Comment Of The Day: “‘Kill A Western Cultural Institution, Wear Its Skin’: The Case of Classical Music”

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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”

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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.

14 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “‘Kill A Western Cultural Institution, Wear Its Skin’: The Case of Classical Music”

  1. Quick comments:

    1. I don’t think it’s fair to term Mac Donald’s work a “screed,” which is defined as a long written work that is tedious. It’s a work of serious research on what you would agree is a complex topic.I tend to use screed to describe intellectually dishonest advocacy. Having a point of view doesn’t make an article a “screed.”

    2. Your perspective from the music world view is valuable, but it tends to miss the larger issue that Mac Donald is concerned with, mass, wide ranging attacks on all Western institutions as part of general, culture- and values-erasing strategy absurdly triggered by the George Floyd tragedy.

    3. I never associated that mocking whistle in Yankee Stadium with the Fifth. But of course you are right.

    4. Prokofiev, depending on how I’m feeling, may be my favorite classical composer. But he is the classical composer most kids are exposed to first, through his very atypical “Peter and the Wolf.,” which I was thoroughly sick of by the time I was 10. “Fantasia”—is it politically incorrect yet?—was the other early introduction to classical music for kids when I was one.As a dinosaur nerd, that got me hooked on Stravinsky before I knew who Mozart was. I was also sick of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” before I ever saw the whole film, as “Disneyland” showed it repeatedly. Dukas really didn’t belong in the crowd.

    • Wow, “resident musician” of Ethics Alarms. Whaddaya doing, you trying to kill me here? 🙂

      Thanks for your fine acknowledgement and comments back. In your usual style:

      1. I called it a screed – sure, maybe a little bit of a reach – because I’m familiar with Heather Mac Donald’s obsessive rhetorical style. She has a way of collecting material that’s a little irritating, i.e., she reached somebody which proves something, she failed to reach someone else which magically proves exactly the same thing, and so on. I mean, what is this: “Opera singers—such as Pretty Yende, Angel Blue, and Julia Bullock, all enormously talented in their own right—have enjoyed an extra boost to their careers from being black, according to a former opera executive.” First of all, some unnamed “Former Opera Executive” – that’s straight out of National Enquirer, which lives off of alleged “formers.” And are they excellent singers or not? I know the first and third names there, and I’ve seen Julia Bullock not just on stage but in a solo recital, and you lost me if you have a professional problem with any them, including Bullock’s special skill of expanding the repertoire from classical to popular to things unearthed, exactly what we need now. Since some of Mac Donald’s points are valid, why dig unnecessary holes next to them?

      2. Likewise, Mac Donald’s “larger issue” beyond music doesn’t make any of the specifics more or less true, unless you’re referring to the overall trend in a lot of musicology, which was already going that way, as I mentioned.

      3. Right, the mocking theme at Yankee Stadium is especially stupid because the Fifth Symphony is in C minor but if you just play the first half of the famous opening as they do, it sounds like it’s in a major key (because the upper half of a minor triad is actually a major third). Sorry for the theory but that’s what they’re intending and why it fails. Of course the Yankees only won one World Series under my fellow Northwestern grad Joe Girardi, so what do you want from them? Besides, nothing in baseball is nearly as pathetic as those horrible clanging noises that come out of the PA system at Dodger Stadium, and they went 32 years between World Series victories despite having their own currency printing press in hundred-thousand minimums behind the home dugout.

      4. You and I share the same favorite “classical” composer and so does Andrew Lloyd Webber. He whips out the “Precipitato” from the Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 on his cell phone to make his casts, such as the kids in “School of Rock,” listen to for its fantastic rhythmic drive. Or try this: Play the first movement of the Sonata No. 6 on YouTube or whatever and imagine Russians of the time trying to decide whether the obvious “boots on the ground” in the music were Hitler’s or Stalin’s. Prokofiev and Stalin wound up dying on the exact same day in 1953, and I don’t believe Prokofiev ever said whether it’s about foreign or domestic threats, so it’s actually a fun parlor game with which to introduce kids to history. “Peter and the Wolf” is kind of a one-off for Prokofiev, as you say; better is his fantastic Romeo and Juliet ballet which is not as bombastic as his other music but is also not as sickly-sweet as Tchaikovsky, and I’ve also seen kids of various American backgrounds react to it. Meanwhile, forget the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – if one more car dealer, furniture store, realtor, investment house or whatever uses Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” a.k.a. “2001 A Space Odyssey” in their television or radio ads I will have to give up watching and listening to commercial broadcasts of anything for the rest of my life.

    • One time I was driving in my car and I had on a classical music station when the announcer came on and said, “And now we will hear something by Gustav Holst that is not ‘The Planets’.” I laughed so hard I nearly drove my car off the road. But I endorse your comment.

  2. I think I’m confused and missing something important. Why on earth would you have your teens play Rachmaninov rather than Beethoven. Beethoven is comparatively easy and Rachmaninov is anything but. Not to mention that as an adult my hands still can’t reach everything in those chords. I’ll admit that books for teens have an inordinate fondness for Mozart (whom I hate), Beethoven, and Bach, but those are the basics needed before playing Rachmaninov.

    • As someone who kind of plays guitar and piano, I agree on the difficulty of playing, but the way I read the comment was more about listening and appreciting. And I gotta say that – for novices – Rachmaninov has more richness and variety than Beethoven. Also, Bach is great for intermediate listeners, being very precise and technical, and thus very demanding of those who are learning to play him.

      • I suppose just listening makes sense, though why teens a) don’t play an instrument and b) are getting introduced to music seems like the main problems anyway. Children should be exposed to a variety of composers (and start learning an instrument) well before the teen years.

        • Agree. I remember playing the recorder in elementary school (grades 1-3). It was not optional, we all had to. We were generally terrible, but the instructor seemed to really enjoy teaching us.

        • Yes Sarah, I meant music appreciation in the sense of listening to music. Of course it would be great for more kids to take up instruments, but music of all types is now instantly available all the time, basically, and there are a bunch of people who are trying to get folks to understand that young people don’t OBJECT to listening to many styles, they just have to know where to go to find it.

          I’m with you – Rachmaninoff could stand to drop a few of the 30,000 notes in his third piano concerto, and his first piano sonata is so overly complicated that it ought to be shelved. Some of his music is so beautiful, though, that I do think it’s a motivation for students to work up to it, even though of course you can’t start there. But you do know there’s an element of intermediate-to-advanced piano-playing where some music, including some of Rachmaninoff’s, is actually easier to execute than it sounds – as opposed to the old joke about Wagner’s music that it’s “better than it sounds.” And someday somebody needs to come up with a better term than Music Appreciation – it sounds so fusty and finger-wagging!

        • >>teens a) don’t play an instrument

          If band practice weren’t during outdoor recess in a elementary school, I might still be playing clarinet today. Alas, had to choose between art and play, and I’ll take play any day.

  3. I’ll take Grieg over Beethoven… I like Peer Gynt, and it’s one of the few classical CD’s I own. I don’t remember what it was like playing them, and I won’t swear it’s a better introduction for new listeners however.

    • Also a Grieg fan, but he’s in that sub-category of “B” classical composers: too tunefull, not deep enough, or so I’ve been told by the Mozartians. The B’s include most of my favorites.

    • Grieg is also helpful to introduce to kids as they’ve heard some of his stuff already in pop culture, such as “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and “Morning Mood”. And, of course, Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry introduced most of us to Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”

      • Speaking of—just watched the amazing 1931 classic “M,” in which a serial child-murderer played by Peter Lorre begins whistling “The Hall of the Mountain King” when the urge to kill take over.

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