It may be time to cancel Musicology

It may be time to cancel Musicology


norman lebrecht

December 28, 2020

Over the past half-century, we have seen the academic discipline of musicology evolve from the study of music, to the study of social issues around music, to a lobby for social equality to the exclusion of many things, including music.

The latest issue of VAN magazine has a survey of the Beethoven year with combative statements by the feminist musicologist Susan McClary and the BLM music theorist Philip Ewell (pictured), who says: ‘”Beethoven” is like a metonym for the toxic combination that often happens when whiteness combines with maleness in the history of the United States.. At times, especially in terms of power and impact, whiteness plus maleness has more or less always equated with power. And, when that power gets challenged, it really can lash out in horrible ways—up to and including violence, rape, and murder.’

Got it? Beethoven is a poster boy for every evil ascribed by anyone to men with white skin.

This is what passes today for musicology.

It’s time to draw a line between music scholarship and 21st century ‘musicology’, and to strip the latter of its musical prefix. Musicology is no longer what it claims to be. Where it operates under false pretences, it needs to be renamed.



  • marcus says:

    No need for bans or the like-these tin foil hat nutters should remain in plain sight so we can see what they are up to-besides, the best laughs i have had this dreadful year has been provided by this lot.

    • DeMarkus H. says:

      Norman’s link to his prior entry regarding Mr. Ewell yielded some stimulating, progressive comments like the following to which our Jewish brethren need to embrace.

      LaShaunna Hope
      August 2, 2020
      Jews desperately need to help communities of color (especially Black) with more outreach and be more systemically diverse.

      A good start would be moving into Black neighborhoods instead of being so afraid of your Black brothers and sisters.

      Send your children to schools with a more diverse student body.

      Open JCCs in Black neighborhoods. There ARE Black Jews you know.

      Open a Synagogue in every Black neighborhood to show appreciation and acceptance for people JUST LIKE YOU!

      Adjust hiring standards in order to INCLUDE more Black employees in order to culturally enrich your businesses.

      Be more open my Jewish friends.

      • John Borstlap says:

        These things are quite tricky.

        Under the pressure of local politics we took 4 ethnically-challenged gardeners here to keep the estate a bit tidy and they were great. Never had we such perfect greenery! Then we were notified that we were not culturally diverse enough since all of them shared the same colour and the same cultural background. We were forced to take-on a white suprematist, and what happened?! He messed-up everything, destroyed the gardenias and the rododendron beds, peed into the roses and continuously quarrelled so much with the others that they all quit. Now we have destroyed grounds and a drunk sleeping in the stables with the horses. So much for diversity!


        • Janai B. says:

          You’re claiming Jews are white supremacists. That’s quite true by their whiteness on the whole. They segregate into their own communities and vigorously resist diversity. The stronger their Judaism, the whiter the neighborhood as one sees in say the New York enclaves. There they also use private security of their own to keep out persons of color.

          Gratefully we are strong on the left and President Biden along with VP Harris will be in office soon to both assert and force progressive change amongst intractable groups like this.

          • Kwame Bales says:

            All too true. Progressives and radical leftists have helped to either diffuse or eradicate adversarial religious attitudes groups like this attempt to weaponize to assert their whiteness. Jews are no better than anyone else. We are all a part of society hence we are one. The Biden-Harris administration especially won’t appease their bigotry any longer. They’ll get put in their place quick if they get out of line and don’t share like all whites need to. Radically changing the workplace, housing quotas, education, women’s rights, environmental concerns, LGBTQ acceptance and controlling media narratives began with the Obama-Biden enlightenment. Their records speak for themselves and we are all better for it in the US. The new President and first woman of color Vice President can’t be sworn in fast enough to crush our enemies and take back what belongs to blacks and native Americans!

      • Violin Accordion says:

        I don’t understand your concept of Jews needing to help communities of colour, or any other race or religion for that matter. On the contrary without prejudice, they build their own communities, often rather segregated, like Mea Sharim in Jerusalem, Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY and Stamford Hill.
        These are orthodox communities, highly visible from their apparel, whereas many non-orthodox Jews integrate into the general community. There is a strange anomaly, especially in Jerusalem of Haredim who can be open and welcoming or outright hostile, especially amongst teen boys and even younger, especially on Shabbat when in public they rail against anyone who they see breaking the rigid 600+ rules of the Torah , and run riot throwing bottles and blocking traffic.

        As far as I am aware, the state of Israel and some Jews, and also non Jews have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards Falashas, East African jews. Whilst Israel intends to be inclusive to Christians, Greek Orthodox, Arab Muslim, Arab Christian and secular, it doesn’t work so well in practice, although most seem to get on well with her neighbours in daily life.

        A valuable insight into daily life in Israel are the videos of impromptu interviews by Corey Gil Shuster. And the documentary’Unirthodox’

  • We privatize your value says:

    Yes sir, well said. You are right. But do not throw the baby (musicologists) out with the bathwater (musicology), at least not as long as some good musicologists are still around, like Richard Taruskin. By the way, what does *he* say about Ewell’s bile?

    • Minutewaltz says:

      I imagine he wouldn’t dare say anything.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Actually, he said something in 2018 about diversity musicology, and was immediately visited by the Diversity Control Squad, who taped his mouth. He has been silent since, as one can imagine.

      • William Safford says:

        LOL. Then you’re not very familiar with Taruskin.

        I cannot tell you if he would say anything. I cannot tell you what he would say. But I can assert with confidence that he would dare say something, if he were so inclined. A wallflower he is not.

  • Rogerio says:

    This is the Christmas season. Let’s not get violent.
    Rely on the law of supply and demand.
    Is there a demand for the type of Neo-Musicology you are referring to? Only from the part of institutions that feel obliged to comply with a Woke-Quota of academic “research” and opinion texts and some Woke people that support anything Woke.
    Lovers of classical music will put Beethoven on a shelf when there are new composers of comparable talent to substitute his white, male ass.
    We can’t wait to see that. Bring it on Mr. Ewell.
    If I were Mr. Ewell I would send Slipped Disc a thank-you note for the free publicity.

    • Rogerio says:

      @Mr. Lebrecht;
      Sir, I would suggest that since you seem to have an interest in Mr. Ewells’ ideas, and in keeping with the season of brotherly love, you reach out and offer the man an interview. I would like to see you confront Mr. Ewell with his own Bio. In terms of his education and career, it seems just about as white as it could be. It seems to indicate a man that Woke-up sometime around 2019. What motivated him? Helping his fellow man or getting promoted to the next rung of the Professoral ladder? Did he suffer racial discrimination while studying in Russia? If not, how did he pull that off?
      It’s just a thought. Have a nice day.

  • John Nemaric says:

    As an Anthropologist my hypothesis (warning, I did not say theory) is that we are witnessing the tall tale of music’s process transformed from the study/analysis of the “history” of music, to the “story” of music, and a lot of other “things” in between those two practical stances.

    The History of music is a rather lineal process fraught with credibility issues ad nauseam.

    The Story of music is a rather chaotic “explication” (not explanation) of the music’s process, a non lineal process akin to “Chaos Theory” mathematics.

    These two are very different from each other, and, furthermore, think of all that lies in betwixt!

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Mr Nemaric, try again. Your word game does not make sense, unless linear and non-linear have some special meaning in Anthropology. But this time let us keep to the Musicology question.

  • Petros LInardos says:

    Time to cancel musicology bashing. The above reported fringe work is not representative of the field. After all, the quality of this blogpost is (hopefully) not representative of the blog.

  • Dumb SJWs! says:

    Recent “College Educated” types like this aren’t educated in their own roots.

    1. Feminists have yet to celebrate the industries and countries that they have built on their own. There must be SOME examples by now.

    2. Blacks don’t stand up for their greatest achievement. The entire continent of Africa is never used as a successful benchmark compared to Europe, China, Russia, South America, the United States… Where’s the pride???

    ALL people like this ever purvey is antagonism borne out their groups insecurities. They are educated to hate themselves due to their deficiencies as opposed to celebrating their own sex or race.

    One other pathetic component is that they can’t or won’t repay the tuition money they “paid” to be educated by people who clearly do not have their best interests at the fore. They usually have had to move back home with their parents or parent, can’t find a job or are just too lazy to work and sit around angrily applying for voluminous social welfare programs since it’s easier to be on the public dole.

    The university system and the student loan industry continues to laugh at them as they’ve raked in BILLIONS.

    • Hmus says:

      Typical right-winger schoolyard bully – grab the other kids arm and hit him with it while shouting “stop hitting yourself…” and thinks he’s clever. Stick to your twitter feed, Dumb.

  • Jennifer Hillman says:

    I am sure that many of us agree with this sentiment, though it is not an easy matter to put into practice…..A new definition of Musicology may be needed, yet the Wikipedia one is pretty good. Ignoring today’s argument, it might be the place to add that Musicology has had a bad press in recent years. It can be dry, but moreso it can be exciting. As with all research, it can be mistaken, or it can be revelatory. But it has ( or should have ) little to do with the extra-musical opinions.

    • Patricia says:

      How about “The Study of the History of Music?” That is how I was trained in Musicology.

      • Jack says:

        Uh, no. That’s called “Music History”. Suggest you look up the definition of musicology.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Musicology consists of two main branches: 1) music history; 2) analysis. Nr 1 is branched-out into a) research and description of historical processes and b) analysis and preparation of scores from the past.

          It is a science, and has to conform to scientific methodology as much as possible. That means there is always a margin for unproven theory and speculation, as in the ‘hard’ sciences.

  • phillipe says:

    Norman, bravíssimo!!

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Cancel this, cancel that.
    You know what I’d like to cancel? All the cancelling.
    And also I’d like to cancel the word “woke”.

    • David A. Boxwell says:

      Let’s call the calling off, off.

    • Cyrus says:

      You’re sounding like a Trump voter who’s sick of negativity Greg. Well, better late than never!

      • Greg Bottini says:

        *I* sound like a TRUMP VOTER????
        Have you ever READ any of my comments on this website????
        I LOATHE Trump, his family, his cabinet of co-criminals, his so-called “lawyers”, the Republican Party who STILL supports him, and his treasonous efforts to overturn a legitimate election.
        I would wish him and all of his henchmen/women to spend the rest of their miserable treacherous greedy lives behind bars.
        Is my position clear to you NOW, Cyrus????

