Exclusive: London professor resigns over ‘woke’ musicology

Exclusive: London professor resigns over ‘woke’ musicology

News

norman lebrecht

September 15, 2021

The academic world has been shocked by the resignation of one of the UK’s leading musicologists, apparently in disaffection with current trends for decolonising classical music.

J. P. E. Harper-Scott is Professor of Music History and Theory at Royal Holloway, University of London, and general editor of the Cambridge University Press series ‘Music in Context’. An authority on Edward Elgar, he has developed unsupected affinities between music analysis and the psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan. At 43, he is a leader in his field; but now he has quit.

In a resignation note titled ‘Why I left Academia’ he makes no secret for his love of learning and of academic life. But, he writes:

I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic. Consider the following statement, which fairly well articulates an increasingly common view in musicology.

Nineteenth-century musical works were the product of an imperial society. The classical musical canon must be decolonised.

The statement, and the attitude that goes with it, are dogmatic by virtue of form, not content. It does not matter that the statement in the first sentence is one that I can assent to. It becomes dogmatic by virtue of the second sentence, which admits of no doubt, no criticism, no challenge.

His resignation will change nothing. The decolonisers are rampant. Musicology has been vastly discredited. The loss of a subtle and fertile mind like Harper-Scott’s represents collateral damage in the woke pandemic. He has made an honourable decision.

 

UPDATE: One composer who cannot be decolonised

 

 

Comments

  • James says:

    Is a copy of the full letter available?

    • V. Lind says:

      There is a link clearly embedded in the post. And I recommend following it — it is an intelligent and passionate text. One hopes he might publish his views in a larger forum — one of these days something will surely kickstart the debate on the dangers of dogmatic thinking — especially in academia.

      • Kathleen E King says:

        Thank you. As with the very expression “woke,” society trades jargon and regression of standards for literally nothing. Music, a form really of mathematics only more sensually affiliated in the brain, requires rules, tradition, and devotion. That is not to denigrate the music produced by cultures other than the “West” or “Europe.” It is to recognize that ALL “music” is “music.”

    • Alpha Male says:

      Glad more people are leaving the remnants of academia. All that’s left are intellectually deficient reprobates that nobody wants to be around. Fat women with big mouths and no morals aren’t marketable which is why fewer potential students keep steering clear of “Higher Ed” particularly since their degrees aren’t getting them jobs.

      Now that these liberals have Biden in, they have absolutely no hope of discharging their overpriced student loan debts as PROMISED! So funny to watch them self-implode in poverty…

      My own successful business makes life even sweeter being debt free after quitting university the first month in listening to liberal hostility towards my race.
      LOVE IT!!!!!

  • sam says:

    In all fairness though, his Lacanian psychoanalytic musicology is as suspect as the race theory musicology that he casts his dubious eyes on.

    Just saying.

    • Bone says:

      Pretty big difference in outcomes of analysis between the two musicology methods, though

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      From the good Professor’s own profile at Royal Holloway:

      “From the start his work has engaged particularly with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. More recently, this has been supplemented by psychoanalysis (especially Lacan and Freud), critiques of the sexual, political, and economic subject (particularly the work of Alain Badiou, Karl Marx, and Slavoj Žižek), and an explicitly Leftist perspective.”

      Lacan, Badiou, Žižek… Woo AND Woke.
      Only, the Old Woke now find themselves gobbled up by the New Woke. “Explicitly Leftist perspective”, self-avowed, notwithstanding.

      A classic case of “Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione quaerentes?”

      • V. Lind says:

        And they call Latin a dead language and close down departments…

      • Anthony says:

        Right on, Le Krenek! If you are engaged in the imbecility of the fashionable but empty and nihilistic anti-thought of French deconstructivism, how on earth can you be surprised when the next generation – which you helped spawn – turns on you as the next to be wasted within the vacuum of their moral and intellectual void?

    • Jackson says:

      Except, he is proposing a theory and pursuing it with academic discipline. Very different than dismissing great art because the creator doesn’t meet the current criteria for ‘having a voice.’

      • Eric B Rasmusen says:

        True, he is a real scholar, whether Lacan is foolishness or not (and as scholars we have to encourage our fellows to go out on limbs that sometimes break off and leave us realizing that everything we wrote was wrong). Anthony’s comment, was that if a gentlemanly scholar teaches the virtues of barbarism, then he ought not to be surprised when his students become barbarians. Nietzsche, for example, even tho he despised Imperial jingoists and would have despised the Nazis even more, really was an inspiration for them.

    • Rob says:

      I wouldn’t characterize his work as entirely Lacanian psychoanalytic musicology, though of course I haven’t read much in his considerable number of works. I admired him for touching on the aspects of class that, while relevant to the social justice turn in musicology, remains largely unaddressed.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “Nineteenth-century musical works were the product of an imperial society. The classical musical canon must be decolonised.”

    Even the first sentence is debatable: England was an empire in the 19th century with colonies, but did not have many important composers to speak of, until Elgar later in the age; but what about the lands who produced most of the composers: The German territories, Austria-Hungary?

    Harper-Scott is right in his condemnation – the second sentence in its stupidity is on a breathtakingly low level of thought. The society that these composers found themselves in, was NOT of their making. Their music has nothing to do with the political make-up of their society, no single compsoer had any influence on national policy, not even Wagner (who was ignored by Ludwig and Bismarck on political issues). And given that many of them suffered greatly within that society, it is ludricous to think that they had any responsibility in its policies.

    The whole idea of ‘decolonizing the canon’ is grotesk.

    • Marfisa says:

      The statement was made up as an example of extreme dogmatism, a straw man. If you read the letter, you will see that he then recasts it in ‘critical’ mode.

      I was under the impression that Europe had a Holy Roman empire, followed by a Austro-Hungarian empire, followed by a German Empire with a Kaiser at its head. Correct me if I’m wrong.

      The idea that direct political influence is the only way that a composer, or anyone for that matter, interacts ideologically with society is breathtakingly naive.

      Decolonizing, in the broad sense of examining eurocentric assumptions, is far from grotesque. The ‘canon ‘and attitudes to it are not set in stone, and never were.

      • MWnyc says:

        “Decolonizing, in the broad sense of examining eurocentric assumptions, is far from grotesque.”

        That’s the first time I’ve seen decolonizing defined that way.

        If — when — that’s what decolonizing is, I can’t see much of a problem with it.

        • Marfisa says:

          Fair enough, I stand rebuked. Of course ‘decolonize’ has a specific meaning relating to indigenous peoples, and the way it has crept metaphorically into other areas is unhelpful. But it is not, as many people (including Borstlap?) seem to think, code for ‘Cancel Beethoven’.

        • V. Lind says:

          I can. what the hell is wrong with Europe being Eurocentric? You think China is not sinocentric?

          Decolonising in its current form seems to mean erasing mostly European achievement and promoting people who are not of strictly European stock whether they qualify for promotion or not. (This done by defining standards of qualification as, of course, colonialist).

          This is not digging into canons and repertoires and finding non-white contributions and moving them forward for inclusion in said canons and repertoires. It is revisionist, year zero thinking, which saw people packed off to re-education camps for having a brain in their head, or being declared non-persons if they sought exposure to a wider world. And some very nasty and discredited regimes were behind these initiatives, which makes the McCarthy blacklists look almost benign.

          I HATE pretendism. Colonialism was. Imperialism was. Slavery was. Aside from the latter, there are many facets to what has happened in history, and we should be acknowledging the good as well as the bad. Brits may have been looking down their noses at the natives in India, but continents away, Bach was writing the St Matthew Passion.

          • Magda Slater says:

            Revisionism has its rewards.

            It’s good that Africans are finally standing up for themselves and reclaiming what Judaism stole from them.

          • Marfisa says:

            @V. Lind. Bach was writing the St Matthew Passion in the 1720s, at a time when British involvement in India was limited to a few trading posts.

            Are you really against examining Eurocentric assumptions? ‘My country, right or wrong’? I am disappointed; your comments usually suggest a sincere interest in the intellectual search for truth.

            But let us reconsider Christianity, in relation to the parts of the world colonised by Europeans. Bach in his passions and church cantatas gives profound musical expression to that religion. Should we therefore close our minds to its dark side – the fundamental anti-semitism, the enforced conversions of ‘pagans’? All this is part of the current interest in ‘decolonizing’, which of course in its extreme form is detestable. But the mindless polemic in these comments is against that extreme (Handel held shares in the Royal African Country – therefore Handel’s music should no longer be played), to avoid facing uncomfortable truths about European history and certain of its cultural norms.

          • V. Lind says:

            Of course I am not averse to re-examining Eurocentric assumptions, and I am utterly opposed to any “my country right or wrong” attitudes. I recently got into a rather delicate argument with Helen Kamioner on this very subject.

            What I object to is the imposition of 21st century attitudes — and I mean attitudes, not discoveries — upon people who lived centuries ago. Do I think colonialism and imperialism were bad? Well, yes and no. I think man must explore — and I think many of the colonising attitudes began as well- intentioned — more developed systems thinking that bringing their ways to other lands was for common good. Were they right? That’s a legitimate question, with the prevailing belief today being that they were not, and with much evidence.

            Obviously, such an attitude — a socio-political attitude — bred arrogance, a sense of superiority and, ultimately, a sense that the”others” — whose lands and cultures were being invaded — were less human than they were. And the ultimate expression of that was the development of the slave trade.

            It has taken a very long time for western former imperialist cultures to recognise that they were ignoring the genuine achievements, let alone the humanity, of the conquered peoples. Much is being done to try to reverse that, and to atone for it, from granting independence to reconciliation commissions to equal rights laws. It will take a long time, and even longer for some attitudes to change so that the paper-thin “acceptance” of others is a true good will toward those not made just like us. (Just read some of the BTL comments in The Spectator some time to get a chilling look at what some elements of UK society really feel about minorities of any persuasion).

            But I do not think looking at the lives and work of people like Beethoven and Bach or Shakespeare or John Donne or Alexandre Dumas or Miguel de Cervantes should be done through the mirror of BLM, a movement driven by a systemic attitude to black people by American police.

            I seriously doubt that these artists necessarily considered anything other than whatever faiths or inspirations from nature or their love lives in making their art.

            When we discover attitudes that are just wrong — Wagner’s anti-Semitism (which was probably no worse than that of many others, but his musical interests were to coincide many years later with a madman with mania, making him the poster-boy for that reprehensible attitude) — we publish them, and think about that in context. But we do not erase the music. These anti-Semites — and those who entered, however passively, into the slave trade — were informed by the Bible, and heavily by its Christian interpreters and promulgators. And so were the colonialists.

            These are complex questions, and bear continuing re-examination. But we have come a long way on that path already, and must keep travelling it. The Catholic Church still has a lot to answer for, but has been a vital force in ecumenism and reconciliation of faiths.

            All I basically want is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and not to judge people who lived hundreds of years ago on values we hold today. I want neglected work by minorities to be found and evaluated, and I want positions in every walk of life opened to all who wish to apply for them. I would rather see a majority black or female orchestra than a glut of “Diversity officers.”

            But although there is much in the past that we must eschew, there is also much of which to be proud. I DO resent the notion that we must not just look back in anger, but in shame. Europe, in the sense that “eurocentric” is meant, has contributed far too much to the progression of the world for it to be erased.

      • Che? says:

        What are these eurocentric assumptions? What is colonial about a sarabande from a bach cello suite? Or imperialistic in a mozart piano concerto?

        • Marfisa says:

          Che? “A sarabande is a dance that originated in Central America back in the sixteenth century. It became popular in the Spanish colonies before making its way to Europe. At first, it was regarded as being rather scandalous, even being banned in Spain for its obscenity. Baroque composers, such as Handel, adopted the sarabande as one of the movements for the suites they were writing at the time.”

          (Though its origins may, instead, be Arabic, in which case it crossed the Atlantic twice.)

          You did ask. A good example of a Eurocentric assumption is that the sarabande is a European dance-form. And is there not a Turkish march in a Mozart piano concerto? Might that not reflect imperialist attitudes, between one empire and another?

          • Che? says:

            Dear Marfisa, I meant musically, the psychological substance of the music, how is that affected by the geographical origin of a name? Do you think a single sarabande Bach wrote has anything material to do with central america, or any gigue with England, any corrente with Italy? Etc. Even limit this simply to Bach – what can any colonial study tell us about listening to his music, not as political agents, but as mortal men and women, who could have been born anywhere, any time? Could not these studies be motivated by a lack of interest in essential humanity itself? Or even a personal lack of humanity? Is that not a poverty as profound in cause, as any colonial atrocity was in effect? An invisible poverty, the kind that convinced jesus to speak in parables, a talent I lack.

          • Marfisa says:

            Che?, I do appreciate and agree in part with your thoughtful reply. I just think we can do both at once – immerse ourselves in the pure music, and take an interest in the cultural and social milieu in which it was produced. (And yes, I think it not unlikely that Bach was intellectually aware of the diverse national origins of dance music – as his contemporary Telemann certainly was – and that means there is no harm in us also thinking about it [though whether the Central American zarabanda was in his mind is dubious!].)

          • Che? says:

            Marfisa, I agree we should be interested in cultural and social history, as well as the music taken by itself. I don’t believe however that they should be considered equally. It is like mistaking the clothes for the person, however interesting or awful the clothes are. This seems to be part of a larger value judgement in modern humanities which takes the collective as more fundamental than the individual, although the controversy is at least as old as Plato & Aristotle. I would say art is strongly on the side of the individual, it seems the incredible ability of music to make this experience a social event – hence it is exposed to its own kinds of shallowness, the history of opera, nationalism, most current music etc. the majority (of music & of humanity) has to be taken with a very ample pinch of salt, but modern academics strive to treat everything equally, as if science or democracy made that ideological stance obvious, whereas as it seems fundamentally trivial to me.

          • Eric B Rasmusen says:

            There we have a testable theory: that European empires liked music from other empires, e.g. the Ottoman Empire. But the sarabande seems to go contrary to the theory. Was it from the Aztec empire, or jsut from Panama? If from Panama, it was not imperialistic music, yet the European empires liked it. What other music did they like? Gypsy music, which is not imperial; but not Chinese music, which was. I conclude that they just liked music that was fun to dance to.

          • Che? says:

            Alas, monsieur Eric, what if, unknowingly, the very thing we call – fun – is itself only one more artifact of a systemic imperialistic patriarchal white supremacist nightmare contaminating all spheres and modes of experience? Thank saint Foucault, and the other martyrs of Paris, for bequeathing to us the weapons of subversion, (I’m thinking particularly of the very powerful tool that is environmental-gender-neutral-para-psychological-hermeneutic-applied-topology), and blesséd be deconstruction – to stand some chance of surviving this priapic penitentiary we call the West. Be vigilant.

      • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

        Yes, you are wrong. The so-called Austrian-Hungarian Empire was so enmeshed with the Holy Roman Empire as to be at times one general concept. The German is hardly more than a joke set up by people who late in the empire game decided they wanted a piece of the action fir their physically compromised “Emperor.” And of course there is the American Empire, not to mention the Empire State, much resented by the little ol’ Garden State.

        • Barbara Eichner says:

          Your chronology is seriously muddled. The Holy Roman Empire (not an empire in the modern sense) ended in 1806. The former HR Emperor became the Austrian Emperor, but thete was no Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1867, four years before the German Empire was founded.

  • Alan says:

    Well said and we’ll done!

  • Tribonian says:

    A brave and honourable decision from a true scholar. I wish him the very best for the future.

  • Ich bin Ereignis says:

    Our entire epoch is dogmatic. The ultimate expression of its dogmaticism is a pernicious and universal peer pressure to parrot memes dictated by the current Zeitgeist. There is no more genuine thought — only memes repeated ad nauseam to the point of obsessiveness, mostly in order to soothe and comfort others, as well as give oneself a good conscience. It’s all a sham, and this courageous professor probably decided to leave the field when he realized what a travesty it would be to attempt to continue under such conditions. The pursuit of truth no longer matters; one is now expected to be no more than a mouthpiece for pre-packaged “ideas” well scripted in advance and never deviate from the norm. The irony is that such dogmaticism actually presents itself as critical thought, when it could not even begin to fathom what critical thought even means.

  • Monty Earleman says:

    The real problem is that music history- knowledge of which is extremely useful to musicians- was at some point replaced by “musicology”, which has nothing to do with music.

  • K says:

    “He has made an honourable decision.” I will not disagree about the merits of his conclusions, but if he retreats/exits the playing field, then the other side wins by assuming a concession. There must be a way to present counter arguments without actually starting more conflicts. I certainly hope that he will have success in his post-academic life, if that’s what is next, but part of me wishes he had continued making contributions, as he sees fit, in his retired position.

  • Marfisa says:

    It is worth reading the full letter, which SD kindly gives a link to, if only to check whether the headline represents it accurately. It is also worth reading a recent articleof his, available online, “How We Got Out of Music History, and How We Can Get Back into It” (you will need to google the title to find the site).

  • Pauline Frank says:

    An observation: lots more resignations and retirements will be forthcoming. I am sure it will make many happy. Presidents, deans, chairs, CEOs, etc., will be stepping down because they are afraid that anything they say might offend someone who will then accuse them of something. All it takes is for someone to make a public accusation and then it becomes true, including being made to “feel unsafe,” “power hoarding,” and being a center of White power because you simply don’t exactly agree with the dogma or approaches of an emergent movement. Maybe it’s a good thing? It’s hard to tell, but I wouldn’t want to be one of those leaders at the moment and hope they’ve saved for retirement.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    He should stay and fight instead.

    • Julien says:

      From what I read, this gentleman is a dogmatic leftist, which makes him an unlikely candidate to counter the woke barbarians. But pushback against those people is necessary (and against the authoritarian right too : two sides of the same illiberal, dogmatic and dangerous coin).

  • Musicologist says:

    This conservative Harper-Scott love-in is hilarious. How many of you have actually read any of his recent work?

    He is an avowed Marxist, and a lot of his writing would have the SD regulars – who are suspicious of any academic activity beyond editing scores and writing lives of great composers – spitting blood.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I agree. I just read his own descriptions of his book ‘The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism’ and I wonder what is worse: this quasi-highbrow nonsense or woke pathology.

      He looks at music through the distorting glasses of a political agenda, like Foucault, and thus arguing according to the stale and misconceived blah-bla of Schoenberg and his theoretical postwar following, modernism as the gospel of liberation from bourgeois suppression, capitalist exploitation, etc. and therefore a ‘Truth event’ – with a capital T.

      Radom quote:

      “Chapter 4 outlines the theoretical basis of the book’s dialectical definition of modernism in terms of faithful, reactive, and obscure subjective responses to the truth-Event of modernism. It offers an exposition of Badiou’s theory of the subject in Logics of Worlds (2009), which is then explained in musical terms. It defends an insistence on emancipation of dissonance as the essential foundation of all subjective responses to modernism, on grounds that it constitutes the most significant revolution in musical metaphysics since at least the time of Ancient Greece.”

      Smell the Nietzschian attempt at totalitarian domination. What an ambition! Is looking for truth not enough for a musicologist?

      Badiou is a self-proclaimed communist arguing for ‘a return of communism as a political force’.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Badiou

      Harper-Scott is under the delusion that dissonance in music is something that can be emancipated, which betrays his lack of understanding the dynamics of music, quite embarrassing for a musicologist. Namely, ‘dissonance’ is a characteristic of a relationship and entirely dependent upon context, which means that it is not an entity, a thing, or a person, that can be emancipated – the formulation is meaningless.

      Another quote:

      “The final chapter clarifies the relation of Badiou’s four ‘conditions’ of philosophy – love, politics, art, and science – to the new theory of modernism. It suggests, with the aid of Heidegger’s idea of ‘dwelling’, a praxis for a critique of techno-capitalist ideology that draws on the Ereignis or happening/appropriation of truth in artworks.”

      How can someone who thinks dissonance is something to be emancipated, and that you can read political reactions in the music of Walton with the help of Schenkerian analysis, talk about ‘truth’ in artworks?

      Etc. etc….. This kind of people, without understanding of the art form, should not be let loose on innocent students who want to understand the art of classical music. So, I would say H-P’s withdrawel is not a great loss.

      • Marfisa says:

        Well, you’ve just proved Musicologist right!

      • Larry W says:

        In Stavinsky’s words, dissonance “is no longer tied down to its former function” but has become an entity in itself. Thus “it frequently happens that dissonance neither prepares nor anticipates anything. Dissonance is thus no more an agent of disorder than consonance is a guarantee of security.” He is describing the “emancipation of dissonance.”

        Clearly, Prof. Harper-Scott is in good company, while you only speak for yourself, John.

        • John Borstlap says:

          This is silly. There does not exist ‘a dissonance’, it is not an entity, it is a relationship. This is not a personal opinion but an accepted description among the better minds of musicology (see Roger Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Music’, OUP). S was under the influence of Schoenbergian Robert Craft. The same ‘dissonant’ combination of notes can be dissonant in one style and consonant in another (compare seconds in Mozart with seconds in Debussy). Stravinsky was no authority on musicological matters.

          • Larry W says:

            Of course dissonance is relative. Time was a minor triad was considered dissonant. But you really should be more precise when discussing seconds. Debussy used major seconds, also called wholetones. But no longer is there a general principal that determines whether a chord is stable or not. It is now entirely up to the composer’s discretion. “We find ourself confronted with a new logic of music that would have appeared unthinkable to the masters of the past,” wrote Stravinsky. “This new logic has opened our eyes to riches whose existence we never suspected.” No authority? Poor Igor had no idea how little he knew. He coulda been great.

          • John Borstlap says:

            The ‘logic’ of the dynamics of tonal relationships is a flexible one, and its field is a continuum of styles. The ‘masters of the past’ never used a fixed orthodoxy of tonal rules, they had their ears and understanding of the dynamics and of style. The idea that ‘we were confronted with a new logic of music’ is academic posturizing and comes from Schoenberg c.s. who had an academic streak, no serious composer before and after him was an academic and did suffer from such notions.

      • Musikmann3.0 says:

        Blimey, I hope he didn’t give lectures like he writes, if I were one of his students I’d not have had a clue what he was talking about most of the time.

  • MWnyc says:

    “Nineteenth-century musical works were the product of an imperial society. The classical musical canon must be decolonised.”

    Seems to me that just about every civilization that developed serious art music was (at some points in its history, at least) an imperial civilization.

  • Lee says:

    This ‘woke’ crowd resembles more of Hitler’s characteristics than any of a free thinking, or truly intellectual crowd. ‘Sheeple’ I think one of the terms is

  • anon says:

    the Society for Music Theory has condemned anti-Asian violence and a Jewish musicologist for supposedly racist comments, but they have not condemned anti-Semitic violence. Anti-Semitic violence has increased this year, and it is as much of a problem in the United States as anti-Asian violence. I wonder why SMT has not condemned anti-Semitic violence? Any guesses?

  • M McAlpine says:

    I cannot see how you can ‘decolonise’ music without getting rid of the music itself. I wish these idiots would shut up and return to the asylum.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In 2019 five wokes were sent to an asylum in Dorset, after they had tried to decolonize a tea shop in Bunbury. But they began decolonizing the asylum, resulting in them being let free after only three months, after which the building was taken down for having been built in1902. It is infective.

  • Haydn70 says:

    One less Marxist clown in academia…good riddance!

  • Musikmann3.0 says:

    Ok, now I’m starting to get a bit worried.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Nobody cares. Orchestras and chamber groups and opera companies will go on performing Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Dvorak, Verdi, etc., etc. – composers who are now considered guilty by association to a Europe that was becoming increasingly colonial, nationalistic and bellicose. The problem is, these guys wrote great melodies, rich harmonies and could orchestrate fabulously with the latest orchestral tools and practices available to them. Proof positive that both good and bad things can happen within the same time period.

    • John Borstlap says:

      On top of that, they had not the slightest responsibility for the wrongdoings of the society they found themselves in.

  • The Goethe Institute in Berlin hosted a symposium entitled Decolonizing Classical Music:

    https://www.goethe.de/en/kul/mus/obe/21955573.html

    Some useful ideas and perspectives were discussed. Classical music carries around a lot of baggage we prefer to overlook. One thinks of the Vienna Phil’s ongoing exclusion of Asians, or that it didn’t admit its first woman member aside from harpists until 2007. Many commenters here quickly pretend they don’t see anything…

    Imperial and racist views inevitably walked hand-in-hand. The Vienna and Berlin Philharmoncs were used as major propganda organs during the Third Reich. They became symbols of Germanic racial purity. This was advocated by the Kampfbund der deutsche Kuenstler (Fighting Group for German Artists) during the Third Reich:

    “Since we do not value, that a watered down internationalism is identified with German artistic genius, we must require, that in the future German art is represented abroad only by German artists, that carry in their person and their attitude of mind the seal of the purest Germaness.”

    Many are thus happy to see the Goethe Institute in Berlin addressing these issues. (Something less likely in Munich or Vienna.)

    In the German-speaking world and beyond, concepts of race and cultural superiority still haunt the artform. I think of a current SD post about the financial problems of the San Antonio Symphony and the many commenters who superficially associated it with the racial demographics of the city. It’s good that scholars in our universities are examining these issues.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Classical music carries around a lot of baggage we prefer to overlook.”

      There is a difference between the music and the activities / ideas of people practicing it. They change all the time.

      Where to begin? Well….

  • CRogers says:

    All these comments are institutionalised. It’s an elite club hat doesn’t communicate anything to th general intelligent, interested reader, music goer.

  • Gustavo says:

    The neo-nationalism spurring Brexit seems to have provoked these “over-woked” dogmatic reactions that attempt to counter-balance the cheeky cries of the populists who split the nation at it’s root.

    The pile of broken glass is gigantic.

    The general lack of culture is a widespread disease that is only exacerbated by political bickering.

  • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

    I resigned from musicology because of these same reasons and more. The more musicologists there were, the less musical scholars there were. Sex was something you did, not talked about. I’m not at all convinced that poking around in the private lives of composers (which, de facto, means the private lives of the composers, etc, whose private lives we know about) contributes anything to musicology. Does knowing that Proust was homosexual mean anything to the writing of Proust other than that he was homosexual, that he tells us a good deal about “in the life,” or that he gave some furniture to a male whore house? Musicologists like Johannes Wolf or Willi Apel, for whom I worked for many years and as well lived in his house, were people who literally loved musicology. Many of the so-called musicologists today are not even gebildete Leute let alone scholars. They’re small-minded people with limited ability as scholars whose mediocrity carries them to what I call “democratic” successes. There are also changes in the world of so-called Classical music.
    Some of my stuff:
    JAMS (1978), 1
    MQ (1969), 369

  • John says:

    Modern medicine also has its roots in colonial societies. But you notice, the ‘woke’ don’t dismiss that when they’re sick.

  • Tiger Tiger burning bright says:

    And who are you to judge the impact of any individual’s action, really?

  • It’s difficult to disagree with the statement quoted. If all art and culture ever created under imperial states were to be cancelled, we’d have very little to look at or listen to.

  • Rob says:

    I greatly admire Harper-Scott. It’s horrible that he felt he had less relevance in the dogmatic approach to decolonisation that is being practiced. We live in a communal age now, and for too many quarters in that age the rallying cry is “you’re either with us or against us.” As Camus said, “The colour of truth is grey.”

  • Couperin says:

    I would quit this bro’s “music theory” class in a heartbeat if he started bringing up Zizek!!

  • Alviano says:

    I’d love to know what he does next. Although I am sure he believes everything he writes, I think there is something else going on here too.

  • horbus rohebian says:

    Let us demineralise water! Away with that nasty calcium which so corrupts the senses, addles the brain and contributes to white racism….(good for him incidentally, a principled man sick to the back teeth of a culture which mollycoddles students and fears honest debate).

  • I read books says:

    To those jumping on the anti-woke bandwagon: the author is actually an advocate of decolonisation, with a clear sense of what a decolonised university music course should be like – enlarged to include other perspectives, not reduced. His gripe is, I believe, more with the lack of nuance and critical thought with which decolonisation is often advocated.

  • I spend a lot of time “in” the 19th century. They have a lot to teach us. We in the 21st haven’t much to be smug about.

