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.