  • A number of ironies here since Slippedisc shares a range of common characteristics with new musicology such as interests in the social roles of music, musical activism, music and gender, cultural nationalism, the commodification of music, etc.

    The move away from musicological positivism (the idea that music is a natural phenomenon to be observed) to the idea that the creation and reception of music is also complexly subjective, reflects similar developments in all of the humanities, especially in areas such as history, anthropology, literary criticism, and sociology. In fact, musicologists were among the last to change and most of what new musicologists have done is built on concepts developed by those other fields 20 to 30 years earlier. The intellectual templates used by new musicology are quite obvious.

    Some new musicology has been overly polemical and combative, but in general it has greatly enriched the field. Postmodern thought is weakening which will lead to correctives beneficial to new musicology, but the new practices are valuable and are now an established part of musicology even in the most conservative of schools.

    Now back to SD’s usual discussions of music as comfort, music as gender, music as nationalism, the music industry, and the ethnicity of music, among many other new musicological topics.

  • Mervin Partridge says:

    Not to mention SD’s glorification pop culture by reporting it on the same level as great art. It seems there is an inability in our society to discern the difference between art and entertainment. Take some of the blame.

    • Nik says:

      All you are demonstrating is your own narrow-mindedness.
      The dividing line between ‘high culture’ and ‘pop culture’ has always been a spurious one, and one is best advised to steer clear of self-appointed arbiters of where it should be drawn.
      There are many things within ‘pop culture’ that are also great art. There are many things in ‘high culture’ that aren’t.

      • V. Lind says:


      • John Borstlap says:

        Nonsense. Serious art (in all genres) aim at something different from pure entertainment. The fear of defining something that is serious as ‘high’ and something that is not as ‘low’ is the result of a quasi-democratic world view that does not want to imply that there are values that are different, in different contexts. In other worlds: it’s stupid, ignorant, and populist.

        • Nik says:

          The main problem with drawing this distinction is that it negates the significant overlaps. There is no reason why something that comes from a serious place and encompasses high artistic achievement cannot at the same time be entertaining. There are plenty of examples that are all of these things, and more.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Overlaps only become visible where there are distinctions.

            For the rest I entirely agree with your comment.

        • V. Lind says:

          “There are many things within ‘pop culture’ that are also great art. There are many things in ‘high culture’ that aren’t.”

          That’s what I was applauding, and what I consider an unexceptionable observation. Many of our greatest composers were the celebrities of their day, the ultimate in what would now be called pop stars. I decline to believe that out of what has found an audience and favour today there is nothing great, or that will outlast its era.

          And I have heard, seen and read a good deal of absolute rubbish in the name of “high art.”

    • clarity says:

      It’s about selling to the weak-minded who grab on with both hands to tired terms like racist, xenophobe, sexist, feminist…offended and the like. Those people are both highly impressionable and gullible. They are easy to gaslight and are lifelong ‘followers’ of the cult known as the Left.

      Where does it ever get them? They waste their youth “fighting the power” and in doing so are expendable pawns. They do the violent dirty work of their masters who do nothing to stop them legally or morally. They goad them on since they take all of the risks and get themselves hurt instead.

      It’s a simple yet effective business of controlling a narrative that their people sheepishly follow to their own doom.

      • William Safford says:

        So, just for clarity’s sake: are you saying that you support the status quo of racism, xenophobia, sexism, feminism?

        • Occamsrazor says:

          “So, just for clarity’s sake: are you saying that you support the status quo of racism, xenophobia, sexism, feminism?”. What, you don’t support feminism? “I respect you. Hell, I even like you. You can come over and fuck my sister”… and the rest of that timeless scene with the drill sergeant from the Full Metal Jacket movie.

  • M McAlpine says:

    It was Beecham who said that a musicologist is ‘someone who can read music but can’t hear it.’ We can now extend the definition to someone who has no sense whatever, judging by the two mentioned above. Sadly it is the lunatic fringe who get the publicity and not the people who do good work on the subject itself. If some of these lunatics actually went to Africa round the villages (as I have) they would hear some great music without resorting to the BLM nonsense.

  • Duncan says:

    Having not read the article from which NL takes his quotes it is difficult to comment accurately and I would therefore be cautious about condemning the musicologists. The argument about the worthiness of ‘modern’ musicology has raged for many years – back in 1980 the American writer Joseph Kerman (he who coined the phrase ‘shabby little shocker’ for Puccini’s ‘Tosca’) wrote at length about how musical theorists were ignoring aesthetic principles in favour of purely objective statements that said nothing whatsoever about the music. It is true that there are many instances where there seems to be very little new to say about a composer or their body of music except to dig behind the obvious and find other less obvious things to say – perhaps make connections which seem controversial or just downright silly, but which can be argued with some evidence and genuine authority. This is what musicologists do! To stifle such research and debate would be wrong, even if we think the results are just plain silly or misguided. Personally my biggest gripe with modern musicology is the frequent use of what I refer to as ‘big words’ – language which could be simplified but often seems to be used because it makes the research seem more academic or intellectual but which also leaves the ordinary reader (like myself) reaching constantly for the dictionary! Or perhaps I am just ‘thick’…! Here is one of my pet ones: ‘hermeneutics’… isn’t that just a posh word for ‘meaning’?

    • William Safford says:

      Re “big words”: you’ll find that in basically every area of inquiry.

      If you’re a layman, try parsing an article in a medical journal, or a law review, or an engineering magazine, or a scientific journal. Whether it’s articles about English literature, or art, or sociology, or just about any endeavor with any kind of scholarly writings, you’ll find the use of “big words.”

      So too with music, whether musicology, analysis, history, or other areas of musical inquiry.

      It just goes with the territory.

      • V. Lind says:

        Every pursuit has its own vocabulary. There are parts of the sports section of any daily paper that, to me, might as well be written in Swahili. but they communicate precisely what the aficionado wants to know. (As an arts critic, I was not afforded the same freedom — editors always cautioned against the use of “technical terms,” by which they meant words as simple as “crescendo,” despite my argument that music and dance had as much right to talk in their own language as sport). But ultimately journalists ought to be taking their obligation to communicate clearly to their readership as their starting point.

        I am not sure either academics or bureaucrats do. There does seem to be some notion in the former that the more specialised the vocabulary the more seriously they will be taken. The latter have many agendas, including obscurity, deniability, buck-passing and discomfort with what message they are obliged to send. They are eager adopters of jargons that make them look like insiders in the thinking.

        Musicology will have its own language. But I venture that as so many in the field seem to be venturing into sociology, the most despised “discipline” in my Arts and Sciences department for its lack of intellectual rigour, they learn its almost entirely jargonesque lexicon and take themselves off to that department to publish their views. From where they will be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

  • sabrinensis says:

    Good to hear you state this plainly. The madness has gone far too far.

  • DAVID says:

    I had actually beg to differ. It shouldn’t be cancelled, it should have a chance to make its case and see whether it actually finds a resonance and a legitimate audience. I suspect it won’t, and that history will eventually look at recent American academia — not just musicology — mostly as an exercise in virtue signalling and as a pretentious, utterly sterile discourse. For that, we still need quite a bit of time, we just don’t have enough historical distance yet. But it’s safe to say that one day, much of what is taking place in American academia will be seen as sheer sophistry and, most importantly, hypocrisy. Such hypocrisy resides in the fact that, while we are talking ad nauseam about the same grievances, in the meantime nothing is really being done to address the very legitimate ills and issues denounced by identity politics. Racism is still rampant, and so is economic inequality. It’s truly laughable to see these universities, which all charge sums of money inaccessible to most socio-economic strata, continually pat themselves on the back while denying access to education to anyone who cannot shell out 75 grand a year. Simply talking about these issues, without doing anything concrete in order to actually resolve them, is truly the height of hypocrisy. It’s also an exercise in narcissism and self-delusion. Finally, the attempt to eradicate the past and “cancel” any figure which may have had a tainted history is just infantile, simplistic and reductive. Those engaged in such effort should stand at the ready and essentially jettison most of the Western culture — assuming that would even be possible — and, in order to truly be coherent, give up their jobs and happily renounce the many creature comforts they enjoy on a daily basis. I suspect they probably won’t.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Frank: ‘It is simply insane to “shell out 75 grand a year” to study Neo-Musicology.’

      Billy: ‘Everybody has a right to achieve a PhD. It is a human right, especially if you are intersected from many different angles. And the student debts are going to be pardoned, it is just the way to go. But you cannot understand it, you fascist pale face.’

    • Patricia says:

      Racism and ‘economic inequality’ have nothing to do with Musicology or music intself.

      • William Safford says:

        “Racism and ‘economic inequality’ have nothing to do with Musicology or music intself.”

        Did you even read the article?

        “For Ewell, 2020 was dominated by the responses he received for a November 2019 plenary delivered at the annual meeting for the Society of Music Theory. The approximately 20-minute talk, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” was subsequently published this year as an extended article in the Society’s journal, Music Theory Online. But it was the talk that drew the ire of many of Ewell’s colleagues for its thesis that the dominant style of music theory taught in the United States is inextricable from systemic white supremacy. Aptly enough, this style originated from Heinrich Schenker, WHO WAS ALSO A NOTED WHITE SUPREMACIST (he even supported Hitler, despite his Jewish background, and longed for a music-world equivalent to “exterminate the musical Marxists”).” (capitalization mine)


        ““When Schenker wrote about music, he also wrote things about culture and politics. That’s where you find all his horrifically racist and sexist writing,” Ewell said in an interview with the CUNY Graduate Center. “Schenker was very clear that these two things should be taken together in a unified world view. He was essentially saying, ‘Please don’t separate my musical ideas from my ideas about people and race and gender etc.’”

        • John Borstlap says:

          What should we do when a dangerous criminal correctly explains the pythagorean theorem? That the theorem must be criminal? That it must be wrong? We must look into the arguments as such, distinct from the author, if we want to know whether they are true or not.

          • William Safford says:

            “What should we do when a dangerous criminal correctly explains the pythagorean theorem?”

            Your analogy came to pass in 1945, when the victorious Allies came upon Nazi medical studies of medical experiments performed on Jews and other peoples.

            At least we are discussing music analysis, not the literal torture and murder of people.

            That notwithstanding, dehumanization is dehumanization, and white supremacist viewpoints are inherently dehumanizing.

        • Marfisa says:

          NOTED WHITE SUPREMACIST is out of historical context. This is the sort of error that the academic Philip Ewell himself is careful to avoid. I respect his articles, and have learnt from them.

          Less rigor is to be expected of journalists. But when the VAN author Olivia Giovetti says “he even supported Hitler” I can’t help thinking about Schenker’s dates (1868-January 1935), about Germany after unification in 1871, and about how the aftermath of the 1914-18 war affected the defeated nations, Germany and Austria-Hungary. To understand is not to excuse, but it is at least to understand.

          • Marfisa says:

            To clarify, ‘white supremacist’ has a particular meaning in the U.S.A which does not map accurately onto historical German theories of racial, specifically Aryan, superiority, or even onto more general historical European ideas about European racial and cultural superiority.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Musicology seems to be where Art History, as a discipline, started going – and has fully arrived – a few decades ago, to the exclusion of analysis and connoisseurship. The delay between the two is probably due to the fact that nobody expected an art historian to make art, but most musicologists are, or were, at least expected to play an instrument, or sing, or accomplish some other musical action, to a level of proficiency below that of a performer perhaps, quite apart from the analytical demands, which in theory should be considerable.

    • Patricia says:

      Exactly. I never met a serious musicologist who had no background in performance of some kind. Many of the period performers have also published well-written and researched papers on music. And have academic backgrounds as well.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    ‘Neo-Musicology’ research, as any other academic field, has to be supported by grants. That is, money, which does not grow in trees. Americans shoud be interested in how much of Ms McClary’s and Mr Ewel’s (as well as others’) research is funded by tax-payer money.

  • john humphreys says:

    Mr Ewell seems to be embarrassed by the Beethoven ‘effect’. Poor man – life is short and he shouldn’t subject himself to such a deprivation.

  • sam says:

    One wonders why they are even in the field.

    I mean, it’d be like a white supremacist deciding to get a PhD in African-American studies, do his thesis on rap music, and then devote his career to trashing rappers as being too black and too male.

    There’s a disconnect here, a cognitive dissonance that borders on the schizoid.

  • Alexander T says:

    ……..”in the history of the United States”…….
    Not their music. Their social problems.
    Leave Beethoven alone.

    • John says:

      Re-read the quotation in the article. It doesn’t say “Beethoven”. It says “”Beethoven””. That means the set of ideas that have built up around Beethoven across time – some of which we may endorse, some of which many find problematic. No one is telling you that you can’t enjoy Beethoven’s music, just asking you to think critically about why, what it has meant throughout time and what that has excluded

  • Tomtom says:

    It must be great to have a job like theirs. To be paid presumably a decent wage, just to write bilge every couple of months.. hmm, if only I’d tried harder at school..

  • Anon says:

    from the linked article:
    “… McClary felt compelled to explore this side of the Ninth after teaching it enough times to see a pattern of students crying, even leaving the room. ‘This violence is triggering all of these things, and I thought, This really needs to be dealt with,’ she explains…”

    Surely they were crying because it was too late to drop the course…

  • Patricia says:

    McClary is not what I would call an actual musicologist. She has been ranting for years. Ignore her.

  • Scott says:

    The article demonstrates how these postmodern critics are just making it up.

    The article quotes McClary as saying, “McClary felt compelled to explore this side of the Ninth after teaching it enough times to see a pattern of students crying, even leaving the room. “This violence is triggering all of these things, and I thought, This really needs to be dealt with,” she explains. “You don’t just sort of say, Well, this is great music, too bad for you. And so, I use the image of a rapist who is not able to achieve satisfaction, and so just goes into strangulation mode.” The experience of sexual violence is one that, on some level, many can relate to.”

    Has anyone ever been in a classroom where this has happened? I haven’t!

    Has anyone ever been in a concert hall where this happened? I haven’t!

    If you think I am accusing McClary of being a liar. you are right!

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    “Oh, bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was a kind of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now.”

  • William Safford says:

    “Over the past half-century, we have seen the academic discipline of musicology evolve from the study of music, to the study of social issues around music, to a lobby for social equality to the exclusion of many things, including music.”

    You say this as if it were a bad thing.

    Now, moving on, how many people who commented on this blog post, actually read the article in VAN Magazine in question that NL helpfully linked for us?

    If you didn’t read before commenting, that’s par for the course. We see that failure over and over again in the comments posted to SD.

    If you did, then you read:

    “‘I received a lot of death threats and rape threats in the wake of [the article’s publication],’ McClary says. Many of these responses came from ardent Beethoven fans, defending a composer revered for his humanism. McClary readily notes ‘the irony of responding to my saying, There’s an image of rape here, by saying, We ought to just tie you down and rape you…’ At a certain point, the threats became so numerous that the police intervened, relocating McClary.”

    That’s right–people who putatively support the humanism of Beethoven, threatened Ms. McClary with rape, over scholarly discussions of Beethoven’s music including her reference to a poem about rape, to the degree that the police felt compelled to intervene and take action on her behalf.

    That is irony indeed.

    The author goes on:

    “Recently, McClary tells me, one conservatory student had to move their family out of state following a bid to form a Black student union.

    “‘When Beethoven becomes more important than human life, then we’re in a really bad place,” she says. “When the absolute authority of whiteness and maleness feel threatened, they regard it as their duty to fight back with everything they can. And that’s the place we find ourselves.’”

