Ethics Alarms’ resident musician has a fascinating Comment of the Day humming with informative observations, and best of all, it has nothing to do with the Wuhan Virus vaccine
Here is David Rohde on the post “‘Kill A Western Cultural Institution, Wear Its Skin: The Case of Classical Music”…
Jack, it makes perfect sense that you bring Heather Mac Donald’s very long, two-part screed to your readers’ attention. It’s gotten a lot of notice in the music world. Personally I respect Ms. Mac Donald’s place in the overall cultural and political discussion, whether I agree with her writings or not. I’ve noted either her research or simply her references to the variables of two-parent families and basic levels of educational attainment as fundamental explainers of personal achievement, independent of ethnic background. Her views are part of the overall discussion in America today, or should be.
All that said, her big article about classical music is flawed in at least three ways. Here are those issues:
1. A lot of the article confuses music with musicology. The latter field has been kind of nuts for a while, extending way back before last year. The principal educators of today’s and tomorrow’s performing artists are not theoretical musicologists. They’re a combination of distinguished performers themselves and effective pedagogues, often combined in the same person. I’m not going to excuse some of the crazier things that have recently come out of Juilliard and elsewhere, but conservatory education remains very rigorous and performance-focused, indeed arguably too much so given the supply-demand imbalance for classical music talent.
2. The article is not really fair to the Sphinx Organization. One of the things that Sphinx does is to deal with the same overwhelming problem of expenses for families of limited means that you see in sports such as baseball and soccer. This time of year they bring in, for example, string players – yes “black and brown” ones – to top schools and institutions for intensive education and opportunity for rehearsal and performance experience. An example of someone who came out of the Sphinx Organization is the fantastic violinist Melissa White – yes that’s her name. Melissa has performed in our region at the Phillips Collection in D.C. and the Richmond Symphony, and she has numerous recordings to her name with the Harlem Quartet (which actually performs a huge range of traditional classical and other, adventurous music). And as you know, I believe it is completely valid to assert that, just as in other fields of employment, classical music employers should assess the whole person and what they can bring to an institution, even if their performance chops are obviously the primary criterion.
3. The article spends some time asserting the supposed relative mediocrity of such newly fashionable composers as Joseph Boulogne and Florence Price and bewails their widespread inclusion in coming programs. I’ll add to those composer names William Grant Still (whom she does like) because I wasn’t aware that he was programmed nearly as much before this year as she says. I agree with Mac Donald’s opinion on some of these composers and not others. But the question for her is: Compared to what? For years, indeed decades, symphony orchestras have inflicted the most unbelievable dreck on their audiences and lionized it as “new music,” often absurdly hyped as “World Premieres.” Most commonly the composers of this garbage are older white guys with their own sinecures in music departments of private and state universities.
If you don’t believe me, ask any symphony section member who’s had to prepare this stuff only to throw it away later, or any emerging pianist or violinist on the competition circuit who has had to learn many “compulsory” compositions just to titillate the judges – excuse me, “juries” – of these competitions, with nothing of value to take away from it later. Give me Price or Still or any of the many other forgotten musical riches of my own country, including several minority groups, any time over that.
Of course I do find extremely funny and ironic some of the incidents that Mac Donald brings up even beyond what she observed. Tonal music as unfairly privileging the majority culture? Well, that would wipe out every R&B song ever written. In fact, I’ve long found the predominance of tonality in pop and rock music and the predominance of atonality in lots of “serious” contemporary music one of the great cultural ironies of our time, when you think about it.
Finally, a note about “Beethoven.” I’m putting that name in quotes to indicate that I’m not so much speaking about the historical individual but rather the persistent tendency to name him as the totemic example of “classical music.” I am not questioning that Beethoven’s body of work is one of the signal achievements of Western civilization, and absorbing it over a lifetime brilliantly enriches one’s own cultural appreciation for the aesthetics of life and the universe. However, I feel strongly that the tendency of people to direct people to Beethoven to get started with classical music appreciation is a mistake. Much of his work requires patience and an eventual understanding of musical structure, and long passages of his music outside of this understanding are boring. Even the ridiculous whistling mockery over the PA system at Yankee Stadium when one of the Red Sox (okay, or any other opponent) strikes out is only the first half of the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony – they can’t get through the whole eight notes.
This is a theme I’ve taken up in some of my writings. Again, since I believe this crowd is okay with articles from The Federalist, check out my article there in May, “Rock Out To Russian Classical Music With This Metallica-Inspired Guitarist.” Or just remember to start off the teenager of your choice on classical music with Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Shostakovich, not Beethoven. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s the link.