How the new musicology is accelerating the death of music

In this week’s Spectator, Damian Thomson takes up some of the latest assaults on human intelligence by the so-called New Musicologists, the ones who are prepared to study any social topic except Music.

Damian – unprompted by me – picks up on our recent Slipped Disc debates:

Lebrecht presumably had this sort of gibberish in mind when, in a recent interview with Van magazine, he denounced musicology as ‘a phony discipline… like parapsychology. It’s a cultish thing which makes up its parameters as it goes along.’

Cultish is right: like certain fringe religious movements, the new musicology attracts not just talentless opportunists but also the brightest young minds. William Cheng won a Stanford competition playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. He can write beautifully but chooses not to, stuffing his sentences with the rhetoric of victimhood and playing the silly typographical tricks that go with it: one of his topics is ‘d/Deaf cultures’. Worse, he wants to shut down debate.

If Cheng, with his Harvard doctorate, can succumb to bullshit theories and enforce leftist dogma, what hope is there for British university students who encounter classical music only under the umbrella of ‘cultural studies’?

The pianist Ian Pace, a dazzling interpreter of modernist composers such as (radical gay) Michael Finnissy, despairs of the ‘sustained assault on Western classical music from some academic quarters’. He’s calling for the teaching of core musical skills in British state schools — in other words, for music to be taught as music, rather than as social history or as an exercise in building self-esteem….

Read on here.

 

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  • Just to be clear, the New Musicology is actually very old by now, dating back to the later 80s and early 90s. McClary’s Feminine Endings was published 27 years ago, in 1991. Cheng (b. 1985) is from another school entirely.

  • Core musical skills are at the heart of State school education. Just look at the A level papers. Eduqas, the English-arm of the Welsh WJEC Board, requires aural recognition of all of aspects of musical literacy in 7 of the 8 questions asked at A level. The final 15 mark essay question is on the ‘Development of the Symphony’ 1750-1900: this year’s question was comment on the changing roles of woodwind and brass in the writing of symphonies between 1750-1900. In addition all candidates perform in front of a live examiner, and write two compositions, one following idioms in the Western Classical Tradition, the other ‘free’ but in a recognisable style. No social history, no scaffolding for self-esteem. All requiring the development of the musician by, with and from the use of Music. You can choose two specialist areas of study:
    From the following: The Early 20th-Century; The 21st-Century; Rock and Pop; Jazz. Every does Weston Classical Tradition. Any class would be staggered to find it self analysing Handel’s desires: Cadences, Aug 6th chords, Neapolitans these are still the bread and butter of music education, we’ll certainly for the Welsh, and those of us who follow the English arm of the Welsh Board.

  • The article contains much more blustering polemic than reasoned argument. Only the latter will move things forward. Jeering will accomplish little.

    I wonder if it means anything that Thomson writes for the Catholic Herald. The current web issue features an article entitled “How to pray the Litany of the Most Precious Blood.” Another article reports that some young Catholics have signed a letter in support of “Humanae Vitae” which the article says, “praises the ‘beautiful and prophetic’ call to chastity.”

    I guess we all have our perspectives. I have troubles with some aspects of new musicology, but I appreciate its efforts to help people understand each other…

      • I would say that writing for the Spectator is a worse crime than being a signed-up Catholic, even in 2018….

        • It’s true: the Spectator is a frightful fascist rag, and everything in it serves solely to further its hard-right political agenda. That includes the wine column, the Bridge column and – most flagrant of all – the weekly chess puzzle.

          • I have found clues in the weekly chess puzzle that predicted Brexit, Trump, the Eurovision result and Germany’s elimination from the World Cup. It’s a veritable troll factory, that chess puzzle.

    • Clearly your appreciation of ‘efforts to help people understand each other’ does not extend to Catholicism.

      • It is ironic, however, that we see the Editor-In-Chief of a magazine devoted to a religion that forbids women membership in the priesthood, and which says they should be subservient to men, denouncing a form of musicology known for its support of women’s rights.

        • William, you are unbearably insufferable- a self-hating, misandrist, female-worshipping, supplicating, self-hating, anti-Catholic, inconsequential man.

          • “misandrist, female-worshipping”

            You mean straight? Didn’t know that’s a bad thing if you’re a Catholic. Now let’s get to “inconsequential”… 😀

          • . . . other than that, you’re just great, William.

            One may not always agree with William, but he always presents a well argued viewpoint. I’ve often found him to be quite persuasive, even when I disagree with his premise.

          • Interesting. One of the principle themes of new musicology is how ideology affects our conceptions of the status of art. I and many others will, of course, be “inconsequential” to reactionaries. The irony of the SD comment section is that the reactionary blustering often serves as vivid a illustration of the problems new musicology addresses.

          • @Barry Guerrero
            Do you consider his frequent use of the good old “reactionary” anathema – as a “well argued viewpoint” ?

      • Actually it’s the ‘woke progressives’ who are doing the damage. Liberals have to dissociate themselves from these groups if they don’t want the liberal brand completely trashed in perpetuity. Postmodernism and its extremist cant is meat and three veg to ‘woke progressives’.

        • Sue, I have absolutely no idea what the terminology you are using actually means. Are you trying to speak up for old fashioned cultural values by employing the canting modes of cultural Marxism.

          • That’s exactly what she always does. I’m a bit relieved to find that at long last someone else has caught on to her shtick.

  • Me thinks the desperate folks at Seattle Opera and Seattle Symphony ought to read this, even if the argument was not fully developed. If only so they stop and think how ridiculous some of their recent initiatives and their press releases read.

  • In my early 20s (I’m now 77) I attended a composers’ seminar in which we all had to write short pieces for the performers who were there. Composers had to introduce their pieces, and quite of few of the introductions were substantially longer than the pieces themselves and were convoluted in their technical jargon. When it came to my turn, I said that everything necessary was said in the piece itself. This produced laughter, followed by applause and cheers. I was posturing as much as those who spouted pretentious introductions; but I’ve always been a bit of a rebel…

    Fashions change, but one version or another of pretentiousness through insecurity will probably always be with us. Individuals can grow out of it.

    • “Fashions change, but one version or another of pretentiousness through insecurity will probably always be with us.”

      So true.

  • Frankly, even though I find new musicology ridiculous as an intellectual enterprise, I don’t understand the fear by Thomson of what academic musicologists do within the confines of their academic departments writing in their academic journals to other like minded academics.

    Nothing William Cheng does is going to threaten the ” teaching of core musical skills in British state schools” or in conservatories or at universities. There is but one job for William Cheng, there are many jobs for well grounded musicians.

    What has happened to academic musicology happened to academic English departments for even a longer period of time, but students are still reading the canon.

    I hate to say it, and I’m going to get a lot of flak for it, but judging from Trump and his base, it is the right that is ignorant of the classics of Western culture, not the left (who tend to be more educated), including the Bible itself, just witness the evangelicals who still back Trump.

    Don’t worry about Cheng and those who read him, worry about the non-college educated base of Trump who cling to their guns and religion.

    • @Anon: But it’s possible to be embattled on many fronts at once, isn’t that so?

      As to the seeming insignificance of these new musicologists, look at the havoc imposed by obscure philosophers on musical composition, once it had retreated into the academy.

    • Both ends of the spectrum are concertizing classical music’s demise, the perfect storm. From the top ignorance and general public disinterest/boredom on the right. Academic making a mountain out of a mole and general public disinterest/boredom on the left. It’s ugly.

    • You don’t ‘hate to say it’. Your comment has all the hallmarks of sanctimonious woke progressivism. And it’s total rubbish. Of course. What contempt you have for your fellow Americans who don’t share you exquisite sensibilities and virtue!!!

      I have a feeling middle America despises people like you and that’s why you got Trump. You need a human water canon to rid the joint of the cancer of PC and its attendant tripe.

        • The Urban Dictionary says that “woke” is an incorrect tense of “awake”, a past tense meaning one is already awake, not just waking up, and that “getting woke is like being in the Matrix and taking the red pill.” It apparently entered English from black slang when it was appropriated by white people who were unhappy with the appearance of being educated.

          There’s a nice article explaining wokeness in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/opinion/wokeness-racism-progressivism-social-justice.html.

          Presumably a “woke progressive” shares the politically correct notion that it is possible to pick up a turd by the clean end.

        • The term ‘woke’ is a slang term that comes from ‘awaken.’ The ’woke left’ claims to be the progressive force in an ongoing culture war. Woke leftists are supposed to be the direct antagonists of the ‘alt-right.’

      • I’m hardly being sanctimonious because Trump and his base are proud that they wallow in ignorance, so it’s not even an insult for them, they fully embrace their stupidity as the core of their identity.

        What I’m saying is that Thomson, a conservative, misses his target when he attacks the left whose cultural IQ is higher than average.

          • Also, their loud and clear rejection of science and international world order is an integral part of their identity.

        • “they fully embrace their stupidity as the core of their identity.”

          Umm…they celebrate their ignorance and don’t recognize themselves as stupid. They think only intellectuals can believe something really stupid, hence their disdain for experts.

  • Like I already said… it’s not the “new musicology” that will destroy classical music. It’s leftism AKA cultural Marxism that will destroy it.

    • Wrong. It’s irrational dogmatism and ignorance that destroys pretty much all culture and enlightened progress. It’s at least as common on the right, left, and bottom of society. Find your pick. You seem you already have. Sounds like bottom-right in your case.

  • Why don’t we also talk about real musicology? Is serious scholarly work not worth some attention?

    • Of course.

      There is the normal, usual musicology, and there are – at the fringes and not to be taken seriously – the fashionable little cults of the ignorati who merely jump on some bandwagon and produce the nonsense which is played at such vehicles – and they pass.

      It may be useful to remember that there are various types of musicology:

      a) the historical research which delves into the past, concerning works, their history, biography (for instance, much gründlich work has been done over the last decennia about biographical material of Debussy and Stravinsky which adds to our understanding of their music),

      b) the analytical part, which tries to understand the workings of musical works and the ‘structural machinery’ of their effects, producing various methods of examination which offer different results,

      c) the editory research which investigates the scores as texts, with the aim at getting at the best notational rendering of works – Urtext editions and the like,

      and last but definitely not least – I think it is the most important part –

      d) the aesthetic / philosophical musicology which explores the mental and emotional backgrounds of musical works and the cultures from which they are born.

      The last category is, for instance, brilliantly represented by “The Aesthetics of Music’ by Sir Roger Scruton (Oxford University Press) which also includes extensive analytical explorations….

      https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-aesthetics-of-music-9780198167273?cc=nl&lang=en&#

      …… and by the series ‘Studien zur Wertungsforschung’ as published by Universal Edition in Vienna….

      https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studien_zur_Wertungsforschung

      … which is edited by prominent philosopher and music aesthetician Andreas Dorschel, one of the most subtle and profound minds of the field.

      Particularly interesting – fascinating, really – is the spectacular recent book, which combines a wide range of cultural topics and insights with a very compact and accessible presentation: ‘Die Heilung des Verlorenen Ichs’ von German musicologist Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz, offering a depth-psychological analyses of the last musical century and the psychological background of its developments, and even offering new perspectives:

      http://www.amazon.de/Die-Heilung-verlorenen-Ichs-Jahrhundert/dp/3958900836

      This is real musicology and it is a florishing territory run by the most brilliant minds. The ‘musicology’ as mentioned by Norman is merely a fake phenomenon, it’s for people who don’t know what musicology is, and who have no idea what classical music is, and like to see their own prejudices confirmed: it is so much easier to ‘look’ at music through social justice glasses or to consider it as a representation of inequality problems. And it is for many people quite a relief to find-out that their distaste of, say, Beethoven’s music can be glorified as an apt intuition of the repressive and rapist methods of the composer: ‘I don’t hear anything in this music, I don’t like it, but now I see that it must be my moral instincts keeping me on the right path’. In this way, ‘new musicology’ acts as an absolution, ‘thou art redeemed of thine insensitivity, it’s not your fault, it’s the music.’

  • NL’s defamation of Musicology in that VAN magazine article infuriated me. Here, for the first time in the unfolding of his attack on Musicology, I see a term for the real issue: New Musicology. Not a great term (I prefer Tamino’s ‘Fake Musicology’), but it does make clearer what it is that incenses many, while distinguishing that from true and valuable musicological studies. I have to hand books by Charles Rosen, Lewis Lockwood, Maynard Solomon, David Cairns, Christoph Wolff, Martin Geck, Stanley Sadie, Cuthbert Girdlestone, Jane Glover, Brian Newbould, Donald Tovey, Joachim Kohler, Arnold Schoenberg, et al. And every time NL and the multitude of like-minded fail to distinguish Musicology from ‘New Musicology’, they have and do show great disrespect to such as these. I first became aware of what the Post-modernist extreme distortion of relativism was doing in this field when I heard the first of a number of radio programmes portraying Dame Ethel Smyth as the epitome of a suppressed female composer. It was fiction. A few years later, in the later 80s, I found my own discipline, History, similarly invaded. I did not regret my retirement from academe, which in any case did not entail my retirement from my studies, of course. I find NL’s series to attacks on what he terms Musicology simply an attack on a field of scholarship. Damian Thomson’s piece is not of any value, and he is, in any case, an ideologue, ever whistling the same tune. But yes, New/Fake Musicology is a menace. It is also a menace to be found in other disciplines, wherever writers deny the possibility of ‘Truth’ in any sense, and thus feel free to write twaddle, in some fields incomprehensible twaddle. Today, this problem does, of course, have much larger, global implications in certain political policies and actions. It is a vast problem all in all.

    • NL says that musicology has developed recently into this ‘new musicology’ and I think when he seems to attack ‘musicology’ he really means this quasi-thing that tries to cover itself with the mantle of scholarship.

      But it appears the normal musicology has quietly continued to exist and to develop, whatever nonsense is spread in the media. Which does not mean that also in the field of respectable musicology there are some deficient types hopping around, like Arnold Whittal who claims that the 20th century has not shown to be an age where great works could be produced (goodbye Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Bartok, Shostakovich!). I would be cautious by naming Schoenberg because he was not an academic, he never had an academic training, and he produced quite a number of ideas which cannot bear scrutiny to put it mildly.

      • I did think a little before including Schoenberg, but his Fundamentals of Musical Composition and Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint are, especially the former, singularly valuable and not at all replete with any of what you term his controversial ideas. All his musical examples are taken from Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, et al., and his analyses of them profound. This was what he demanded of his students. Indeed, I did wonder, given the title, what, had he written such, his book on Advanced Principles might he like. The Fundamentals exercise the mind considerably.

        • Yes, that is true, he provided normal analysis for his students based on traditional music. Even so, it is questionable whether ‘a posteriori’ analysis could be helpful for budding young composers since that is not how the creative mind works. The fact that Schoenberg did not ‘produce’ any significant composers after Berg and Webern, seems to point into that direction – he must have had hundreds of students all through his life and what was the effect?

          I think Debussy got it right when he advised young composers to do the opposite: forget all theory and look ‘into nature’. But it is impossible to write a book about it with precise methods. Music as an analytical exercise is dissection rather than creation. Therefore musicology is not meant for composition students; they can sniff at it a bit but too much dissection does not seem to be very helpful. A majority of 20C music seems to confirm that rationality in itself does not produce music.

    • “Damian Thomson’s piece is not of any value, and he is, in any case, an ideologue, ever whistling the same tune”

      That’s what you get when you let a theologian write about musicology. Or a linguist about economy. It’s easy, isn’t it, dabbling in any field that is not natural science. But rejoice! In a world where we have alternative facts, everyone can dabble in anything!

  • My understanding of the discipline, is that musicologists are sort of musical archaeologists – worried about hockets and crab canons and such.

  • Let’s call a spade a spade:
    new musicology is nothing else than politology: a revived version of cultural marxism, which can be found in the archives of totalitarian East Germany, where all art was vetted against its usefulness to the fight of the working classes.
    I see little point argueing over such extremist and totalitarian views, where a work of music is no longer judged by its inherent quality but measured against a political ideology.
    History will eventually throw this nonsense out, and meanwhile classical music will continue to florish where its welcomed: in pockets like Germany, Austria, and of course in Asia, where the future lies in so many areas.

  • Why do so many classical music “fans” seem so maliciously contented to prophesy the “death of classical music” and especially whose fault it is?

  • New musicology places music in its social context. That’s why the readers here frequenet Slippedisc. It focuses solely on the music………….. 😉

    • “New musicology places music in its social context.”

      I think that’s not quite accurate. It attacks music because of when, where, and by whom it was composed, and because it does not approve of the social context in which it is enjoyed. This requires that music be “placed”, i.e., evaluated, according to the social context of the fake-musicologist, rather than of the composer or audience.

      It’s much the same as pretending that Shakespeare or the Bible was intended to tell us about society as it is now, rather than as it was then.

    • ‘Social context’ sounds very smooth…nearly benevolent…
      The ‘social context’ is of course evaluated by the new musicologists very own ideology, who will then judge a work of art’s ‘relevance’ against his/her set of ‘acceptable’ rules and norms.
      To expect any meaningful result from such practice is like talking to a Jehova’s witness about history of mankind or engaging with scientology…

      • The problem with your view is that it paints the field with such a broad brush. In reality, there are many different approaches within the field, and practitioners with quite varied perspectives. In short, it’s not all so black and white. And ironically, one of the approaches suggested by many in the field is that it is difficult to describe cultural phenomena with the usual binary forms of cultural criticism.

        Perhaps a concrete example would illustrate the idea. I notice that you and Borstlap often take exception to modernist music (though your thought seems more varied on the subject except perhaps with Regietheater, in the off chance I remember correctly.) Ironically, new musicology made major contributions to dethroning modernist music in the American new music world. During the 1980s, Babbit’s be-bop serialism and the whole school of “complexity,” which ruled with totalizing force, went through one of the most precipitous collapses in the history of American classical music. This was largely due to the ideologies that formulated postmodernist concepts in new musicology. Neo-tonalists and something like neo-romantics took their place – along with an assortment of minimalists, post-minimalists, and sundry other isms.

        It is also a mistake to say that the new musicologists are followers of Marxist aesthetic ideologies. In fact, they lean strongly against much of what Adorno and his kindred spirits argued. Very often their ideology is almost the opposite. Their concepts of aesthetic leveling are often related to neoliberalism’s ideologies that the market and popular taste should the arbiter of cultural expression. This embrace of the market and the pop-music-industrial-complex is anything but Marxist.

        So it’s a mixed bag. Some of their ideas have been useful and have done some good, and others have done harm. Where I have a problem is with how the movement has become so monolithic, just as was the postwar modernist thought in classical music that they opposed. They seem to contradict their own standards of open-mindedness, pluralism, and tolerance.

        • To put it even more directly, without the new musicologists, modernism would not have been dethroned in the USA. They created an atmosphere that allowed for the return of tonality and even quasi-romantic expression. Some of the views of the anti-modernists here are thus too simplistic (and ironically contradictory.) At the very least, a mixed view would be more accurate.

        • I appreciate your answer, and yes, of course the whole area is much more complex than my pamphlet style, provocative remarks.
          I agree that the embracing of the market and the pop music industrial concept by new musicology seems at first sight to point against cultural marxism. But this is only one aspect of it, I would call it its ‘populist element’. ( Which already points at some degenerated versions of marxism such as in the previous Eastern European socialist states, where populism reigned, disguised as the ‘fight of the working classes’ ).
          The other far more intrinsic part of new musicology research seems to me more fundamentalistic as it applies principles which are part of today’s societies ( e.g. rights and standing of women in society etc ) but these ( valid ) principles are now used in retrograde throughout history and the related works of art are judged against these parameters.
          And that is a perfect copycat of what marxism inherently claims: one valid theory can be used to explain history, and – one of the key issues: condemn non conforming areas to the dustbin.
          Here some of new musicology analysis becomes destructive, as social theories are applied to the works itself and we talk then about hierarchies in symphonies or string quartets ( the dominance of the first violin and the submission of the viola …), accuse Bach of being an apologist for the shameful parts of Christianity,
          or claim that one cannot listen anymore to a Mozart opera as those who appreciated it most during his life time were aristocrats and hence oppressors.

          But works of art also have an independent life and structure, and no Mozart String Quartet was written with oppression in mind, neither is the fact that a symphony orchestra needs a conductor ( in many cases at least ) a sinister sign of totalitarianism, it is a simple organisational necessity due to the complexity of the score.
          Works and even forms of art are – so it seems – no longer judged by their artistic merit, but by some set standards which are – lets be clear about this – political.

          The “Dead White Male” argument is very troubling, and – to be provocative here – I wonder why these progressive thinkers do not reject the other achievements of dead white males, such as the cellphone, most medical achievements and the use of cars, planes, just to name a few.

          I agree: dialogue is needed, but where to start ?
          I would perhaps suggest to start with the acceptance of the fact that any work of art should be judged above all by its artistic value. It should be judged from within its historical context rather than today’s.
          But I see little understanding, as at the moment populists and fundamentalists are dominating the discussion, and the recommendations are becoming politics and put into laws, hence the disappearance of music lessons in schools.

          • Thanks. These are valid points. My concern would be that populism and revisionist history are not limited to Marxism. The sources of these trends in new musicology might have other sources as well, with Marxism being one of the lesser. Populism is a technique of all political movements. Many of the results of new musicology have leaned toward market fundamentalism, which is, of course, not Marxist, and is difficult to locate even as psuedo-Marxism..

            It is true the new musicology is quite political, but it asserts, probably vailidly, that all cultural criticism is political. It’s just that we do not see our norms as political or culturally biased. Our certainties in the arts and humanities are often are something less than positivist. These understandings have been very useful in many fields, especially in areas like anthropology, history, literary criticism, and ethnomusicology. They have even had a profound effect in areas of hard science such as quantum theory where new discoveries seem to trascend our anthropomorphic nature. Reality is seen as something phenomenological — an important trend in German thought from Nietzche and Husserl to Heidigger and Planck. The results have been used by all political stripes.

            It’s true that art should be judged by its artistic value, but a positivist approach, especially in the humanities, is very difficult exactly because our our judgments are exactly that: values. Our increasing awareness of how we frame our worldview has given those who study the arts and cultures new insights.

            The problem is that these philosophies developed between the 1960 and 80 and became an academic fad in music departments beginning in the late 80s which inevitably ended in superficiality. The views became dogmatic and undifferentiated. That is exactly why we need to approach this problem with open minds and discerning conclusions which I think you are trying to do.

          • I sometimes wonder: is the invention of the vacuum cleaner a sign of male superiority and suppression because women could not develop such domestic help? Or was it a male gesture of liberation for the females so that they could emancipate themselves? Did the male inventions of vacuum cleaner, washing machine, dish washer, shower and curl set liberate or suppress females?

          • Posters who can’t tell a vacuum cleaner from a musical vacuum must already be buried in the dustbin of mystery.

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