    What does that say about certain classical music lovers, not to mention certain lovers of Beethoven’s music? How well does this reaction by them support Beethoven’s ideals?

    For that matter, do we see hints of this in comments posted to SD? The correct answer is *yes*: not death threats (at least that I’ve read), but definitely other forms of denigration, bigotry, insult, possible libel, and more. In fact, a month ago, NL removed one particularly pernicious and libelous post, after I pointed it out to him.

    And concerning Dr. Ewell: how many people posting to this blog have actually read any of his writings? Scant few, I imagine, based on comments posted thus far to this and other blog posts, that twist what he actually wrote out of context.

    That said, ruminate on this quote from him in the article:

    “‘When whiteness is challenged by blackness, that’s when whiteness loses its shit,’ Ewell says.”

    Apparently so.

    Now, it’s time for one of those seemingly-necessary disclaimers, so that someone reading this won’t succeed at twisting my own words to suit their own needs. He or she may try, but that’s not the same thing.

    Here goes:

    Now, does this mean that I agree with everything written by every musicologist, including what was referenced in the article? Of course not.

    Some of it is mistaken. Some of it misses the mark. Some of it is speculative at best. Some of it is even silly. Some of it continues a tradition of over-the-top provocation started decades ago (Boulez’s polemics, anyone?).

    This, of course, makes it just like many other areas of human endeavor.

    This notwithstanding, the reality is that if any commenters have a huge problem with musicology, the problem is as likely with that person as it is with the musicology itself.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A most revealing sentence:

      “When the absolute authority of whiteness and maleness feel threatened, they regard it as their duty to fight back with everything they can. And that’s the place we find ourselves.”

      This ‘absolute authority of whiteness and maleness’ has nothing to do with the authority of a great work of art, because the work is meant for everybody, entirely distinct from ethnicity and gender. The confusion results from misinterpreting the meaning of the symbol (the work). That LvB was male and white, is entirely irrelevant to the music. That the music was not written by a black female, is due to historical circumstance and not inherently related to the music.

      • William Safford says:

        I think you’ve misplaced your pronoun referent.

        It is not Beethoven who will “fight back.” He’s long dead.

        It is not the “work of art.” It is inanimate.

        It is the white male people alive today–or, to be more precise, a subset thereof–who do this fighting.

        Why? Because their power is diminishing, and they don’t like it. They feel threatened by a changing world.

        Part of white supremacy is the wish to remain supreme, and white. (Obviously.) Ditto sexists, who do not want to share power to women.

        Demographics are going against this. Those who base their identity on white male supremacy view this as an existential crisis. For an example of this, just watch on January 6th as white supremacists demonstrate in Washington, DC against the Congressional ratification of the election of the first African-American Vice President and the President who was once the Vice President to the first Black President. It is supposed to be a pro forma event, yet even in Congress it is being challenged in a profoundly un-democratic way.

        In the United States, this is an ongoing process. After all, apartheid existed and was in force in the American South during our lifetimes. Had you traveled to the American South as a child or teenager, you would have witnessed the “white” bathrooms and “colored” bathrooms, the “white” water fountains and “colored” fountains, the restaurants and hotels and concert halls and movie theaters that were whites-only, or allowed “colored” people only in the top balcony.

        The dismantling of apartheid (Jim Crow) is relatively recent in historical time. The process is far from complete.

        We see hints of white male supremacist attitudes all the time in comments posted to this blog. Sometimes they’re more than hints.

        I agree about the misinterpreting of the symbol. Certain supporters thought that their conception of Beethoven’s music is so important, that they threatened to rape a woman who proposed an alternate interpretation of it. These threats were so credible that the police had to intervene to move her elsewhere for her safety.

        So much for “all men are brothers….”

  • John Borstlap says:

    There is no reason to relate serious musicology to nonsense musicology.

    Nonsense musicology is indeed something else, and indeed a new term has to be found for it.

    Vapidology, or smokescreenology, or refainology….. or musicallychallengedology, anthropodeaffology, etc. etc. – or simply nonmusicology.

  • Alexander T says:

    Here today, gone tomorrow.
    Beethoven, on the other hand……..

  • Arthur Kaptainis says:

    A point on nomenclature: while “musicology” is widely accepted as a word meaning the scholarly study of music, there is a schism, recognized in North American music faculties, between “musicology” and “music theory.” (Take note that there are distinct professional organizations, the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory.) As recently as a few years ago the theory department was the redoubt for scholars who were engaged sincerely in the analysis (including, of course, Schenkerian analysis) of music while the musicology department dealt with all the “cultural studies” stuff so much admired by SD readers. Just something to keep in mind.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Re.: ‘”Beethoven” is like a metonym for the toxic combination that often happens when whiteness combines with maleness in the history of the United States…”

    Had Beethoven a faint idea of where the US is?

    • John Borstlap says:

      He knew that England was positioned somewhere in the west, and that is how far it went with his geographical understanding.

  • Fred Funk says:

    Musicology has always been the area for “musicians” that can’t play. And if they weren’t in this area, they’d be flipping burgers.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I know of intellectually brilliant musicolgists who have no talent at all for playing any instrument, not even the occarino, and musicologists who are entirely tone deaf.

