boost tourism, and he offered to write a guest post. My sincere thanks to Andrew for his contribution!

As a long-time admirer of Linda Shaver-Gleason’s insights on the perils of musical-historical cliché, I am absolutely honored that she has given me this opportunity to have my say on an instance of celebratory flim-flam from my own musical-historical backyard.

Claudio Monteverdi
Portrait by Bernardo Strozzi
We are in the 450th anniversary year of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), verifiably one of the most prominent European musicians of the turn of the seventeenth century.  Anniversaries bring celebrations, and several have already been underway, the most noteworthy sponsored by the town of Cremona, where he was born, but also at Mantua, where he built his reputation, and Venice, where he landed and put down roots for the last 30 years of his long and productive life.

Most recently hype has bubbled up in a pair of posts from the travel sections of UK newspaper web sites The Guardian and The Telegraph, in conjunction with a planned performance in Venice of the three surviving operas by Monteverdi by prominent English ensembles directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Stephen Pritchard of The Guardian gushes:
The first composer to break through convention and display the true nature of humanity… a man who moved music out of the Renaissance into the Baroque, as much a revolutionary in his own artform as his contemporaries Shakespeare, Galileo, Cervantes, Caravaggio and Rubens were in theirs.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Problems with “Evolution” Narratives

A side note before I get into this post: I’ve recently received some unfortunate medical news that will probably affect my ability to update this blog. In a previous post, I’ve mentioned that I have cancer. A few weeks ago, we learned that it has spread to my brain, and that I’ll be undergoing full brain radiation (starting this afternoon!), which will affect my short-term memory and ability to concentrate. In the future, I hope to work on writing with the extra mental challenges, but in the meantime, even just finding out about the cancer spreading has made it difficult to focus.

…Which is why I haven’t updated for a while, despite there being plenty of musical misconceptions to clear up. I’ve actually had two potential posts on my agenda for over a week: a take-down of a “new” (actually just recirculating) theory about Beethoven’s infamous Immortal Beloved, and a Twitter conversation I had last week about whether classical music can be considered political (my stance: Of course it’s political!). I’m still planning to post about those, as I think they’re both interesting and important. But what ultimately motivated me to update the blog today was a cartoon:

“The Evolution of Classical Composition” is as adorable as it is problematic!
Note: The panels read down first, then right. Click link for larger version.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Has Elgar’s Enigma finally been cracked? (Spoiler: No.)

Check out this sensational headline, fresh from Facebook!
“Did a Violin Teacher From Plano, Texas Solve
the World’s Greatest Classical Music Mystery?”
I don’t know, but all these superimposed notes look pretty convincing!
This story has something for everyone: An unassuming person from Middle America finds the solution that has eluded scholars and specialists for generations! If you’re into classical music, this is a major finding that may change the way you listen to a major piece in the repertoire! If you’re an average dude, your kind has just scored a major victory over educated elitists with nothing but gumption and a little help from, yes, God above.

Ah, but remember Betteridge’s Law of Headlines (which I’ve discussed on this blog before): “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” Admittedly, this “law” is intended more for humor than accuracy, but it holds true in this case. No, Bob Padgett did not crack the “Enigma” of Edward Elgar’s famous variations.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Classical music isn't "cool": Essay for VAN Magazine

I have another debunking post in the works, but in the meantime, I wrote an essay for VAN Magazine about the cliché of equating composers with rock stars: "Classical Music Isn't Cool." Rather than give you a preview paragraph, this time I'll show you how VAN promoted it in their weekly newsletter:
You know the drill: Mozart was a lover of fart jokes, Liszt was a pervy proto-rock star--these are all attempts to make classical music seem radical and hip. But are we fooling anyone? An essay by Linda Shaver-Gleason

Since I couldn't in the essay, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Emma Parker, Sarah Elaine Neill, Andrew Dell'Antonio, and Carl Shaver for their feedback on early drafts.

Perhaps you disagree with my bold assertion, and hearing about Berlioz's drug use is what got you to check out Symphonie Fantastique. If so, let me know! I'd love to hear other perspectives on this topic.

Next time: I scrutinize a potential solution to Elgar's enigma, and one news outlet's coverage of it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Myths about Beethoven's deafness: Guest post for The Avid Listener

After I've been teasing you about it for over a month, The Avid Listener published my essay "Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist" today! Here’s a preview:

Beethoven’s disability forms a large part of our concept of him as the quintessential Romantic Hero, as it is a tragic flaw he must overcome to produce his great Art.

The above clip [from Mr. Holland's Opus] mentions two stories about Beethoven’s deafness that have circulated for centuries. In one, Beethoven waves his arms at the podium, oblivious to the fact that the orchestra cannot keep up. In the other, he saws off the legs of his piano so he can feel the vibrations through the floor.

Neither of these stories is true.

Read more »
The Avid Listener also has
a spiffy logo.
The Avid Listener is a blog published by W.W. Norton & Company, intended to foster discussion in and beyond the classroom (hence the discussion questions at the end). I’m excited about this collaboration, as I got to blend my interests in musical mythbusting with their house style emphasizing multimedia presentations.

Also, I am very grateful for the input from Robin Wallace of Baylor University. He is currently writing an entire book devoted to Beethoven myths, and he was generous enough to share some of his drafts with me. He goes into more depth than I’m able to on this blog, so if this topic interests you, please check out his work!

I’m currently working on another off-blog essay about the cliché of making classical music look "cool," and I’m expecting that to be published next week. In the meantime, please enjoy the other wonderful essays on The Avid Listener, and keep sending me suspect links as you find them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Many Mozart Myths: A pauper’s grave, labor screams, and more!

Happy 261st! Don’t worry, we’ll
still treat you like you’re 11.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday is nearly upon us: On January 27, he’ll be turning 261 years old. ’Tis the season for listicles touting the miraculous powers of the Mozart Effect (which I’ve discussed here and, more recently, in the article I wrote for The Outline). Some website or publication might mention his rivalry with Salieri, or extol his otherworldly perfection. But The Telegraph got a head start and already published “Myleene Klass on the enduring appeal of Mozart” (Warning: Video autoplays), an article filled with so many myths and clichés that debunking them might take care of my Mozart quota for a while.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Announcement: Guest post for The Outline

Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had a wonderful holiday season. I’ve been busy writing. Fortunately (for me, but perhaps unfortunately for this blog), I’ve been working on articles for other sites. Unlike my post for Musicology Now, however, these articles are in line with the aim of this blog: busting musical myths.

Today, The Outline published my article, “You Dont Need Science to Tell You Why You Like a Song.” This essay is like a companion piece to one of the first posts on this blog, “Science Proves Your Favorite Music is the Best.” My earlier post explored how classical music media outlets tend to be self-congratulatory about scientific studies involving classical music. Since The Outline doesn’t focus on classical music, though, I wrote about why we place so much emphasis on scientific (or scientistic) studies of music in the first place. I still mention the Mozart Effect, but I pair it with a ridiculous formula that claims to have determined the “10 most uplifting songs ever,” which are astonishingly all Dad Rock Standards. Here’s a preview: