Musicology profession ‘is currently exploding’

Musicology profession ‘is currently exploding’


norman lebrecht

February 22, 2016

The furious row over a musicologist’s post about his jailhouse work shows no sign of abating. Amid allegations of racism and elitism from one side and repression of academic freedom on the other, the argument serves mostly to illustrate how the present language of musicology is hopelessly inadequate for addressing American reality.

Two examples:

In my view, aesthetic autonomy and academic freedom are a pair of specters looming over our debate on Musicology Now. Aesthetic autonomy: its connotative stains of paternalism, insularity, and colonialism have seeped into the fabric of our disciplinary conscience. Academic freedom: an ideal that many of us applaud and champion. But to my ears, aesthetic autonomy can actually sometimes bring echoes of academic freedom. It’s not that they’re identical in sense or syntax, but that recommendations of Let music be music bear injunctive similarities to Let scholars be scholars, the notion that academics have a de facto right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination. Such freedom can nurture creative, progressive thought. But how can one ethically claim this extreme immunity without simultaneously attending to others’ extreme vulnerabilities? How can one feel entitled to speak with full exemptions without paying dues to the systemic silences that make selective free speech audible in the first place?
William Cheng (@willishire) teaches at Dartmouth College

The online community of the American Musicological Society is currently exploding around a post by Pierpaolo Polzonetti called “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison.” The post, about teaching opera in prison, sparked both harsh criticism of Polzonetti’s efforts and writings as well as important discussions about implicit and explicit biases in our field….

The disciplinary debates going on now should serve as a reminder that scholars who step outside of their training should do so with intention, with a willingness to fail, and with an eye for what they don’t know.  For example, 49% of the people incarcerated at the prison Polzonetti works in are people of color, according to their website.  Polzonetti named one inmate as African American and didn’t mention the race of any other.  This disjunction allows us to reinscribe myths of black criminality and violence.  Khalil Gibran Muhammad describes black criminality as “one of the most commonly cited and longest-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in the modern urban world.”  Writings on mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow and on the criminalization of black men, should have informed how Polzonetti wrote about his experience in a prison.
Bonnie Gordon is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Virginia.

bonnie gordon

In plain English, it now seems impossible to teach music analysis without filtering one’s teachings through a prism of social inequality. This appears to be what passes for academic freedom. It is oxymoronic.



  • Halldor says:

    Such clever people. Such terrible, terrible writers. Imagine if they ever had to deal with reality.

  • pooroperaman says:

    I notice that, at least in the quotations you print, neither of these spewers of long words and longer seem to care that Polzonetti was trying to help these prisoners.

    In other news, a cub scout who offered to help an old lady across the road has been condemned for imposing his proto-fascistic and gerontist notions of ‘forward motion’, and reinscribing sexist myths of weakness and inferiority.

    • pooroperaman says:

      ‘…longer words and longer sentences…’

    • norman lebrecht says:


    • Holly Golightly says:

      Which all raises on interesting question; why do these people hide in plain sight behind such language? Christopher Hitchens used to do it too. There’s a huge amount of ego in this tactic, but little else of substance IMO. At least Hitchens could be humorous and ironic.

      • Ian Pace says:

        But do you read, in either of those essays, anything indicating any specifically musical expertise? I don’t.

      • Eddie Mars says:

        You may dislike Hitchens intensely (I certainly did) – but his expensive Oxbridge education made him a formidable writer and polemicist.

        No, the criticism being aimed at poorly-literate musicologists is directed at those who cannot string a sentence together – fractured syntax, multiple clauses, unbalanced constructions, incomplete ideas, unsupported conclusions, inappropriate register, mismatching pronouns and verbs. Examples abound in the many quotations of AMS members and officials which have amused us here of late. For all his repellent views, Hitch would never have committed these linguistic gaffes.

        This is quite separate from the intellectual fallacy of claims to allocate gender and sexual orientation based on a composer’s use of harmonic methods and sequences. This is pseudo-science of such monstrous proportions that it pulls the rug entirely from the author’s academic credibility, and from the “university” which published this laughable dreck.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          I don’t see the issues as separate; the fracturing and abuse of language and the attack on the history of music are one and the same animal.

          I didn’t say I disliked Hitchens; I admired his considerable skills. But it became obvious to me from reading his books that he did hide behind language,attempting to disguise his real self and his emotions. I used that as analogous to modern writing of the type illustrated above; it is used to obfuscate and hide behind. Sure, the mechanisms may be different – one faulty, the other deliberately artificial – but the results are the same; covert alienation of subject from reader. Perhaps these ‘musicologists’ just don’t know anything and try to hide that fact with verbiage?

      • MWnyc says:

        Why do they hide behind such language?

        As many of you will know, that’s a question for all humanities studies in academia, not just musicology. And the question has been thought and written about quite a bit. And there are many academics who either won’t hide behind that sort of language or who desperately wish they didn’t have to use it.

        The best answer I’ve seen is that the already-established academics who decide whether to publish your papers or grant you tenure expect you to write like that. And if you don’t – if you write in words that intelligent lay people can understand – those people with power over your career tend to mistrust you and your work.

        Since there are (at least in the U.S.) far more Ph.D.s looking for full-time teaching jobs than there are positions to fill, younger academics don’t want their seniors to mistrust them. So they get in the habit of writing like that, and it becomes a self-perpetuating problem.

  • Mahan Esfahani says:

    What a sad state the profession is in. It should be noted that the current and next generation of musicologists happen to be mostly failed performers.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Careful, though. They get ever so upset here if they’re reminded of that.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      That just isn’t correct.

    • anon says:

      Luckily, most musicologists are kind enough not to think of their colleagues in the performance area as “failed musicologists.”

      • Mahan Esfahani says:

        By the way, in response to our anonymous friend’s assertion that musicologists do not treat their performer-colleagues with the same kind of opprobrium: I’m enormously sorry to say this, but this is dead wrong.

        Recordings are still not treated as publications in academic circles and institutions. This is particularly mind-boggling when one considers that many a musical performance is the result of years of thought, discipline, and beyond that thousands of calculations per second in the mind of the performer. It must be said that performers are still treated with disdain in Anglo-American music academia which seems to have a systemic suspicion of anything practical in the artistic realm. Having been for three years at an Oxford college, I saw and witnessed this first hand.

        • Ian Pace says:

          ‘Recordings are still not treated as publications in academic circles and institutions.’

          This is true at some institutions without much of a tradition of the performing arts or practice-as-research, but certainly not all. Figures I compiled here – – show that there are 76 performers in full academic positions in UK universities. A significant number of these are only producing practice-based outputs, many of which are submitted to the Research Excellence Framework.

          There is still some way to go in terms of generating wider understanding and appreciation of this type of work as research, but the process is considerably more advanced than in most other countries (including those places in Europe specialising in ‘artistic research’, a distinct model predicated upon written outputs relating to practice).

          What is at stake is the extent to which a recording (or a composing, or other practice-based output) can be considered equivalent in research terms to a major scholarly article or monograph, say. A lot of practitioners have been very complacent and even arrogant about this, just assuming their work must be research because it has wider success. This does not apply any more than it would for popular wrting.

          • Mahan Esfahani says:

            You had me until the straw man of performer arrogance. Almost there, but clearly frustrated.

          • Ian Pace says:

            There are a large number performers and composers who never even attempt to engage with any discourses other than those which glorify them and their own work, and as such never engage with others in academic institutions working on other things. Academia is definitely better off without such people.

          • MWnyc says:

            Present company excepted, of course, Ian!

            Mahan, we do have to admit that there have been any number of famous conductors and soloists who fit Ian’s description. You yourself wouldn’t have to deal with them much, as they wouldn’t tend to work with harpsichordists. (Because of course Bach would prefer the way they do it with their instruments if he’d lived to hear it.)

            Think of the entirely unnecessary battle that Pinchas Zukerman started (and lost) with Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik shortly after he took the NAC job in Ottawa.

        • Elizabeth Weinfield says:

          @Mahan Esfahani: Yes! Recordings are texts. For the historical performer they are without a doubt conscious and subconscious performative influencers; to the musicologist-performer they are as yet un-elevated (who are we kidding that these edifices no longer exist around us) gems waiting to be ushered into the main arena to play.

    • Ben Hebbert says:

      Mahan’s point may substitute accuracy for a good punchline (I can read between the lines and see it for what it is!) but he does shed light on something that is fundamental to understanding the musicological field. Not so much a case of musicologists being ‘failed performers’ (which implies a failed performance training) but a fundamental disinterest in doing anything with music except intellectualising it. As a result he is expressing very little that is different from Dmitry Shostakovich’s brilliant but tragically timeless comments about eggs and his cook Pasha.

      How can musicology claim to speak for music when it somehow trivialises the musical experience in preference for critical theory, the discourses of the latest fashionable philosopher or pick ‘n’ mixing issues from other fields and trying to paint music with them long after they’ve grown stale in the corners of academia where they once had some traction? And all this when there is barely any space for it’s nonsense in the conservatoires dedicated to giving music life? No wonder the field suffers from the kind of incurable lack of self esteem. The more it appropriates from sociology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, or whatever the latest fashionable buzzword is, the more it dilutes it’s own gravitas and becomes irreconcilably lost.

      Surely this is both the cause of this current explosion, and the reason that the establishment at large seems incapable of reigning it in.

      To musicologists who pursue performance however modestly, or listening for pleasure, there is hope yet for a field of study that can bring greater depths of appreciation and understanding to the most beautiful and enduring art-form on earth. For the rest of you – grow up!

    • pooroperaman says:

      I think, Mr Esfahani, that your comment reinscribes the unacceptable privileging of the talented and clever over the useless and dim. In short, you have committed the thought-crime of stupidism.

      • Ben Hebbert says:

        I think, Mr Esfahani, that your comment reinscribes the unacceptable privileging of the talented and clever over the useless and dim. In short, you have committed the thought-crime of stupidism. – See more at:

        Let’s be clear that we are talking about the ‘useless and dim’ within the so-called ‘profession’ of musicology, and not the way that music/ology communicates to wider society. Leonard Bernstein comes to mind as someone with the privilege of being talented and clever. Look how the films of his pre-concert talks engaged generations with witty reverence, integrity, passion and love for the music that became an internal part of him; how he dedicated a life to understanding them further, and how with those talents he was able to impart some of his experience – and some of his nature, to his audiences. They are not perfect, but let us hope that more people who are paid to think about music can use the privilege of talent and cleverness to follow in something like his footsteps.

        “Useless and dim” can be summed up by putting the following words in a musical context, demonstrating arrogance, hubris, and an unfathomable disconnect with society’s need to enjoy music – irrespective of what Miriam Webster supposes each word may actually mean, nor how difficult they are to spell or how self-satisfying erudite they might seem: “Aesthetic autonomy: its connotative stains of paternalism, insularity, and colonialism have seeped into the fabric of our disciplinary conscience. Academic freedom: an ideal that many of us applaud and champion.”

        Where are the thought crimes of stupidesm?

    • MWnyc says:

      Before you go too hard on musicologists, Mahan, remember how much or how little of the harpsichord repertoire you earn your living playing would be available to you without their work.

      • Eddie Mars says:

        Do please remind us how much we owe to musicologists? Like the woman who proved Handel was gay, due to his harmonic processes? You mean *that* kind of pseudo-claptrappery? Because most harpsichordists have researched their own repertoire and editions themselves, and stand in no need of a ‘musicologist’ to do it for them.

        • MWnyc says:

          How much do we owe musicologists?

          Well, for a start, we owe them for pretty much every single note of music we currently perform that was written before 1730 or so. And most of what was written before the modern era of music publishing and copyright, at least if we want accurate editions.

          Not to mention the fact that we know not only the fact that composers from Monteverdi to Handel to Couperin to Mozart to Bellini expected performers to embellish their music, but we also have some idea of how to do that embellishing, and that you wouldn’t embellish all five of those composers in the same way.

          The harpsichordists who research and prepare their own editions are, as most of them will tell you, either musicologists themselves or trained by musicologists in how to go about doing that research.

          You really think that musicologists do nothing more than speculate on things like a composer’s sexuality based on chord progressions? (And that’s leaving aside your clear implication, ignorant and outdated, that suggesting a composer might have been gay is slanderous.)

          Read Tom Moore’s comment below and see what kind of things really get discussed at an AMS conference.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Really? So instead of reading Quantz’s treatise on the flute – I need a musicologist to read it to me?

            I stopped needing people to read books to me when I was about seven.

          • MWnyc says:

            You wouldn’t have Quantz’s treatise on the flute – you and I probably wouldn’t even know it had ever existed – if musicologists hadn’t made sure that at least a few copies of the original didn’t become fish wrap and then made Quantz’s text and musical examples readable, publishable and available.

          • Ben Hebbert says:

            MWYNC, sadly I have to disagree with your proposal about ‘how much do we owe musicologists’. The manuscripts and early printed editions that musicians have used have resided in libraries for centuries. It’s worth pointing out in particular that the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music libraries in London were accumulating collections of ancient music long before musicology became a mainstream academic discipline, let alone long before the Early Music movement took off. The same may just as well be said of the music collections at the British library that also owe their survival to an interest in preserving old music as opposed to any prevailing trends in musicology (the Drexel collection in the NYPL, or any number of libraries across the world echo precisely these ideas – I realise I’m using unashamedly Anglo-centric terms of reference). For the first generation of early music performers, discovering new unplayed pieces of music was just as big a part of their game as it was for the few musical historians (Thurston Dart, Jack Westrup, Edmund Fellowes etc.). What has happened in the interim, is that the creep of ‘musicology’ and the trend towards creating formal ‘research projects’ has meant that a lot of musicologists have found music that would otherwise be stumbled upon by curious musicians, and the partnerships between musician and musical historian have drifted apart. Maitland Squire’s 1899 edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is certainly not ‘musicology’ as we know it today – whatever we call it, it has to do with an entirely different set of agendas. One could even argue that the availability of edited editions of pre-1750 music made available by musicologists has removed this generation of early musicians from the awareness of primary sources and the need to be interpretive that was necessary amongst yesterday’s pioneers.

            Gabriel Banat’s ‘Masters of the Violin’ series, is perhaps one of the most significant collections of unpublished early violin repertoire to come out of the 1980s. Just one of countless examples that come to mind of practicing musician without any pretensions of being an academic ‘musicologist’ being the driving force behind the discovery of music.

            So, remind me again. What do performers owe to musicologists?

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Ah yes, Monteverdi.

            The great composer was taken to task by the musicologist Artusi – who accused Monteverdi of incompetence in his work. By way of a self-satisfied stinging retort, Artusi himself launched into print with some canzonette.

            Oddly, we don’t hear Artusi’s works played much these day?

            Remind me again – who was it that Veit Pogner’s daughter married? Was it Beckmesser? I somehow don’t believe it was 😉

          • MWnyc says:

            Ah yes, Monteverdi vs. Artusi. I think posterity decided pretty clearly who won that little argument.

            But, as you keep sidestepping, Eddie, we here in posterity wouldn’t know those men had existed, let alone heard any of their music, if it weren’t for the work of musicologists who came in the centuries afterward.

            This is not to say that there aren’t jackass musicologists. Of course there are; there are jackasses everywhere. And some of them have been covering themselves with ignominy lately by pouring bile allover Prof. Polzonetti’s work.

            But those ignominious jackasses don’t render an entire profession and field of study useless, any more than all surgeons are useless just because some of them are insufferably arrogant shmucks.

            We would never have heard a note of (just for instance) Monteverdi or Josquin without the work of musicologists. So I thank heaven for them every day.

          • Mon Coeur S'Ouvre A Ta Voix says:

            Sorry to come to this conversation so late. The implicit comparison of Artusi and Monteverdi as composers and musicians in this discussion obscures what the proper work of musicology is: to elucidate the threads of thought that run through what Artusi said, and reveal the broader cultural aspects of his mind-set. Artusi’s famous letter is a battleground of the prima prattica and the seconda prattica. It’s more than a personal confrontation. The issue of what to play and how to play it NOWADAYS takes no part in this particular aspect. But “musicology” NOWADAYS encompasses BOTH. (Don’t mean to look strident, but my software doesn’t enable italics.) Musicology is the study of how music relates to life — a street both broad and narrow (to paraphrase Molly Malone). Voila.

      • Tom Moore says:

        sorry, this is demonstrably false. replace “musicologist” with “librarian”, and it might be closer to accurate.

      • Mahan Esfahani says:

        Point taken and indeed this is true. That being said, the likes of Thurston Dart or Putnam Aldrich or Arman Carapetyan have been replaced by…well…the sort of incredibly soporific nonsense seen above.

        • MWnyc says:

          Soporific nonsense has always been part of that academic field (and most others).

          The only problems now are that

          1) more and more Ph.D.s are chasing fewer and fewer academic positions, and

          2) we now get many glimpses of soporific nonsense to which we could be happily oblivious before the arrival of the Interwebz and Tweeters and teh Google Machine.

        • Mahan Esfahani says:

          As much as I enjoy having a go at things which are an irritant, I must confess that I disagree here with this evaluation of the entire field (though I did start it).

          It’s true that many of the great editors and analysts were “musicologists.” But there seems to have been a shift in the profession which devalues the craft of actual notes in favour of legitimising musicology by pseudo-literary means. This reflects a lack of ease with practical matters which largely happen to defy verbalisation and a language of conditionals and tangents without much relevance to the solving of interpretative problems.

          In short, I take no issue with musicology as such. Heck, I myself trained as one for a while. But the field of musicology as it’s become is an area so foreign to music and based on robbing art of its most mystical qualities that I cannot see a way of getting out these messes.

          You will doubtless note that there has been language from one famous poster and comments-in-the-form-of-essays writer who repeatedly stresses the straw man of performers more concerned with self-aggrandising than with actual music. This sort of moralistic language based on a false idol of objectivity is exactly what discredits practitioners of today’s musicology. They preach a gospel of the dispassionate and the indifferent in order to present themselves as disinterested and religiose. And while we are on the subject of soporific, well – here we are offered ample opportunity for an appropriate use of such an adjective.

          • MWnyc says:

            See? You started it !!


            I certainly see your point about the direction musicology seems to be heading. But seems is the operative word: I’m not convinced that the whole field is like that. (Yet.)

            I think it’s just that the most irksome products of the field are the ones most likely to enter our field of vision – because they’re irksome and thus make good clickbait.

            (By the way, “pseudo-literary means” is an excellent descriptor.)

        • MWnyc says:

          Also, it seems to me that a Thurston Dart today, with the same credentials, would probably be known to most of us as a performer rather than a musicologist, even though she/he would hold a university post to provide some financial stability. (John Butt leaps to mind.)

          Come to think of it, that was true of Thurston Dart himself. I certainly encountered recordings of his long before I knew he was a musicologist.

          Now that I think of it, Mahan, I suppose that means that a present-day Thurston Dart might be your competition! 😉

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Much great work has been done by Musicologists, if not in the field of education alone. I have the books of many estimable musicologists including (but not limited to) Lewis Lockwood, Howard M. Brown, Claude Palisca, Stanley Sadie, Donald Tovey and Thurston Dart. These books are loaded with musical analysis and are invaluable tools for understanding music. So, let’s just say that musicology in the past had an educational function; as well there were musicologists (where I did my degree) who transcribed medieval music into modern notation for performing groups.

          Let not the great work of the past be sullied by the superficiality of the present.

    • Tom Moore says:

      re: musicology and failure: ‘Twas ever thus. Most of the notable writers on music were failures as either performers or composers or both, going back as far as you care to examine.

      Example: the great theorist AB Marx = failed composer.

      More recent example: Taruskin – failed performer (bless his cranky heart).

      • Tom Moore says:

        Re: Quantz: not musicologists: librarians.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        But aren’t there also legions of musicians who have trained as ‘performers’ and have ‘failed’? Schools and home music studios, as well as academic institutions, are full of these. I’d like to know the statistics of every musician who graduates from an important music school who actually goes into full time professional work as a musician. Perhaps some of these become musicologists; oh, wait, aren’t musicologists also ‘failed’ musicians.

        People here are eating each other up here; all sides of the arts have the capacity for ‘failure’ if being fully employed in the field of endeavour is a consideration. I trained on the piano from my early 30’s – starting right at the beginning – expressly so I could study musicology at university. The most important thing I needed to know was Theory and fortunately I took that further than I was able to attain on the piano. The criteria for entry to my degree – and that was 25 years ago – was ‘at least 6th Grade in piano and theory”. And all had to be involved in music-making, whether amateur or professional.

        • DAVID says:

          A few years ago — actually, perhaps over a decade ago — I heard a statistic according to which less than 2% of graduates from music schools and university music programs in the US made more than $5000 a year thanks to their music skills.

  • Doug says:

    Ah, cultural Marxism; isn’t it wonderful?!

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Not so much. And, just as in human relationships, you don’t increase your own status by trying to diminish that of others.

      My answer to cultural marxists who blather on endlessly about ‘white’ cultural superiority is to say what Walter did to The Dude in “The Big Lebowski”:

      “It’s a Pomeranian, Dude. It’s not going to take your turn; I’m not going to rent it shoes”.

      Yes, those Coen Brothers know a thing or three!!

  • Frederick West says:

    Finally, music to my ears.

  • Ian Pace says:

    Try this, from the #AMSSOWHITE comments ( ):

    ‘If “musicology” exists in 200 years, we’ll be dead. I strongly suspect nothing we recognize as musicology will exist in a century. I certainly don’t expect Beethoven and Mozart will be anything but vague historical references by then, no matter how hard the white people of the AMS click their heals and wish to believe they study the greatest music that ever existed and the most transcendent of its time.

    The opera houses and concert halls of Europe were paid for by the blood of slaves and indigenous people the governments of Europe colonized. The piano keys were made from slaughtered elephants and felled old growth forests. The corsets of the fine ladies were made from whale baleen, driving great species that fed indigenous people nearly to extinction. The tropes of those operas and symphonies were racist and orientalist and sexist. The music was written for rich white patrons who lived on the backs of poor people’s misery.

    In 200 years, I expect such music will come to seem obscene to us for its historical context, which AMS-style musicology has tried so hard for so long to suppress from the historical record. Mozart and Beethoven are not autonomous from slavery and genocide. They were enabled by it.’

    Actually, a large amount of musicology has relentlessly concentrated on racism, orientalism and sexism in operas and some instrumental music too. Sometimes it feels like it does little else.