  • Who among the debunkers and ‘decolonisers’ of 19th-century music would dare to try to hold their own in a conversation with Franz Liszt—to accuse him to his face of a narrow, monolithic viewpoint? A man who spent his childhood in multi-ethnic Hungary, among Magyars and magnates, Turks, Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics and Jews—who traveled from St. Petersburg to Constantinople, from Paris and London to Weimar and Rome? The languages he spoke, the books he read (and wrote), his knowledge of art, his comprehensive understanding of music, historical and contemporary, and his unparalleled ability to perform it. The people he met, from tsars and sultans and kings to peasants and beggars—the writers, the painters, the philosophers, composers and virtuosi, the politicians and generals and priests in whose circles he shone… A charismatic “rockstar” named after St. Francis, with a spiritual life that led him to take the minor orders of the Catholic Church… A transformative genius who began his life on the Esterházy sheep farms and grew up to live with a princess—who, even in old age, continued to travel 4,000 miles a year by coach and train and steamship. A world-renowned teacher and a generous philanthropist. A critic of musical conservatism and a champion of Wagner. A pathbreaking futurist composer who, as a national hero also wrote Hungarian music in traditional forms. An artist of immense influence on those who studied with him, those who quarreled with him, and those who followed him.

    Oh, no… he knew nothing about humanity—and he has nothing to teach us.

  • Allen says:

    Why stop at music, surely science must be decolonised? After all, scientific advances in navigation, transport, weaponry etc made colonisation easier and even possible. Music’s contribution ranged from negligible to non existent.

    This, of course, would be highly inconvenient, so it is quietly and dishonestly ignored.

    Never ending BS.

  • I see that somebody besides myself is reading Coriolanus these days. It really ought to be as well known as Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

    • V. Lind says:

      I wrote a paper on it in university, and compared it to Brecht’s Coriolan and examined them in the context of Grass’ The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. Wish I could find that paper now — I forget what my own conclusions were, at age 20, and I wonder if I would share them in today’s climate. But I remember it was all to do with attitudes to the mob.

  • Marfisa says:

    The right-wing buzz-word ‘woke’ is not used by Harper-Scott. Why is it not possible to treat the important issues he raises seriously, without reducing the discussion to gutter-press level and provoking the old, well-trodden, silly, predictable reactions from (sadly) the majority of your commenters?

  • Max Raimi says:

    My wife and I recently spent a long weekend in Virginia, staying in Charlottesville and visiting the nearby homes of three early Presidents—Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison. We were enormously impressed with the staff at each of these sites, and loved listening to what they had to say.

    It seems to me that the real challenge of presenting the story of the so-called “Founding Fathers” is not so much getting the story right, but recognizing that it is of no use to think of them in terms of “the story”. There are innumerable stories, which often collide with and seem to contradict each other, and I was astonished by the skill with which the scholars we met there were able to give all the narratives their due.

    I was brought up on the heroic narrative about these men; they were freedom-loving visionaries who bravely stood in the face of tyranny and forged a nation with their ideas that is a model for the world. Increasingly a very different narrative has come to challenge it, that these men were misogynist racists who enslaved and raped their fellow human beings. Their paeans to liberty were rank hypocrisy in the face of their monstrous actions, their purported belief in equality mere lip service, a cover for their efforts to maintain the supremacy of White males.

    To some extent, the recent battles over the “1619” and “1776” manifestos that are being played out across our political divide are an argument as to which of these stories is the true one. I would argue that this misses the point to some extent. Is it not possible that both narratives, notwithstanding the cognitive dissonance required to believe them both, are essentially true, that these men were both monsters and also brilliant idealists who accomplished something extraordinary?

    The presentations we saw at the homes of these Presidents certainly did not sugarcoat their culpability, striving with great success to depict the enslaved people at these sites as three-dimensional characters. We were able to see them as fellow human beings who suffered inexcusably. All three of these Presidents treated those they enslaved appallingly.
    But still. What they achieved was miraculous. They created the first government founded on Enlightenment principles, with a mechanism that allowed for increasing democratic participation, utterly free of religious dogma. And they essentially created it out of whole cloth, with no particularly relevant precedents to guide them.

    I am not one to fetishize the Constitution, and I think the “Original Intent” people are basically creating an idolatry around these men as a means to consolidate and maintain economic and political privilege. I find it impossible to read the Constitution (which I make a point of doing each July 4) without being struck by its miscalculations, notwithstanding my great admiration for it. It was the result of a lot of hard-fought compromises, bringing to mind Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “compromise” in The Devil’s Dictionary: “Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.”

    And yet, the fact remains that there has now been well over two centuries of more or less democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power in our nation, time after time. No other political system, as far as I know, has ever achieved this. Indeed, the attempt to break this string last January was to a great extent defeated by the safeguards envisioned by these long-dead White guys. I recognize that this story is all but impossible to reconcile with the appalling inhumanity with which they conducted so much of their lives, but that does not make it invalid.

