Musicologist went to jail – and got torn to pieces

Musicologist went to jail – and got torn to pieces


norman lebrecht

February 18, 2016

Pierpaolo Polzonetti thought he was doing something useful for the human race when he volunteered to teach a course on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, in upstateb New York. It went so well that he undertook to teach a whole semester on Opera and Ideas at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana.

That, too, was well received – until Professor Polzonetti published a short article on his experiences on Musicology Now, and promptly got shredded by its readers, for all the usual reasons.

Read the hostility here.



  • Eddie Mars says:

    Someone gets off his butt to do something useful and worthwhile – and a bunch of know-nothing snobs lash into him from the comfort of their loft apartments over their quinoa breakfasts. A sadly typical situation.

  • Nigel says:

    Very interesting. I’m glad to see that he wasn’t shredded by all his readers – some of them clearly see the point in what he writes about, while others seem determined not to. Judging from the responses by Polzonetti himself, he’s clearly willing and able to explain his position. Good for him.

  • Gloriana says:

    Wow. What a bunch of pretentious twits!

  • Peter says:

    The hallways of the classical music world are full of pitbulls who didn’t make it anywhere.
    It can be a dreadful experience for people who not already have a room there.

  • Yaness says:

    Klemperer was right. In so many cases it’s “too much -ology, not enough music.”

  • DAVID says:

    We have a saying in French: “La musicologie est à la musique ce que la gynécologie est à l’amour” — musicology is to music what gynecology is to love. The bottom line is, if the mysteries of what makes a great composer could truly be unveiled, music composition would become a clear and discernable method, and we’d have a lot of geniuses out there. Perorating for hours on end about music may be all well and good, and there might even be a place for it somewhere, but it still remains that most musicologists, in their entire lifetime, will never be able to write a single bar worthy of Debussy’s work nor, I suspect, perform a musical line on a real flesh and blood instrument in an acceptable and appealing fashion. Music is meant to be experienced first-hand — not theorized about in the antechamber of musicological salons or colloquia.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Nicely expressed, David.

    • Patricia says:

      Mmmmhhhh… I think the truth might lie in between-musicians should not be mere athlets of fingers and voices (of course, there are a lot who are much more than that, but I’m sure all of us know what I’m talking about), and musicologists should never forget their instruments and the actual performing.

    • MWnyc says:

      Yes, of course music is meant to be experienced first-hand. And, at least sometimes, we have musicologists to thank for the fact that we can.

      Remember, without musicologists we would have very little music – that is, music that we could actually perform and hear today – from before the time of Mozart and Haydn, and we’d have virtually none at all from before the 18th century.

      And a surprising amount of what we have even post-Mozart would be confusing, messy, and/or full of mistakes. Musicologists are the ones who sort all that out so that performers today can read it – and be fairly sure that it’s genuine and not forgery.

    • VR says:


      I actually don’t agree with it!

      To experience music first-hand we are often better off with editions created by musicologists who allow us accurate access to the actual notes and articulations intended by folks like Debussy. These scholarly editions began to be created in the 1850s and have had a huge impact on modern performance practice. In many non-scholarly editions (often done by famous performers) notes, rhythms, keys, tempos and articulations are changed to suit their own tastes. In those editions we cannot tell the marks and indications that are editorial from those written by the composer.

      All good musicologists have substantial musical training. I would also argue that focused writing, or talking about music can give us deeper insight into the first-hand experience…and certainly does not weaken it.

      Most living musicians, performers, composers and all others, will not write a bar worthy of Debussy. But that is more a measure of Debussy’s particular genius than of our collective failure.

      So, I would say in response to the French saying that simply because we love doesn’t mean that there is no need in the world for gynecologists.

      Personally, I feel I have benefitted from learning a little musical theory. For example, it is hard to enjoy a Bach fugue unless you understand the kind of thing a fugue is, and the different techniques to look out for. I think music theory is best when it is sought out following the experience of music – as when one hears a chord, or a cadence, and wants to know what is going on.

      I suppose musicology is like literary criticism, most of it is dull and useless – but it is possible to do really well. However the problem always remains that music is sound, and musicology is words. Hans Keller (who loathed musicology) tried to overcome this with wordless analysis – but this does imply words.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        Absolutely agree with this and then there are, of course, musicians who are musicologists like ‘Jiggy’ Gardiner and the late Christopher Hogwood and Frans Bruggen, and probably Jordi Savall.