    I wonder if hip-hop will still be studied in 200 years? Or how much interest many of these people would have of studying music from black men and women from 200 years ago – let alone that of 13th century Japan, say?

    • George King says:


    • Holly Golightly says:

      I certainly hope you don’t participate tacitly in the brutal slaughter of animals by eating meat. And I’d be shocked to learn you’d ever read or seen a production of “Othello” with its brutal racism.

      The world just isn’t like that!!! Only white people are selfish and vainglorious and violent. Exclusively.

    • Ross says:

      Now write a similar essay on what made the USA into an economic superpower. A lot of bad things happened…

      • Janis says:

        And I suppose a bunch of self-absorbed academics one-upping one another on a website by ripping apart some dude who actually got off his butt and tried to accomplish something to redress the problem will help.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        There’s a term recently coined to described these people – they’re called “cry bullies”.

      • Greg Hlatky says:

        Rule of law? Property rights? Limited government? Low levels of taxation? Robust IP protection? Enforceability of contracts? Those bad things?

      • Holly Golightly says:

        I suggest you watch this – if you’re game. It’s deeply disturbing to the progressive sensibility:

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Very amusing, Holly, but hardly fair ;))

          ‘Prager U’ is notorious dreck, funded by nutcases.

          • Holly Golightly says:

            Unfortunately, it is often absolutely correct in its conclusions and the situation with regard to society. Many people will squirm when they recognize themselves. And they’ll come out fighting, trying to shoot the messenger. This is perfectly natural human behaviour.

            Just as in the discussions like these about musicology, there is a currently underway a groundswell of opposition to group-think and political correctness right across the world.

    • pooroperaman says:

      And just think how the piano privileges the ‘normal’ white notes over the ‘accidental’ black ones. Is there a more racist key than C major? I think we should lead a march in support of all those excluded sharps and flats.

      • Eddie Mars says:

        Already been done, PoorOperaMan.

        Arnold Schoenberg led the field in Equal Rights for sharps and flats. His 12-note system (which IS mathematical and unexpressive, despite the shouty comments of his relatives) was specifically intended to promote fairness for all notes available. It was promoted by Critical Theory humbugs like Adorno and Horkheimer. Perfectly decent and fine composers like Samuel Barber had their work in the USA sidelined due to the thugs of the Frankfurt School. How very dare they write tonal music, eh?

  • Michael Endres says:

    Once upon a time everything in former East Germany had to be seen through the lens of the ruling party’s perceived version of ‘socialism’.
    Failing to comply meant being labeled a ‘fascist’, ‘Western Imperialist’ faster than a toupee flies away in a hurricane.
    The buzzword for artists and reseachers in those days was to be ‘progressive’, the purpose of their work to defend and represent the ‘working class’ and its struggles within the guidelines of the officially prescribed version of Marxism.

    The current PC correct hijacking of music, literature and the arts is just new wine in old wineskins.
    The intolerance towards diverging views and the breathtaking selfrighteousness remind me of a lucid saying of Bavarian comedian ( yes, such a person exists ! ) Gerhard Polt:
    ”Ich brauche keine Opposition, ich bin schon Demokrat.”
    (”I don’t need any opposition, I am already a democrat !”.)

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I’d go further and suggest that it’s all institutionalized bullying and there’s a strong backlash of late which is gathering momentum apace.

  • cherrera says:

    Musicologists write prose like the contemporary composers they study write music: dense, impenetrable, hard on the ear, bad for the soul.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      There’s considerable truth to this comment. But people like HC Robbins Landon didn’t write like that, nor did Stanley Sadie – just to name two. Neither man used language as a mask to hide behind.

    • MWnyc says:

      You sound as though you think there are no musicologists studying music from before 1920.

      And if you really think that all contemporary music is “dense, impenetrable, hard on the ear, bad for the soul,” you haven’t been paying attention for 20 years or so.

      Go listen to some recordings by Tenebrae or The Crossing or Brooklyn Rider or the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

  • Janis says:

    You know what really depresses me about this kind of junk, though?

    There is still institutional sexism, racism, and whatever-ism around. Of course there is. But when the people who like to envision themselves as the Vanguard of Defense against such things are ripping themselves and everyone around them to shreds trying to one-up one another over who gives a damn about the Oppressed™ more … it really does make me think that if you are on the wrong side of a power struggle, you are well and truly fucked.

    It reminds me of something like how common it is that women are murdered, beaten, raped, etc. in this world … and how the supposed front line of feminism is disappearing up its own backside over whether taking pictures of your butt and putting them online is a feminist act of empowerment or to be condemned for making feminists “of size” feel body-shamed or some crap.

    These are our defenders? This is our choice? We’re either trusted to the tender care of the conservative powers that be that have stomped us for centuries, or these cannibalistic groupthinking idiots?

    God, they remind me of a woman I used to know (who was basically a spoiled trust fund kid) who only cared about The Poor and The Oppressed as long as she could use it to score points against others of her ilk. She didn’t actually a give a shit about ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, people with physical disabilities or whatever, she just wanted to use them as clubs to go beat down other spoiled asshole rivals. “What opinion will make me look like the nicest white girl in the room?” in other words. None of these people, like her, have any actual dearly held or thought-out beliefs. Whatever they think is whatever will buff their credentials the most at the greatest expense to their career rivals.

    Meanwhile, the world goes to hell in a handbasket at an accelerating rate because they will put a million times more effort into destroying a well-meaning but not perfect attempt to redress oppressive grievances compared to whatever they will do to actually fight the oppression in the first place.

    And there is no perfection anyway. What will mollify one member of the lynch mob will “trigger” another into a foamy-mouthed frenzy. (There’s a word I hope never to hear again as long as I live.)


    • Ian Pace says:

      Amen to the above.