  • Genius Repairman says:

    I think I am starting to understand… If you hear classical music for the first time in your life as a black female teenager, and are told this is the pinnacle of music, Beethoven 9, and you just find it annoying and boring, because it is so different from everything else you have ever heard… Maybe that would feel very intimidating and oppressive. Solution. Expose children to classical music regularly from primary school.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The best comment in this thread.

    • William Safford says:

      I completely agree with you about bringing back and re-elevating music education in our schools. Start them when they’re young!

      Your point is valid, irrespective of the color, age, or sex of the person in question. But it does highlight the inequities in our public educational systems in the U.S. (For those in the U.K.: “public” in this context means tuition-free, funded and operated by local governments.)

    • Marfisa says:

      McClary, a feminist musicologist, was teaching 30 odd years ago in the Women’s Studies program at the University of Minnesota when her notorious phrase about Beethoven 9, “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”, was written. The percentage of black students there is low today, and may have been lower back then. The sex, race and age of the departing weeping students is not specified, but I would guess mainly female, white, and late ‘teens to ‘twenties. If they elected to do her course they may well have had some prior experience of classical music.

      One of McClary’s colleagues was the poet Adrienne Rich. McClary knew her poem ‘The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven at last understood as a Sexual Message’, which begins “A man in terror of impotence” and ends “the beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table.” This makes me wonder what really came first, the weeping students, or the notion that Beethoven 9 enacts the male violence of a frustrated rapist? What sort of preliminary ideas did McClary put to her Women’s Studies students to trigger such extreme reactions? Conversely, if the image was unprompted, imagine how much more terrifying Beethoven would be for a 9-year-old girl than for a 19-year-old. Exposing children to this sort of music would be tantamount to abuse.

      • Marfisa says:

        For the record, I do understand that McClary is a highly respected musicologist whose academic work on modality and tonality in Monteverdi, and on seventeenth-century music more generally, is seminal, whether or not one finds feminist interpretations persuasive. As the VAN article notes, it is very unfortunate that the phrase I quoted is now made to stand for the totality of her scholarship, and I apologize if my comment above has perpetuated this misconception.

  • I sympathize with the complaint that musicology has become a repository for opinions on the social shortcomings of the music world. But one must keep in mind that most groups (including musicologists) are largely sheep who simply follow and echo each other’s oversimplified generations. But this is not the fault of musicology–it is the weakness of human nature to join herds of like-minded opinions and affects all areas of endeavor that I am aware of. So the disproportionate ethnic and gender distributions within classical music is the “hit tune” of the moment. It will pass.
    As a musicologist who is not particularly interested in the ethnic and gender distribution within classical music, I blame Beethoven for “hogging” concert programs with endless repetitions of his “hit tunes,” thereby denying a hearing for the many other composers who are not heard but have much to offer. But, of course, this is not Beethoven’s fault, but the fault of the sheep again, who all join together in proclaiming Beethoven (or Mozart or Schubert or whomever) so great that he warrants such over-representation on concert programs. Sheep, including many musicologists, indulge in the over-simplification that there are 25-50 composers who represent “the best of classical music.” Yes, wouldn’t that be nice? Much less music to listen to or pay attention to. My view of musical reality is that there are hundreds of composers with as much to offer as the 25-50, but as long as they are not heard, the over-simplification stands, and will continue to stand. I have been fighting this battle for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so until I die. Like that of the composers I champion, my voice is drowned out by the voices of the sheep. But let’s not blame musicology–it’s not the culprit.
    Walter Simmons

    • John Borstlap says:

      A pulverizing truth.

      Maybe the entirely ignorant attempts of the woke crowd to unlock a petrified mindset, helped by corona, will open some unexpected doors.

      ‘The truth is always inappropriate’. (Oscar Wilde)

  • Breve says:

    While studying music at a well-known UK university I was “taught” by an infamous feminist lecturer that the finale of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is a musical portrait of violent rape by a white male (natch..). Wonder what Mr B would have made of that.

    • Genius Repairman says:

      The thing about abstact music is you can find any story or meaning you like, whether Beethoven 5 is about hearing loss, revolution, rape or a portrait of “Tinkles” the wonder kitten. But you cannot actually claim this as definitive unless the composer themselves states the subject matter (and even then it is debatable).

      • John Borstlap says:

        In one of the conversation books B explained to his nephew that the finale of the 5th was about discovering that it was a sunday and not as yet a dreary monday morning when he had to teach archduke Rudolph.

    • William Safford says:

      In the U.S. 2020 election, at least one Republican candidate for Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, won election on a platform “alleging that a cabal of [Democratic] Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US president Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal.” (Wikipedia)

      That is to say, she is a Qanon follower.

      IOW, you’ll find loonies everywhere: not only Ms. Greene, but other candidates who ran for office on that platform, and thousands of people willing to vote her into office and vote for other such candidates.

      Isn’t it amazing that this isn’t satire from a “The Onion” article, but is what actually happened! It says something very sad about the state of democracy in America at this point in time.

      That professor of yours can make a better case for her view of Beethoven 5 than these Qanon people can for theirs. If you protest that your professor made a terrible case for her interpretation of Beethoven 5, I will agree with you even without having heard it, and reiterate that it still does not contradict my point. After all, the former is a highly-subjective and heterodox interpretation of a piece of music, where there are no objective facts on the ground and where one can spin whatever fanciful story one wants; whereas the latter is a dangerous wacko-bird conspiracy theory with no factual basis in the real world, and people have already been kidnapped, injured and killed by Qanon followers based on it.

