The Musicology Ladder

Reader Amy Bauer responds with mild indignation to my post on composers overlooked by academia:

I think you’re unfair to music academics! I love Sibelius, Dvorak, Martinu, and many other supposedly ‘unacademic’ composers, and loathe the music of. . (um, afraid to say, as it may get me in trouble ;) )

Seriously, many of my musicologist friends adore much of the music you’ve noted
above. I fear you may confuse academic taste with what are acceptable topics of
research, which – as in any other field – are subject to changing fashion.

There are plenty of Nielsen scholars now; he represents only one of the many composers
rehabilitated by academia in recent years. It is true that there are egregious conventions
regarding what is worthy of study, and it takes a paradigm shift by those with power
and influence to let new works into that particular canon (Taruskin’s influence
is a case in point). But in my experience, what academics write about and what
they actually listen to often have very little overlap.

I will leave tilting at the windmills of compositional fame to those in the know.

Well, there’s some truth in this. I was primarily not thinking of musicologists, but of theorists and composers, who seem loathe to subject to analysis any music not granted paradigmatic status. And I was also thinking not so much of “academic taste” as much as “acceptable topics of
research.” I’ve never quite gotten over how perplexed my fellow grad students were that I lowered myself to write an analytical paper on Bruckner.

Still, while I haven’t spent much time consorting with musicologists, I have spent enough to learn what a strict composer-based hierarchy the world of musicology is. I was once on a panel with some big names, and highly complimented a famous scholar on his book on Muzio Clementi, which had been a great help to me. He seemed almost irritated that I had brought it up, as though it were some secret from his past that he didn’t want mentioned in front of his colleagues. He had now written a book on Beethoven, which meant he had climbed a couple dozen steps up the musicology ladder. And I have learned in that world that to have written the first book on Nancarrow was a miniscule accomplishment, almost negligible, compared to writing the 67th book on Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms. In the world of music historians, your stature is exponentially proportional, not to the quality of your research and writing, but to the prestige of the composer you can claim to be an expert on.

(Many years ago I spent a pleasant evening with a new acquaintance who was writing a book on Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. I’d love to hear from him, and learn how that project went. We had a better time, down there at the bottom of the musicology ladder, than the bigwigs were having up above.)

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting, that. I hardly ever read books about the great composers (and these days I read more about literature than about music anyway), but I did enjoy your book about Nancarrow, having chanced upon it in an unlikely amsterdam bookshop somehow, many years ago already.
    Probably analysis is a musical genre of its own. You don’t just analyse composers you like. You study those composers your tools allow you to study and these are the composers that have enabled the development of those very tools.
    As a result, almost nobody ever seems to talk about certain aspects of Bach that I find most intruiging – how he can vary musical Gestalts within a basic ongoing texture in pieces such as many preludes of the WTK (book 2, d minor for example), by changing register and by switching between chordal figurations and scale figurations to arrive at highly varied rhythms. The prelude form here allows for a kind of virtuosity that is less natural to do in fugue-form. But theory tends not to care enough about surface.

  2. says

    I leave it to more accomplished armchair psychologists to parse exactly what this means (greater love than publicly acknowledged? greater shame? some combo?). But the scholar you mention, when I was his student lo these many years ago, had a small, cute, yappy lapdog whom he had named Muzio.
    KG replies: Please tell me he now has a Doberman named Ludwig.

  3. Richard says

    I’m not as interested in “Great Composers” as in great music. Let’s face it, a lot of Mozart is pointless note-spinning, and the “Great Men” wrote more than a few “groaners” (anyone for “Wellington’s Victory”) I think that Romanticism’s call to worship at the “High Altar of Art” and its’ attendant celebrity culture has been music’s undoing. I also find most 19th century music a little bit nauseating.

  4. Richard says

    I’m not as interested in “Great Composers” as in great music. Let’s face it, a lot of Mozart is pointless note-spinning, and the “Great Men” wrote more than a few “groaners” (anyone for “Wellington’s Victory”) I think that Romanticism’s call to worship at the “High Altar of Art” and its’ attendant celebrity culture has been music’s undoing. I also find most 19th century music a little bit nauseating.

  5. Amy Bauer says

    Your fine book on Nancarrow was most certainly not a miniscule accomplishment! Things are changing in academe, albeit slowly.

    (PS. I knew I wasn’t the only grad student to have written an analytical paper on Bruckner.
    I am nominally a theorist, and subject all kinds of music to analysis, for better or worse!)

  6. says

    Samuel wrote: But theory tends not to care enough about surface.

    Where’s a Slonimsky Jr. when you need them? That’s a keeper for any new book of wisdom.