      And Trump may still become President.

      And the US will remain fatally divided in terms of both race and class, with minorities living in ghetto towns from which there has been white flight, with vastly disproportionate numbers of African-Americans incarcerated, with widespread hatred towards refugees and especially Muslims, with capital punishment (which every other developed country has abolished), and guns everywhere.

      • MWnyc says:

        I do wonder if my country is headed for another civil war – or at least a secession crisis – in the next few decades.

        By the way, the urban/suburban ghettoization process you’re describing has started running in reverse: affluent people (not all necessarily white, mind you) are returning to cities and bidding up real estate prices, driving poor city dwellers* to the old inner suburbs.

        * Most of those poor city dwellers in the U.S. are non-white; poor white Americans tend to be rural.

    • Varel says:

      Janis and others,

      Can we at least agree that Mr. Polzonetti was completely wrong about this?

      “But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually.”

      This IS offensive.

      • pooroperaman says:

        Arguable, maybe; wrong, maybe – and then only in the use of the word ‘only’.

        But ‘offensive’, for goodness sake? You need to get out more.

        • MWnyc says:

          I don’t know, PoorOperaMan.

          If you or I were one of those people who’s never had any music instruction (even music appreciation) but who does experience feelings conveyed – strongly and with immediacy – by formalized (“classical”) music,

          – and some musicologist says that, because you haven’t understood that music’s forms structurally, historically, and contextually, those feelings you/I have experienced via the music don’t actually exist (which is the direct corollary of what Dr. Polzonetti wrote in that sentence)

          – you or I might be pretty offended. I certainly would be.

          In fact, back when I was a young, conceited little shit, I suggested as much to a couple of people who didn’t know much about music but enjoyed it. I quite rightly got my ass handed to me on a spit, and I’m grateful for it to this day.

          • Janis says:

            It’s exactly the same argument these people use for taking music like jazz and blues in its equally vital cultural contexts. If understanding Leadbelly’s life and environment will help you connect to his music, it stand entirely to reason to say that understanding Haendel’s life and environment will also help you connect to his music.

            It is literally exactly the same argument — but the first part of that sentence helps them score street-cred points with their tenure committees, which is all they really care about. When the chips are down, they couldn’t give two shits for the obstacles and injustices faced by people like Leadbelly and Bessie Smith.

          • MWnyc says:

            Janis, alas, you’re right about all too many (though not all) scholars. And human beings more generally.

            But that’s not quite the point that I (and, I think, Varel) were addressing.

            To say that understanding Leadbelly’s, or Handel’s, life and environment will help you connect to his music is very sensible.

            But that’s not what Prof. Polzonetti said in the passage that Varel and I object to.

            He wrote, “But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually.” (Emphasis added.)

            That’s saying that if you haven’t made a thorough study of whatever musical forms you’re having a powerful response to (so that you understand them “structurally, historically, and contextually”), then the feelings the music is conveying to you don’t really exist, or at least don’t count. (That damned “only.”)

            That may not be what Prof. Polzonetti really meant, but it’s what he wrote.
            And it’s wrong.

          • Janis says:

            MWNYC, there is no way in hell that any sane person thinks that one “only” is worth such an unhinged shitstorm of piling on, vitriol, and general viciousness.

            Jesus, this really is academia, isn’t it? Only among academics will death threats be considered the proper response to a misplaced comma. I think the fact that the guy is actually getting up off his butt and doing something about these problems these idiots claim to care so deeply about more than apologizes for one stupid word choice.

          • MWnyc says:

            Oh God, of course that one word isn’t worth the vicious shitstorm that has been kicked up.

            As with most shitstorms, I think this one is not really about what it pretends to be about. There’s other stuff going on in the heads of the people slinging the shit.
            (And the more vicious the comments, the more true that is, I think.)

            Who was it that said that the reason battles within academia are so vicious is because the stakes are so small?

        • Varel says:


          Read this essay on the theory of concatenationism.

          “Why do we listen to music, how do we listen to music, and what is the main source of our satisfaction in listening to music? The answer to those three closely related questions, I believe, is to be found in the phenomenon of following music, that is to say, of attending closely to, and getting involved in, its specific movement, flow, or progression, moment by moment. That is to say, it is not so much a matter of thinking articulately about the music as it passes, or contemplating it in its architectural aspect, as it is a matter of reacting to and interacting with the musical stream, perceptually and somatically, on a non-analytical, pre-reflective level”

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and “Slipped Disc” provides an ideal opportunity to really discuss these things! I’m still unsure about the overall primary core of your thesis, however!! Is it a criticism of the bien pensant; is it about how bad conservatives are; is it about institutionalized racism and the whole cornucopia of ‘isms’? Or all of these things?

      It was refreshing reading in the way you expressed yourself.

      • Janis says:

        First full paragraph after “you know what really depresses me.”

      • Janis says:

        Think of it this way:

        1) Guy is having a heart attack in the street.

        2) Ambulance crew shows up, gets out, and proceeds to collapse into a swirl of backstabbing and argument over which of them is more to blame for the guy’s heart attack because “Well, YOU ate a hamburger for lunch yesterday and hence support the unsustainable food system in this country that damages people’s health” but “YOU made cookies last weekend, which cause diabetes, which is positively correlated with heart disease” and “Yeah? Well, YOU drive to work whereas I walk to work, which promotes exercise!”

        3) Meanwhile, guy on ground is still having a heart attack.

        4) Bystander comes up and starts giving guy CPR while the ambulance crew is still going at it.

        5) Ambulance crew turns and chases him off with pitchforks and torches because he’s got a Coca-Cola t-shirt on.

        6) Guy dies.

