Friday, October 26, 2018

Did Stravinsky say the Vivaldi wrote “the same concerto, 500 times”? And if so, is it true?

Among classical music fans, there’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t actually compose 500 concertos, he just wrote the same concerto 500 times. The quip is established enough that a 1986 book—Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys by David W. Barber—riffed on it: “People who find [Vivaldi’s] music too repetitious are inclined to say that he wrote the same concerto 450 times. This is hardly fair: he wrote two concertos, 225 each.”

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi: A one-hit wonder, five hundred times?
“People say” is good enough for a book of classical music humor, but for this blog, I wanted to trace the joke to its origin and discuss why it caught on—and why it persists.

A Google search for the phrase shows attributions mainly to two different twentieth-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and Luigi Dallapiccola. Overall, people seem more willing to cite Stravinsky as the source, probably because his name is more recognizable. Even someone as informed as pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen attributed the quote to him when asked which composer he found most overrated:
“I'm tired of [Vivaldi]. Stravinsky once said that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times. I disagree. Instead, I think he began 500 concertos and never achieved anything in them. So he kept trying over and over again without ever quite succeeding.” 
—Charles Rosen to The New York Times, 1987
Yet Stravinsky’s fame also provides the means to discount him as the source of the quote. Stravinsky was a self-mythologizer, intent on shaping his own legend through press releases and publications, which makes it easy to find why so many people think he said this.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Would Beethoven prefer a modern piano if he had one?

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for The Avid Listener that debunked several myths about Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness. I relied a lot on research and feedback from Robin Wallace from Baylor University, who was then working on a book about the subject, which I mentioned in my promotional blog post. Well, that book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery, was released earlier this month (October 2018). I’m reading it right now, and I’m stunned by all the assumptions he calls into question.

Cover of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery by Robin Wallace
Hearing Beethoven: Marvel as it systematically undermines
every Beethoven myth your music teacher told you!
In Hearing Beethoven, Wallace reexamines how Beethoven’s life and compositions were affected by his gradual loss of hearing, with insight gained from his late wife Barbara’s reported experience with her own deafness. Wallace examines journals, letters, conversation books, old listening devices, composition sketchbooks, and recent scientific developments to put many aspects of Beethoven’s adult life into context. By doing so, he challenges many assumptions and overturns some generally accepted Beethoven lore—which is the kind of work I aspire to!

I was most impressed with the fifth chapter, “The Artifacts of Deafness,” by the way that Wallace shifts the assumed relationship between Beethoven and the contemporaneous developments in piano manufacturing. As he points out, the piano was constantly changing throughout Beethoven’s lifetime, expanding the range of keys, changing the mechanisms to evoke louder sounds, experimenting with materials to ultimately make the instrument bigger and bolder.

Now, doesn’t that seem just ideal for a composer who was gradually losing his hearing? One might even speculate that there’s a reason Beethoven’s style and pianos co-evolved—perhaps piano manufacturers were even influenced by his new piano sonatas, challenged to create instruments to accommodate their idiosyncrasies. After all, didn’t Beethoven once rave at a famous violinist, “What do I care about your damned fiddle when the Spirit seizes me!” I mean, Beethoven, the great innovator, wasn’t constrained by what was, only concerned with what could be! Surely, if he were alive today, he would be impressed by our pianos, finally able to produce the powerful sounds that had only existed in his imagination!

Except…no, probably not.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Who wrote the symphonies, and why should it matter?

I’ve devoted much of this blog to challenging the stereotype that classical composers are all “dead, white men,” even though the canon makes it seem that way. So far, I’ve only addressed the “men” part, in several posts and a guest post.

Yet I haven’t written as much about the “white” part, mostly because it’s uncomfortable to discuss racism as a white person in the US—especially in connection to something I love, something I’ve built into my identity. It’s hard to talk from the privileged position without inadvertently making assumptions (which is why I’ve sent drafts of this post to many people for feedback).

But recent events have challenged my perspective, to the point that the “whiteness” of classical music is something I can’t not address anymore. I must push beyond any discomfort because this is a conversation that needs to happen, especially in the current political environment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Report from "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" (with link to the paper I delivered there)

Hello! If you haven't been following this blog on Facebook or Twitter, you may be wondering why I haven't updated the blog for a few months. I was preparing for a conference last week in Dublin, Ireland, where I delivered a paper and had some incredible conversations with fellow music scholars who share some of my concerns about music and its role in today's society.

