Susan McClary is one of a number of people responsible for the 'new' musicology, that is, musicology that looks at music from the point of view of gender, class and race. Musicology was one of the last bastions of the pre-'progressive' approach to the humanities and I suspect there are still some corners of musicology that are relatively free of this kind of approach. Here is the Wikipedia article on Susan McClary. She is married to Robert Walser, a musicologist specializing in heavy metal music. She taught at McGill just before I returned there to do my doctoral work in musicology, but I met her at a conference in Rochester on popular music. As I recall, we had a fascinating conversation about the blues and Robert Johnson.
One of the ways that Susan McClary gained a lot of attention was with this comment on the 9th Symphony of Beethoven, published in the January 1987 issue of Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter:
- The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.
Wikipedia comments on her understanding of sonata form that:
McClary suggests that sonata form may be interpreted as sexist or misogynistic and imperialistic, and that, "tonality itself - with its process of instilling expectations and subsequently withholding promised fulfillment until climax - is the principal musical means during the period from 1600 to 1900 for arousing and channeling desire." She interprets the sonata procedure for its constructions of gender and sexual identity. The primary, "masculine" key (or first subject group) represents the male self, while the allegedly the secondary, "feminine" key (or second subject group), represents the other, a territory to be explored and conquered, assimilated into the self and stated in the tonic home key.If you have been reading my discussions--I hesitate to call them analyses--of the Shostakovich string quartets you have noticed that this is exactly the kind of thing that I really abhor. One commentor on the 13th String Quartet called it a "languid dance of death". A commentor said about the 11th String Quartet that "In this quartet, Shostakovich portrays his fears with dark and grim moods." You could go on and on. These days, just about all writing about music that is not directed specifically to professionals falls back on this kind of speculative metaphor. My posts on these quartets try to get past these misleading and deceptive metaphors and actually come to grips with the music here and here.
Now, the 'new' musicology is supposed to give us additional insight into music, look at it from new angles. But I'm afraid that it is almost always the mere imposition of an ideology on an art form that usually does not deserve it. This is not to deny that music always exists in a social context and that this context is often of value in understanding the music. But the standards of proof and evidence should not be simply thrown away. What evidence does McClary present that Beethoven's music really represents "the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release"? Nothing that I would regard as dispositive. Wikipedia comments that,
McClary set the feminist arguments of her early book in a broader sociopolitical context with Conventional Wisdom (2000, ISBN 0-520-23208-9). In it, she argues that the traditional musicological assumption of the existence of "purely musical" elements, divorced from culture and meaning, the social and the body, is a conceit used to veil the social and political imperatives of the worldview that produces the classical canon most prized by supposedly objective musicologists.This is actually an interesting example of the kinds of arguments used in the 'new' musicology. To cut through the abstraction (an essential part of the style), let's take away the passive constructions and link the attributions directly to the actual agents. Instead of "traditional musicological assumption" which just sounds iffy, we will say, "musicologists have traditionally assumed there are such things as purely musical elements." You bet. And we will continue to assume so because, hey, there are such things as purely musical elements. Here's one:
Saying that musicologists have traditionally divorced music from culture and meaning is a wild accusation not borne out by the facts. The 'new' musicologists have certainly amped up their focus on culture, meaning, the social and the body, but awareness of the context and reception of music has always been a topic in musicology. Choosing to look closely at the actual musical texture is not a 'conceit' but merely a choice. When I decided to ignore the idea that the 13th String Quartet of Shostakovich was a "languid dance of death" it freed me to see what was actually going on instead of trying to fit the quartet onto the Procrustean bed of the metaphor. Yes, it's all damned metaphor! And pretty ugly ones at times!
Notice also, the slander in the last part of the quote. 'Supposedly' objective musicologists are merely using the idea of "purely musical" elements in music to "veil the social and political imperatives" of their worldview. Leaving the content of this worldview unstated allows the reader to imagine the worst! All this is the worst sort of sleazy ad hominum argument.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let's listen to the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and see if we can hear that "throttling murderous rage of a rapist".
There are many things in that music: bold, powerful harmonies, themes and rhythms; intense, almost terrifying moments. But music does not deal in specifics: without an actual text, and there is no text in this movement apart from the tempo indication (allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso), there is simply no way to tie musical events directly to things in the world. Everything we say about the music of Beethoven is metaphor to one degree or another. Music is not events in the world, neither is it autobiography. If you like Susan McClary's metaphors, fine. But perhaps you might want to ask yourself what ideological positions they are designed to further. And if there is any real justification for them.