        I’m just the one pointing out that maybe the ambulance crew should have centered their attention on something other than themselves. Maybe clear the airway, take a pulse, start CPR, get him to the hospital? And if they aren’t interested in that, maybe they shouldn’t present themselves as the last line of vital defense for the dying?

  • David Oberg says:

    I’m reminded of Sir Thomas Beecham’s quip: “Musicologists are people that can read music, but can’t hear it.” I suspect they are people, too, that choose to write in convoluted English, so that others will not be able to understand a clear, precise thought. By the way, despite two degrees in music (with the usual dreaded musicology requirements), I work with medical students on their communication skills. One of their challenges is to not sound like a text book when dealing with a patient, but rather as one human being to another. The idea is better health care and understanding.

    • Nigel says:

      @David Oberg: Nicely put. In Beecham’s day all musicologists could, indeed, read music (whether they heard it or not is another matter). But nowadays it’s by no means a given that musicologists can read notation. There are plenty of academics (some of them in quite senior positions) who are happy to offer their views on some aspect of music who describe themselves as musicologists, but who can’t actually read the notes. Frightening, I know.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        You’re pulling our legs, surely!!! What can one make of musical analysis without being able to read notation and play it on a piano? Music history is not the same as musicology; one looks at, well, history and the other at the elements of music – theory, notation, practice, style, form etc. – and how these constitute different ‘genres’ or trends and what means composers used to conform to those genres or, indeed, to break away from them and start something quite new. This cannot be done without a working knowledge of music. I notice in the “In Search Of…” series of films on composers that many are described as “music historians” and few as “musicologists”. This got up my nose at first, but now I’m beginning to understand.

        I know I worked very hard to get the musical grounding which enabled me to study musicology. I absolutely loved it.

        And speaking of professional musicians. I was once at an early music workshop in Sydney with an outstanding baroque flute player. She was a Veterinary Surgeon. When I asked her why she hadn’t taken up music professionally she replied, “I love music far too much to have to go through the daily grind of practicing the same pieces over and over for performance and not being able to play the ones I like. I never want to dislike music because it becomes a chore”.

        • Ian Pace says:

          This is no joke – there are musicologists at Reader and Professor level, in UK universities, who cannot read notation, and have no ability to deal with sounding music. You can get a degree at Bachelor’s or Master’s level, or even a doctorate, without having these skills. The more people who are allowed to qualify in this way, the more it legitimises this for others.

          Try this for size: very recently, one quite senior musicologist, who cannot read music, asked at a post-graduate forum whether polyphony could contain more than two voices. I know various other cases, as bad if not worse (some involving classical music scholars).

          If you’ll excuse the self-promotion, I wrote a short piece about this phenomenon, which is on pp. 28-29 here –

          • Holly Golightly says:

            Quite a disturbing read, but I notice that some of the topics for presentation most definitely require knowledge of theory and notation!! Thank goodness for that!

          • Eddie Mars says:

            No, no, Holly! Harmony and notation are bourgeois constructs, which conspire to exclude others from the narrow world of musicology. Why should those with no clue about music be excluded from musicology? The very principles of Cultural Theory demand access for all.


          • Frederick West says:

            This comes as no surprise at all. Having recently retired from the teaching profession, thankfully, I have witnessed, during the past twenty years the inexorable erosion of what I would consider some pretty basic skills, much of it can be fairly and squarely placed at the door of the exam boards.
            Slight-reading seems to have become and irrelevance, score-reading has been inconsistently applied (e.g which of these is the ‘easier’ read – Elgar 1 or Shostakovich 5, both set by AQA for A Level. Both big pieces but the Shostakovich is a doddle to follow, most of it being a simpler vertical read).
            Performing standards are risible, anything of Grade 7 standard would score top marks, that’s no challenge.
            And so on. Setting the bar so low before higher education entry has promoted the growth of these very fringe ‘ologies’ and I have no doubt that Mr Pace’s conclusions in his article are pretty accurate. The analysis of the educational changes from the 70s onwards certainly ring very true.
            I’d also venture to say that there are also too many academics who don’t or can’t play or sing to any significant standard either, let alone do so in public.

          • Ted 2 says:

            But Ian you have no qualifications to write about music, and more importantly you lack the capacity to think outside of fixed, second-hand positions, dressed up as moral crusades. I don’t believe there are senior academics in the UK who can’t read any notation — you pedal myths as facts.

  • Ppellay says:

    And while all these armchair theoreticians just run around in circles huffing and puffing in their obstreperous displays of verbal constipation, Pierpaolo Polzonetti will happily go on trying to make a difference in his own way, however small.

    • Janis says:

      It’s a shining example of the fact that the easiest way to get yourself eviscerated in human society is to actually accomplish anything.

      • DAVID says:

        Bravo to both for these lucid and courageous comments. “Armchair theoreticians” really captures the whole idea beautifully. It is so true, as Janis points out, that the irony of these obscure researchers, allegedly so concerned with difference and otherness, is that they will berate anyone who actually tries to make a concrete difference in the world, as opposed to remaining safely within the insular universe of musicological salons and colloquia filled with so-called researchers engaging, ad nauseam, in utterly pointless and sterile debates that not only interest no one except their own, but provide indeed very little to further our understanding of actual, real, PLAYED, music.

        • Janis says:

          And provide very little to helping solve the injustices in this world that they Care Oh So Very Deeply About.

          • MWnyc says:

            By the way, Janis, did you ever hear about the protests against “Kimono Wednesdays” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last summer?

            Excellent example of what’s irking us so.



          • Holly Golightly says:

            I think all this started in the USA, but it has now permeated much of western society. However, there is good news…. a backlash is gathering momentum. Though we’re seeing it mostly in social media but also in mainstream media. The vast majority of people are not mugs; they know disingenuous behaviour and ideology when they see it.