When I saw that the  conference title was "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" and read the call for papers, I knew it was a great fit for my views as a scholar and the mission of my blog. Mythbusting is a quest for verifiable truth, and I do my best to explain how certain myths endure and why people choose to believe them.
Program booklet for the conference, featuring a collage of images alluding to several of the different topics covered by the papers.
Programme booklet for the Music and Musicology
in the Age of Post-Truth conference.

Since this conference intended to reflect on present culture, I realized I had to step away from my nineteenth-century comfort zone and find something recent to investigate. I pitched a paper that would be an offshoot of the lecture I delivered at Utah State University last January, which dealt with the perception of classical music as cultivating better morals in its listeners. Since the presentation could only be twenty minutes long (with ten additional minutes for questions and discussion), I had to narrow my focus. So, I chose one of the hottest topics in classical music at the moment: the scandals surrounding former Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Did Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring incite a riot at its premiere?

I knew this entry was inevitable from the moment I had the idea to start this blog. Of all the classical music myths, this might be the one most deeply entrenched in the popular imagination: the riot at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The ballet depicts ritual sacrifice in prehistoric Russia, or at least what Stravinsky and his collaborators imagined “prehistoric Russia” to be. The premiere was expected to be a major cultural event, given the talent involved.

The Ballets Russes—literally, “Russian Ballet”—was a hot ticket, as Parisians were drawn to the Eastern exoticism of previous productions, including Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), both of which had music composed by the young up-and-comer Stravinsky. Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, was known for his shocking and often risqué choreography (such as his 1912 performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d'un faune, reproduced in this video).

The performance was unlike anything the audience expected: the costumes were ugly, the choreography heavy, and the music harsh. In the words of 21st-century music critic Ivan Hewett:
“The audience was shocked – and with good reason. Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh…The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way.”
Some in the audience booed and jeered at the performance, causing others to defend the artistic integrity of the ballet with shouts and insults, causing such a ruckus that no one could even hear the music, including the dancers. The fighting in the audience got so bad that some resorted to physical violence, causing a riot that overshadowed the actual performance.

So the story goes.

Even sites that aren’t devoted to classical music have published articles covering the riot, especially in light of the premiere’s centenary in 2013. As for classical music sites, you can count on it to appear on lists like “Top Five Crazy Riots in Classical Music” and “10 OMG moments in classical music” Radiolab devoted an episode of their podcast to reimagining the premiere “through the lens of modern neurology.” And, I confess, as a grad student I even taught this to a bunch of unsuspecting undergrads in a music appreciation course. But here’s the problem:

The riot never happened.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Musicology and the Arab Origins of Solfege (Guest post by Michael Vincent)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! I want to alert you to the fact that this essay is a guest post by Michael Vincent. Not only is it informative and thoroughly researched, it fits with the overall mission of this blog. I am grateful that he shared this with me, and I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

When in doubt, ask a musicologist. As Linda has noted elsewhere, musicologists are great for contextualizing music and history with larger ideas. But our discipline has blind spots. We train in European-style universities, where we sometimes continue to work. We tend to be Eurocentric, incorporating other perspectives but safely cordoning them off as secondary areas of interest. Owing to this blog’s mission, Linda hasn't shied away from the issue.

When I read this post from WQXR Blog on the origins of solfege, I was happy to see that the author consulted musicologist Andrew Dell’Antonio, who has contributed to Not Another Music History Cliché. Everything that James Bennett II (the WQXR author) writes conforms with what is commonly understood in our discipline—an improvement over an earlier essay that caught the attention of this blog. Bennett acknowledges complexities, since solfege is “found in musical cultures all over the world.” He specifies the subject of the post as “the form [of solfege] most associated with western European music.” He has done his due diligence in researching and presenting the information accurately. So what’s the issue?

It’s where Bennett writes “Guido d’Arezzo (ca. 991–after 1033), the monk to whom we attribute the beginnings of staff notation as we understand it today, also gets credit for solfège.” Bennett smartly hedges the language, noting that Guido “gets credit.” Yes, he does! While this level of information is appropriate for the reader of the WQXR blog, here we can get into why Guido gets credit: because of the Eurocentric perspective adopted by musicologists.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Will following Beethoven’s example lead to success?

A friend of mine who goes by the handle MusicologyDuck alerted me to a listicle with a title I found impossible to ignore:

Since this list appears on a general life advice site rather than one focused on, say, musical composition, I anticipated that I’d find factual inaccuracies that would necessitate a list of corrections, as I did earlier for a listicle of Mozart myths. What I found instead was information that wasn’t quite factually wrong but lacked crucial historical context and was twisted to serve an anachronistic agenda.
Portrait of Beethoven
People who received ACTUAL lessons from Beethoven (above):
Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Ries, Josephine Brunsvik
These “lessons from Beethoven” have much in common with the sanitized composer biographies for children that I’ve previously criticized. Instead of presenting Beethoven as a moral role model for leading a virtuous life, however, this list offers the composer’s life as a model for a successful career. In the process, the complex, contradictory life of a real person is distilled to twenty-five aphorisms that cherry-pick events for anachronistic support of current economic practices.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Announcement: Guest spots on "The Listening Service" and "Are We Okay?"