        And I ask again, is there anything worse than the highly trained musician who has nowhere to go – orchestra or solo career – creating bitterness and resentment towards those who have been able to carve out a successful and influential academic career such as musicology without having to teach their instrument!! Pot meet Kettle.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        Absolutely agree with this and then there are, of course, musicians who are musicologists like ‘Jiggy’ Gardiner or Rene Jacobs (who uses his own performance editions) and the late Christopher Hogwood and Frans Bruggen, and probably Jordi Savall.

        And I ask again, is there anything worse than the highly trained musician who has nowhere to go – orchestra or solo career – creating bitterness and resentment towards those who have been able to carve out a successful and influential academic career such as musicology without having to teach their instrument!! Pot meet Kettle.

  • Brian B says:

    The irony of the negative, indeed vitriolic, responses to Mr. Polonzetti’s initiative and teaching is that they themselves are displaying fundamentally truly racist reactions making assumptions about the prison audience and ethnicity which is demeaning and itself elitist. All too typical of the “intellectual” condescending leftwing.

    • Daniel F. says:

      Wholly agree, and such attitudes contribute to the woeful state of education in the US, especially for blacks and Hispanics by saying, in effect, it’s fine & laudable that blacks and Hispanics behave according to the worst imaginable stereotypes.

  • Ian Pace says:

    And now there are even people trying to demand to Polonzetti’s article be removed.

    • Brian B says:

      That’s a fine Oceania reaction. Wipe it out of existence. The Left seems to have embraced “1984” not as a warning but as a how-to guide.

  • Beaumont says:

    RE his critics:

    watch this, and then you’ll know what’s going here…

    Personally, I might wish some of the inmates to hell or on to the chair, but to criticise Pierpaolo Polzonetti for going into a jail and introducing inmates to some of the greatest art in the world is [I’ll redact myself here] – but, as Bill Maher puts it in the final seconds of his monologue: “You already are a giant p****!”

    Mr Polzonetti: don’t stop – there’s a saying in German – “why should an oak be bothered if a sow rubs itself on its bark…”

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    I challenge Mr. Polzonetti’s critics to do something as valuable with their lives as he has done with this project. They need to get out of their tenured, p.c. echo chamber and into the real world.

  • cherrera says:

    Opera lovers are the most ethically and emotionally advanced people in the world. Their moral and intellectual superiority is indisputable:

    Sieg Heil.

    • Dave T says:

      Oh fergodssakes, let’s just shut down this blog and the whole opera art form enterprise in that case. I suppose we should all stop eating noodles and red cabbage and wearing neckties and overcoats while we’re at it. Too many of the unscrupulous have gotten mixed up in those kinds of things.

  • Ian Pace says:

    The safe way to avoid this type of response is to ensure that classical music is only taught to privileged white people. And these types of attitudes, and the presence of these type of people, in education at all levels, are one significant reason why this increasingly the case. No chance of a Birtwistle or Ferneyhough coming through the ranks now.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I have to agree with you!! I trained in musicology at post-graduate level and today I present lectures to retirees (some musicians themselves from music education academe and others who are not) and I enjoy presenting very challenging music to these people. Some fall asleep, sure, but I usually wake them up with “you have homework for this next piece so listen up)” but others are highly engaged and often comment afterwards to me about how interesting it all is. Always pepper the talks with humour and engage the audience with questions and passion and you’ll be amazed how people – no matter what age or background – will willingly come on the journey with you. Some of these people don’t even know what the word ‘baroque’ means but I guarantee you there are many of them who trust me sufficiently to sit through two hours on Alban Berg – which I’m going to do later this year – and a technical program on ‘The Figured Bass’.

      Don’t patronize people and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised!!

  • Greg from SF says:

    No good deed goes unpunished….

  • Ian Pace says:

    The following was the response from the AMS to the debate:

    Dear Colleagues and Friends,
    The copious commentary and reaction to a recent post on Musicology Now ( has been and continues to be a learning moment (as opposed to a teaching moment). In academia and in scholarship we are all learners: we learn from the rigors of our own research and writing, from our students, and from each other. No matter how long or how often we teach or how proficient we become as scholars, we are always better for being learners first. And for me, the past few days have been full of learning.
    photo by Bryce Vickmark

    I have learned about one of our members who has taught music to inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York (through the extraordinary Bard Prison Initiative) and later at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana. This is wonderful, and I offer my heartiest thanks and appreciation. I would like very much to hear from others who have or are doing this kind of work, as it is something we as a Society need to hear about. The AMS perhaps should consider a nation-wide initiative in this kind of outreach.