            We have raving feminist loonies here in Australia and the word coined for them quite recently is “frightbats”. They are of the type you’ve discussed in your excellent analogy and subsequent comments. And those kinds of labels can be very damaging. It saps oxygen from their discussions. Thank goodness.

          • MWnyc says:

            You’ve reminded me of something I saw – oh, nearly 20 years ago – in The Economist.

            They had published some brief article discussing US demographics that included the phrase “Hispanics spicing up the mix”. But the article was only one column wide, so the line break came out as “spic- ing”. Someone wrote an angry letter accusing the magazine of using an ethnic slur (for non-Americans, that slur is “spic” for Spanish-speaking people, and even at the time it was a moldy old word).

            The Economist published that letter in its own sidebar – with the headline “Why do we get letters like this only from America?”

  • Tom Moore says:

    the real problem: American education continues to grind out PhD’s in fields for which there has been no demand since the mid-seventies. Those who couldn’t get a job in 1980 would now be eligible for retirement had they been able to be employed. And so there are literally thousands of over-educated and penurious music scholars who are angry as hell and would love to take it out on someone! The situation is now just as bad for almost all of the American middle-class, which is why the 2016 Presidential race is the way it is. It would be interesting to do a study of early death rates for PhDs similar to that done for the sinking white lumpen-middleclass, dying of addiction and suicide in vast numbers.

  • Tom Moore says:

    a bit of reality here: I attended the annual chapter meeting of AMS – South, which took place last Friday and Saturday at a Southern Baptist University in Palm Beach, FL. There was not a single mention of this hoo-hah during the conversation there. And the papers were refreshingly varied, ranging from a study of whistling to Schnittke’s film music. The best sort of musicological conversation and info-sharing.

  • popper says:

    “In plain English, it now seems impossible to teach music analysis without filtering one’s teachings through a prism of social inequality. This appears to be what passes for academic freedom. It is oxymoronic”

    What an absurd statement. Actually, it is impossible and reprehensible for a musicologist to teach music analysis through a prism of social justice and criminality, without having at least considered the implications of the latter. The author does not deserve to be castigated by PC police, but also seems out of his depth and quite deserving of skeptical critique.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I remember having an argument online with a ‘musician’ who tried to tell me that playing the Didgeridoo and aboriginal music in general was every bit as sophisticated and relevant as the corpus of western art music and that I was ‘living in another century’ with my thinking. He said I needed to ‘get with the program’ and realize that aboriginal music is just as good and historically important as Bach. He also said the same applied to Rap and that he’d ‘studied this at university to postgraduate level’.

      Has it come to this? Nobody is standing on the shoulders of giants anymore.

      • MWnyc says:

        Rap? You can study almost anything as a research subject at the postgraduate level. Anything can be a ‘text’.

        I think hip-hop and rap probably do offer plenty of material for serious study. (I say probably only because I don’t know the subject well enough to be sure.) But much of that study will be, in effect, literary and/or sociological, even if its done under the auspices of musicology or ethnomusicology faculty.

        As for aboriginal music being as important as Bach – well, until we understand everything about the didgeridoo and what’s played on it, we won’t really know enough to say, will we?

        Believe me, I understand your frustration. But that sort of thing is really just blowback, arguably deserved, for a century or two of telling peoples like (just for example) indigenous Australians that their culture is worthless. It will likely pass, even if you and I don’t live to see it. (Think how many indigenous people didn’t live to see the blowback.)

        • Ian Pace says:

          ‘But much of that study will be, in effect, literary and/or sociological, even if its done under the auspices of musicology or ethnomusicology faculty’

          So it should be studied in literature or sociology departments, and be judged according to high standards in those fields. I’m sure those disciplines would not be tolerant of someone whose only real skill is musicological, but wanted positions there.

  • Tom Moore says:

    “Scholars, and artists as well, all have some affected allures, some charlatanries that they think that they conceal well, and which, however, reveal that their pretentions surpass their knowledge; or, which amounts to the same thing, that their knowledge is beneath their pretentions.” – Grétry, On Truth

  • DAVID says:

    Regarding this whole discussion, I heartily recommend “The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook” by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf. Probably out of print but many used copies still available on amazon and probably Though it is a humor book, all the references are true and verified (most of them, it must be said, coming from US academia) — several of them stemming from musicology. Also, in the same vein, and from the same authors, “The Official Sexually Correct Dictionary and Dating Guide.” Really fun reading, though much of it is infuriating at the same time, as there are people in this world who actually take this kind of rhetoric seriously.

    • DAVID says:

      Forgot to mention, one of the references in the Official Politically Correct Dictionary is that of the all-inclusive pronoun for he, she or it: horshit. No kidding, as idiotic it may sound.

  • Emerson says:

    After a pizza party watching Le nozze di figaro with Pierpaulo and the rest of his students here at Notre Dame, I’m convinced more than ever that he is indeed a racist elitist, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the detested blackshirts of Mussolini’s day.

    The facts are: a. he is excited by the works of Mozart and Haydn, b. he teaches, nay, shares and even excites his students with the wonder of ages past, c. he attempts to get out from the ivory towers of academia and spread education in underserved areas, d. he is neither apologetic nor contrite after being berated by literate, albeit underserving (if not under-published and under-awarded) professionals in his field, finally, e. he serves pizza and Italian wine to his students, fully rounding out his squadristi stereotype, while we, his students, beg for mercy from the Italian gods of opera.

    The world will most certainly rejoice when PP is taken down from his fascist throne and led through the streets adorned only with the comments from the blog that men and women of his profession so bravely posted without peer review. Maybe he’ll think again before posting more tales of his exploits attempting to subjugate, nay, annihilate those pitifully less well-off than himself.

    The world of musicology trembles, and for good reason. This tyrant must be brought down!