Hello, everyone! I am currently working on an essay about a listicle which mines a composer's life for business advice, which I plan to post either this week or next. In the meantime, you can listen to me chat about music on two different shows:

For Tom Service's show "The Listening Service" on BBC Radio 3, he consulted me on the issue of whether music is a universal language. As you may recall from my post on this topic, my stance is that it is not. I state my case beginning at about 16:00 in the show.

"Is Music a Universal Language?" on The Listening Service
What is music good for? In our concluding link with the BBC's Civilisations season, The Listening Service asks one of the most fundamental questions we can about music, a claim often made on the art-form's behalf in a list of reasons why it's an essential good: is music a universal language? More »

I had a much longer conversation with Chris Lambert for his podcast, "Are We Okay?" We talked about music a bit, but we covered a lot of other topics, as you can read in the description. If you ever wondered how my life is doing outside of this blog, you can find the answers somewhere in this hour of off-the-cuff rambling.

"Rock the boat before I go" on Are We Okay?
I drop by musicologist and blogger Dr. Linda Shaver-Gleason's apartment to talk about female composers, Florence Price, playing the viola, musicology, Felix Mendelssohn's reception, finding something compelling in pop music, writing a blog, Harald Krebs' Fantasy Pieces, escaping school through logic puzzles, reading Mahler scores with her dad, being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, auditioning for Jeopardy! during brain radiation treatment, outliving a prognosis of six months, the process of chemotherapy, the BRCA2 genetic mutation, what she wants to be remembered for, and why she still feels lucky. More » 

And since this is an announcement post, I want to thank the readers who have sent me a total of 80 "coffees" via Ko-fi, as of the time I'm writing this. I write the blog for personal reasons and not as a stable income source, but I do put a lot of research into every essay I publish here. Using Ko-fi to buy me a $3 coffee is a way for readers to express support encouragement. You are, of course, under no obligation to send me anything, but I appreciate every coffee and note I receive.

Thank you for reading and (potentially) listening! More classical music culture critique coming soon.

Friday, April 20, 2018

What should we call classical music?

In March 2018, The Telegraph published an article that had classical music aficionados up in arms. Although it doesn’t take much to agitate this crowd, the headline was indeed provocative:

My initial reaction was similar to that of my music scholar colleagues: “What?! There is so much classical music that isn’t orchestral! What about opera? Solo works? Songs? Chamber music? Choral music?” and so on, naming as many genres of non-orchestral classical music as we could to show just how wrong, wrong, WRONG that idea is.

But when I actually took the time to read the article, I realized that the headline was misleading—likely intentionally so, to stoke those flames of OUTRAGE! that generate page views…

…because that’s not actually what the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s (RPO) managing director James Williams said.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Halls are Alive: Essay for VAN Magazine

Hello! Even though I haven't been updating the blog lately, I have been busy with other musicological endeavors. I discussed music, art, and philosophy on a local podcast (which hasn't posted yet), and I had a chat with BBC Radio 3's Tom Service for an upcoming episode of  The Listening Service about my stance on whether music is a universal language. I'll post links to these once they go live.

Meanwhile, here's my latest article for VAN Magazine (who previously published my essay, "Classical Music Isn't Cool"): "The Halls are Alive."

"Our familiarity with this inward-oriented listening experience may have dulled our sense of how precious it is."

"So many facets of classical music culture are holdovers from the 19th century and at odds with 21st century society....Yet in this essay I defend the most Romantic of 19th-century institutions: the concert hall. Yes, the physical manifestations of music worship, structures so Romantic that they wouldn’t be foreign to Richard Wagner. Though some argue that the etiquette for concert halls is outdated, elitist, and partly responsible for classical music’s struggle to find new audiences, concert halls actually provide unique experiences that have become all too rare." Read more »

I've also had a paper accepted to the "Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth" conference in Dublin next September, and I've been writing program notes for a few new clients. Even so, I'm hoping to have a new post on The Telegraph's argument that "Classical music must ditch its name." Exciting times ahead!

Like what you’ve read?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

What is the Difference Between a Philharmonic and a Symphony Orchestra?