      • Occamsrazor says:

        “In the U.S. 2020 election, at least one Republican candidate for Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, won election on a platform “alleging that a cabal of [Democratic] Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US president Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal.” (Wikipedia)

        That is to say, she is a Qanon follower.” As far as I know, drug trafficking is organized and involves the highest levels of many governments. So is weapons trafficking and human organs black market. Do you suppose trafficking of minors is not organized? PS. Someone who has lots of spare time and canned food, please open a classical music forum called kickingadeadhorse .com. Classical music has been dead for about 100 years, let the rabid leftist vultures finish picking its carcass in 2021.

      • Occamsrazor says:

        William, are you familiar with the Dutroux affair?What about Franklin coverup? Do you have any idea about the yearly child disappearance statistics in different countries? Don’t you suppose your ardent denial of the existence of a global pedophile network may cause suspicions about you? By the way, I don’t suppose that this cabal is strictly a Democratic Party phenomenon, I’m more than certain it involves GOP as well.

  • GG says:

    Most people have no idea what goes on in our universities. Here below is the “scholarly” call I received this week from a peer-reviewed international academic journal. I am sure the editors would welcome comments and assistance from Slipped Disc readers.

    (Copied as received, unedited, don’t blame the messenger)

    What do we talk about when we talk about queer death? Call for short contributions (500-2000 words)

    Whatever. A Transdisciplinary Journal of Queer Theories and Studies ( is inviting submissions for short contributions (500-2000 words) to be collected in a multi-authored article entitled “What do we talk about when we talk about queer death?”. The article will introduce the themed section Queer thanatologies (edited by A.C. Corradino, C. Dell’Aversano, R. Langhi and M. Petricola) that will appear in Whatever’s next issue in summer 2021.

    Queer death studies has recently emerged as a transdisciplinary field of inquiry investigating the cultural performances related to death, dying, grief, and disposal from the perspective of queer theory, defined as a hermeneutical stance whose premises could be summed up as follows: «queer states that any construction of identity (including LGBT ones) is a performance constituting a subject which does not “exist” prior to it, and encourages to bring into being (both as objects of desire, of fantasy and of theoretical reflection and as concrete existential and political possibilities) alternative modes of performance» (Dell’Aversano 2010: 74-75). Driven by the will to «reconceptualis[e] death, dying and mourning in relentlessly norm-critical ways» (Radomska, Mehrabi, and Lykke 2020: 82), the field of queer death studies is developing and expanding in a number of directions. Some center on an «overall attention to necropolitics and necropowers» (ibidem: 85); some focus on peripheral, non-normative, and anti-normative identities, among which are those falling within the LGBT+ spectrum; some devote to non-humans as both subjects and objects of grief; some explore the construction of corpses as objects of desire in literature and the arts, as well as their position in spiritual and other kinds of political activism; some are grounded in category theory and the social sciences and aimed at the theoretical deconstruction of the life/death polarity itself, considered as one of the most fundamental constructs for the development of every human culture; some critically-affirmatively take a posthuman and/or decolonial point of departure in life/death, considered as a spiritual-material continuum, encouraging an ecophilosophical focus on the vibrancies of all non/living matter beyond the dualisms (mind-soul/body, culture/nature, human/non-human), cherished by Western modernity.

    We encourage scholars, activists, thanatologists, and other queer death friends working in any field to contribute to the ongoing development of queer death studies by answering the question “what do we talk about when we talk about queer death?” in a bite-sized format. Your theoretical reflections, case studies, notes, and thoughts are invaluable for mapping this ever-expanding field.

    Short contributions should be sent to Mattia Petricola ( by January 15, 2021. For any question or information, for expressing your interest in this publication or discussing your contribution, do not hesitate to get in touch.


    Dell’Aversano, Carmen. 2010. ‘The Love Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken: Queering the Human-Animal Bond’. Journal for Critical Animal Studies VIII (1/2): 73–125.

    Radomska, Marietta, Tara Mehrabi, and Nina Lykke. 2020. ‘Queer Death Studies: Death, Dying and Mourning from a Queerfeminist Perspective’. Australian Feminist Studies 35 (104): 81–100.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Brilliant and hilarious spoof.

      Especially the ‘queer death friends’ term is a trouvaille.

    • William Safford says:

      Once you strip out all the jargon and get to the essence of it, it makes a lot of sense.

      Think of the AIDS crisis. Countless thousands of gay people died of AIDS. President Reagan ignored it for years, as did large swaths of the country. People with AIDS were shunned, in life and in death. They were shunned in part because of the disease, in part because they were gay, and definitely because of the combination of the two.

      It wasn’t until straight people started dying in significant numbers that people finally took notice, then action.

      This is a small subset of what they will talk about.

  • Anon says:

    Ewell doesn’t represent all musicologists, or even a majority…

  • JussiB says:

    I studied under professor/musicologist Joseph Kerman at UC Berkeley. I’m sure many have heard his famous comment about Tosca being “a shabby little shocker”. In reality he liked Tosca. A little controversy helps sells. I suspect that’s the case here with the “male whiteness” shenanigan.