    With a much heavier heart, I have also relearned an old, old lesson that how one tells a story matters. It is clear that there were aspects of the blog post that, although normative prose-writing to some, were heard by many readers as disturbing or even offensive. How often have each of us had the experience of seeing readers’ comments or reviews that understand something we didn’t intend or some relationship we didn’t notice. “How could anyone think that was what I meant?!” is something I have muttered often enough to myself. But one learns to think again and to clarify.

    Most disturbingly, I have had private messages from senior scholars telling me about or quoting their students of color who express distress at the ubiquity in musicology of microaggressions (verbal or nonverbal slight and insults, often but not always unintentional) that leave them feeling marginalized and have led some to leave the field. I am reminded of the statement the late Charles M. Vest, President of MIT, made when he decided to publish the internal report on Women in Science (1999) that documented the “differences in salary, space, awards, resources, and response to outside offers between men and women faculty with women receiving less despite professional accomplishments equal to those of their male colleagues.” Vest wrote:

    I learned two particularly important lessons from this report and from discussions
    while it was being crafted. First, I have always believed that contemporary gender
    discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now
    understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance. Second, I, like
    most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior
    women faculty members. This also is true. They generally are content and well
    supported in many, though not all dimensions. However, I sat bolt upright in my
    chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said “I
    also felt very positive when I was young.”

    I ask that, like President Vest, we all become learners again. To become the open and welcoming Society we want the AMS to be, we all (authors and commentators alike) need to listen to one another, to think, edit, and revise. We should at least treat one another with the dignity and respect we give to our students, the work we study and the music we admire. Let us remember what we all learned as students: avoid the intentional fallacy, don’t assume an essentialist attitude, and, more than anything else, remember what listener theory tells us—that the audience will have at least as important an role in determining the meaning of the work or word as the author herself.

    As we move forward, I hope we continue to learn from one another with a measure of patience, and perhaps even humility, as we seek to achieve our shared goals of enriching the lives of those we teach and adding to the store of human knowledge.

    Ellen T. Harris
    American Musicological Society
    6010 College Station
    Brunswick, ME 04011-8451

    And see also

  • Gerald Robbins says:

    Jascha Heifetz’s very witty name for musicologists says it all: “music criminologists”

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Well, if Heifetz had taken notice of musicologists he wouldn’t have made that appalling arrangement for violin of Debussy’s ‘Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, which he sometimes played as an ‘encore’. Eeeew.

      • Anon says:

        I very much doubt Heiftiz would have cared; if he liked it, if he thought other people would like him playing it, then why not play it? Does it matter what a musicologist might think about the arrangement? It’s not being presented as an historical artefact, but simple as an arrangement to form an enjoyable encore.

  • Clarinet_53 says:

    Dear Norman,

    I have nothing to add to this blogpost / discussion but I would like to subscribe to the comments.


  • Pierpaolo Polzonetti says:

    I am grateful for the support I received on I am also concerned that this debate, on this site, has turned into a critique of musicology. The accusations against my blog are in part related to how we write and how we read. It is a risky enterprise and it is easy to make rhetorical mistakes, as I did. What is disturbing, in a few cases of people who attacked me most vehemently, is that we see clear signs of a degeneration of PC language practices affecting every discipline in the humanities and social sciences. The risk of deploying PC language irresponsibly is to devise a new technology of power through the control of heavily policed language. It appears to combat institutionalized racism, but it perpetuates a culture of apartheid by forcing incommunicability. The people called me a racist silenced the voice of my African American student. They isolated the speechless sound of his “frightening crescendos,” while censoring his voice by not taking into account that he was defending, most passionately, the dignity of women. They reaffirmed the negative stereotype against incarcerated black men that I am trying to challenge.

    But do you really think that musicians are not at risk? Reflect on the fact that I am being accused of being an imperialist European for exposing imprisoned students to opera. These ideas affect more people than an isolated cell of radical musicologists. This means that whoever wants to share Beethoven with an audience that is not the usual elite of concert goers can be accused of imperialism, racism, classism, etc. The idea that Beethoven only belongs to a privileged minority of people is quintessentially classist (racist when the minority has a distinctive ethnic identity), even if supported with the revolutionary intention to subvert the class system and erase bourgeois culture, as did Pol Pot in Cambodia, or Mao in China. It is important then to realize, as I do when I share opera with the homeless or with imprisoned students, that culture is not in anybody’s blood, nor belongs to any social class, but travels lightly through the ideas of the people who do not reject it, but embrace it. (Pierpaolo Polzonetti)

    • Ian Pace says:

      Pierpaolo, what you are doing is worth 100 times the work of sneering opportunists like Robert Fink, keen to spin themselves in order to win academic favour and advancement.