It’s been a while, but this post returns to one of the original purposes of this blog: correcting people who are wrong on the Internet. As I’ve elaborated elsewhere, I aim my pedantry at publications that should know better, whether they neglected to consult a music scholar or need more attentive fact-checkers. In this case, it’s the blog for WQXR, New York City’s classical music radio station.

The WQXR Blog aims to inform and educate classical music lovers, so one could reasonably expect it to be accurate about the subject to which it is devoted. Unfortunately, their post “What Is The Difference Between a Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestra?” by James Bennett, II contains factual errors and skirts around the answer to the question. Many readers express frustration in the comments, taking issue with the writing style as well. In any case, this post fails to meet the needs of its audience, presumably curious people who would expect a classical radio station’s blog to have knowledge about classical music beyond a cursory Google search.

I’ll start with the outright mistakes. First, Bennett writes, “Orchestra comes to us from Latin by way of Greek…” [emphasis added]. Generally, etymology goes from Greek to Latin, and “orchestra” is no exception. This mistake is probably the result of careless wording and a lack of proofreading; nevertheless, it’s a factual error.

More egregious is Bennett’s definition of a chamber orchestra:

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Hey, Siri! Are You a Musicologist?

When Apple announced their HomePod in June 2017, press releases and advertising touted its new features, as would be expected of any competent marketing team. For my colleagues and me, one word stood out:
Hey Siri, how many Mass settings of
“L’homme armé” have been discovered?
“By saying, ‘Hey Siri, I like this song,’ HomePod and Apple Music become the perfect musicologist, learning preferences from hundreds of genres and moods, across tens of thousands of playlists, and these music tastes are shared across devices. Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like ‘Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?’ or create a shared Up Next queue with everyone in the home.”
Press Release, 6/5/17
Oh, we had a lot of fun on social media with that!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Why isn’t band music as respected as orchestral music?

A high school concert band. Photo by Sheila Herman.
Be honest: Does this picture
give you flashbacks?
As I mentioned in my previous post on my trip to Utah State University, one of the students posed a question that had the potential to be an interesting blog post. We had been discussing perceptions of “high” vs. “low” culture and how those get mapped onto music, and USU student Samuel Dickson asked:

“Why doesn’t band music get as much respect as orchestral music does?”

I had to come up with an answer on the spot, and I think I was on the right track overall. Yet this is the type of question that can reveal so much about history and cultural assumptions that it warrants research and a much more thorough answer than I was able to give off the top of my head.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Adventures of a Visiting Scholar in Utah (with link to my talk, “The Morality of Musical Men: From Victorian Propriety to the Era of #MeToo”)

Hello, everyone! If you’ve been following my social media accounts (either Facebook or Twitter), you’ll know that I was busy last week. I traveled to Logan, Utah for Utah State University’s Visiting Artist & Scholar series, part of their Year of the Arts. For two days, January 25-26, I was treated like a musicological rock star. It was an amazing experience, and I want to let you know what I did out there—for those readers who wonder what public musicologists do, or what an academic trip like this can look like, or just like to know what I’m up to.

A poster for my scholarly talk in the lobby of my hotel
 Poster for my talk in the lobby of my hotel. 
I received the invitation to USU in late 2016 from musicology professor Chris Scheer, whom I’d met through our shared Anglophilia and membership in the North American British Music Studies Association (the group that I mentioned in my post on Clara Schumann). Honored, I accepted, but I had a lot of concerns due to my health.

Long-term planning is difficult for someone with stage IV breast cancer, especially since my condition has been very unpredictable—in fact, last summer I had such a big setback that I absolutely would not have been able to travel then. I still haven’t gained back all the strength and mobility I lost then, so as my trip neared, I had to trim the trip down to the barest responsibilities of the position, knowing I wouldn’t have the stamina for much more.

Fortunately, Dr. Scheer and everyone else I met was accommodating and sensitive to my medical issues. The schedule was adjusted to four days: two days of teaching, discussing, and presenting, and a day of travel on either end. I arrived in Utah on Wednesday, January 24th, with responsibilities beginning on Thursday the 25th.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Is Music a Universal Language?

Hello, and happy new year! I hope your 2018 is off to a good start. I’m starting the year by tackling one of the most pervasive musical clichés, one that goes beyond any individual composer or even a particular musical style. Some readers may be upset with me for debunking this aphorism, perhaps because they believe it and that belief has done some good in their lives. Other readers have been waiting for this post since the blog began. So, here we go:

Is music a universal language?

Since this question is the title of the post and I’m big into Betteridge’s Law, you have probably already figured out that my answer is a resounding NO.