    Which brings us to the issues that precipitated Mr. Harper-Scott’s change of careers. There has been a long overdue movement to make classical music more diverse and inclusive in recent years. One unfortunate side effect of this, however, has been the growing chorus of voices he cites denigrating the composers in our canon, and the culture that spawned them. In a notorious manifesto covered on this site, the musicologist Philip Ewell wrote “Beethoven was an above average composer—let’s leave it at that.” He argued that our veneration for Beethoven comes out of a racist and misogynist need to elevate White men, and is completely out of proportion to the quality of his music.

    After James Levine died, somebody posted on a friend’s Facebook page, “The so-called ‘greatness’ of musicians like Levine and Wagner is a direct result of the free passes they got on being rapists, or anti-Semites, and that ‘greatness’ came at the direct expense of the demographics they harmed. They were not born with such ‘greatness’ inside that they succeeded *despite* their abhorrent characters; they succeeded for the same reason that they got those free passes in the first place – namely, that they were white men with status quo appeal, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right connections. In other words, their despicable behaviours AND their successes are actually just two different symptoms of a much bigger, systemic sickness in the classical music world, that doles out resources, reputation and opportunity on the basis of a whole lot of things other than merit.”

    The poster went on to argue that we can be certain that there were innumerable other composers just as good as those we now revere in Europe at the time. They have remained unknown to us, the poster argued, because a racist and misogynist power structure requires the concept of genius (which the poster derided as “idiocy”) to maintain its hegemony.
    In a later discussion, this poster wrote that “greatness is a construct”, that the esteem in which we hold the canonical composers is essentially a structure erected to keep current women and people of color down in the world of classical music.

    My friend on whose Facebook page these arguments unfolded made a characteristically wise observation: “I like Robert Pirsig’s idea about Quality in *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance*. Quality is not in the music, it’s not in the listener; quality in the interaction between the two. Quality not a characteristic of a work; it is an experience.

    As I see it, a quality experience happens partly because the music is created to foster high-quality interaction, and partly because listeners are able to co-create quality with that music. A listener’s ability to co-create quality comes partly through inborn ability to hear and respond, and partly through acculturation—learning to respond to the musical signals of a particular culture, and learning the culture’s priorities.”

    As with Jefferson and his contemporaries, there are a number of conflicting stories simultaneously at play in classical music. Our core repertoire emerged out of a world that did not regard women as anything like equals, and didn’t often acknowledge the humanity of people of color. It came out of the Age of Empire, when the European powers assiduously went about the task of enslaving and plundering the rest of the world. There was a stultifying overlay of class and privilege that severely restricted who could take part as performers, composers, and even listeners.

    But there is another story too, I would argue. Out of that rather problematic world emerged a body of work that ranks among the greatest beauty ever created by humankind. Believe me, I wish Beethoven’s music wasn’t so much better than mine. Lord knows I try. I struggle to touch the heart of my listeners in anything like the way that Schubert does, to conjure out of the orchestra vivid sound worlds as brilliantly executed as Berlioz, to come up with my own harmonic and structural schemes that are in remotely the same league as those of Bela Bartok. And so on.

    The extraordinary music that came out of Europe over the course of a couple of centuries was a freak occurrence, comparable perhaps to what happened in art in Renaissance Italy, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, and no doubt in a number of other places lost in the sands of time.

    If you only accept the validity of the first story, that the classical music of the past is a story of racism, misogyny, and class privilege, then your interaction with it will no doubt lack the “quality” that my friend so perceptively referred to. The listener who only accepts that story cannot forge a “high quality interaction” with the old masterworks. Wagner still cannot seem to get any traction in Israel. Too many of the listeners see his story as wholly one of proto-Nazism, and are in no state to perceive what is going on in the music itself; that is a story they prefer not to be told. And I would argue that this is the case with so many who deride the great classical music of the past. The story they tell themselves makes them unable to truly hear it. They can’t accept that there are other stories as well, very much in conflict with the entirely valid story they accept, but nonetheless just as true.

    Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it:
    https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6581945-chrono-synclastic-infundibula-just-imagine-that-your-daddy-is-the-smartest-man

  • Klaus Wachsmann says:

    No the “academic world” is not “shocked” over the petulant behavior of a minor scholar of even more minor music. Angry white man having a tantrum is not news. Good riddance bro, maybe someone who sees the future more clearly can have your job.

    • John says:

      Had you read H-S’s letter, you could not have arrived at the conclusion that he is petulant. You prove his point that discourse has become dogmatic and does not admit diversity of opinion. He did not bring his race into the discussion; you did.

  • John says:

    I actually have an M.Mus from RHUL. It was there that I realised that musicology had become a narcissistic pseudo-intellectual drain on funding that should be going directly to the arts. You know, the people who write and play music, for example.
    However, for those whose geography is a bit weak, classical music is central to European culture. Teaching and studying it in Europe is not colonialism and does not need to be decolonised (whatever thatactually means anyway). Okay?

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