      And musicology can be far, far better than what it has descended to in the hands of his ilk. There are many of us passionate about fighting back against the degradation of the profession, and will continue to fight.

      • Robert Fink says:

        It’s lovely to hear from Ian, who is a long time Facebook friend. In what possible sense would I be currying favor by expressing my opinions on this matter? I am a tenured full professor at a world-class university, which has one of the top graduate programs in North America. One doesn’t get promoted in my world for writing a few short sentences on a blog, however inflammatory they are made out to be. I’m hardly ingratiating myself with the leadership of my professional society by doing it. Disagree all you want, but don’t lower the debate by descending immediately into the ad hominem.

        • Pierpaolo Polzonetti says:

          Dear Ian,
          I greatly appreciate your support! However this is the only time when I think Bob Fink is right about the integrity of his intentions. I disagree with Bob about many things, but I have no doubt that he is honest and that he deeply and passionately believes in what he writes. This whole debate is hardly helping anybody’s career. In fact it’s not a ‘smart move’ to engage in this kind of debate in academia, but people who care about these matters, like you, me, Bob, and many others, are not selfish enough to always make the ‘smart move’. We are too invested in the value of music in our society. Clearly we are entrenched in positions that are hard to reconcile. I sincerely hope that one day we will be able to engage in a constructive dialogue.

    • Nicholas Bannan says:

      I applaud your intentions in the prison-based work you describe. I used to take ensembles of music students into Reading Gaol before I moved to Australia. We had an sensitive and trusting head of Education there who managed the project with great success. She left and was replaced by an individual who insisted my students only play Rock and hip hop because that was the only music (she thought) that the prisoners would tolerate. We tried to meet this requirement, but it did not work out, which became stressful for all parties. So, the boot can certainly he on the other foot. My UWA choir made a very successful visit to a prison here in Australia two years ago. We performed what we do best: a Cappella music from Tallis to Broadway. The clients loved it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      You are totally right and seeing the issue clearly. Classical music transcends all boundaries of society. Your work is admirable and will, hopefully, continue.

  • Mark Tatlow says:

    Thank you for your dignified response to criticism and for your defence of the power and place of music in civilised society.

  • Dr Roy Lisker says:

    Anyone who understands music has to love the works of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach at least,although they arent gods but they are objectively great. Think of the ravings of Tolstoy against Beethoven. Clearly he didnt understand what he was listening to.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      On the contrary, he did. His subjective impression cannot be dismissed simply because it differed from accepted opinion.

  • Robert Mottley says:

    Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s reaching out to prisoners should be emulated, not condemned. It takes a certain level of courage and a generous heart, not always found in academic circles, to do that – and I hope he will continue to do so.
    I remember, as a much younger journalist, going into a state prison with a friend who was a concert pianist. We had to take our belts off at the door – he actually borrowed prison pants with a drawstring, which brought an opening ovation before he started to play. After a Beethoven sonata, he played several pieces by Liszt., ending with the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. The reaction was predictable – cheers and stamping. One inmate had stretched out on the floor under the grand piano – and said the experience was better than any drug he had ever been on. My friend also played in hospices, which these PC idiots no doubt would also condemn.
    Robert Mottley

  • Samantha Worther says:

    Bravo, Professor, for doing something so humane, something that most of us would fear — going among prisoners and treating them like equals. You are absolutely correct in saying that the use of PC language “… appears to combat institutionalized racism, but it perpetuates a culture of apartheid by forcing incommunicability.” I worked in a liberal college setting where differences in ethnicity were managed by politely pretending that everyone was the same: WASP. Respectfully asking a person of color about her ethnic traditions was looked upon as a breach of proper behavior because one was contradicting the polite little lie. But when, for example, I asked my African American/Latina assistant about her food traditions, she absolutely blossomed with pride talking about her father’s catering business and wonderful ethnic recipes. No one else had ever cared enough to ask about HER! Real equality is being allowed to be proud of your ethnicity, whatever that may mean. Real concern for others means acknowledging that some ethnicities have a different reality than that of the mainstream, and we must look it square in the eye and embrace that reality. The sad reality for many minority members of the American public is that they are disproportionately represented in prisons for a variety of reasons. Best to look that fact in the eye and work to improve things, rather than blame the poor musicologist who has the guts to bring light into their lives.