Sunday, July 1, 2018

Citizen Lebrecht

When I lived in Montréal I enjoyed the benefits of a bi-cultural and bi-lingual city. You could see first-run English films and you could see first-run French films. You could walk down to the corner newsstand and pick up a copy of not only the New York Times but also Le Monde diplomatique. For the local newspapers there were two (now just one) middle-of-the-road English newspapers, very like I was used to in other parts of Canada, but on the French side there was a very discernible hierarchy. At the bottom was Allô Police a weekly tabloid specializing in lurid photos and blood-drenched headlines. Sadly, it disappeared in 2004, but while it was there it was the gritty foundation of the newspaper world in French-speaking Montréal. I suspect they would only have had a classical music item if the conductor of the symphony was murdered! The middle was occupied by the respectable La Presse and Le Journal de Montréal where you would find lavish coverage of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal. At the top of the hierarchy was the organ for the intellectual class, Le Devoir, where you could find lengthy, detailed, critical reviews of organ and harpsichord recitals. I just checked and in the current issue there is a review of a new recording of Haydn's Stabat Mater.

I recount all this because I am just reading an interview in Van with Norman Lebrecht, the author of that other classical music blog Slipped Disc. One with a zillion times the readership of mine, I hastily add. It's a pretty good interview. He characterizes what he does as follows:
I came into music because nobody was writing about it in a way that interested me. Musicologists were writing arcane and abstruse things which had no relation to who the composer was, where he or she was at that particular time in her life. They weren’t answering the questions of, “Why is this piece meaningful to me, why is this phrase meaningful to me?” In the way that you’d ask in every other human transaction from the restaurant to the bedroom. And so I started asking those questions. 
What is important to somebody who’s just got out of bed, had a shower, got dressed, and is having their morning coffee? It’s not Sibelius Four. It might be, “What happened to this conductor last night?”
It wouldn't be too hard to satirize this, of course. The things musicologists write have no relation to who the composer was? Oh, you mean regarding the personal life of the composer? Right! Why is this piece meaningful to me? I guess we are talking about the reader. Well, that's pretty hard to know without actually, you know, knowing the reader personally. So the focus is on what the conductor was up to last night because while abstruse musical things are not universal, gossip certainly is. Heh!
I’m at war with musicology as a whole, alright? I’m not the first person to say this, but musicology is a phony discipline. 
It’s like parapsychology. It’s a cultish thing which makes up its parameters as it goes along. It started out as a quasi-science. In the late 19th century, people were calling everything Wissenschaft. And so this became Musikwissenschaft. Probably the first credible musicologist was Guido Adler, Mahler’s friend, who was actually a pioneering scholar of Gregorian chant and early church music. The people who followed in Adler’s wake were not scientists, but fact-based scholars, at least.
After that it went through two phases. The first phase was its academization, in which they turned it into a kind of forensic study of the notes. That’s not of interest to musicians, who just want to play what’s on the page, and it’s not of interest to people who love music. And then it went to the next phase, where music is actually not about music at all anymore, it’s about values. It’s about social equality, and it’s about inclusivity and how all musics are equal. 
I don’t. Call me a heretic.
Well, sure, call me a heretic too. But while true of a lot of current musicology, this critique is largely directed at a straw man. None of these bullets hits musicologists like Richard Taruskin who makes sense of a great deal of music in a grandly historical manner. But I also have to say that I strongly agree with Lebrecht's thoughts on the inequality of musics of different cultures. Go read the whole interview.
There’s good music and bad music. Let’s just try and find the good stuff. But I see it as a falsehood to say that simplified music forms are equivalent to sophisticated music forms. It’s like saying that the witch doctor is as good as my general practitioner. 
Slipped Disc, which I read on a regular basis, especially on Fridays, is a bluff, blustery collection of who died, who got hired, who got fired and who has been hit with scandal. It is unique in its way and probably indispensable. But at the end of the day it is not Le Devoir of classical music. Or even perhaps La Presse. It is probably more similar to Allô Police but a bit less lurid.

For our envoi today, let's have a listen to that Stabat Mater by Haydn, whose religious music is pretty darn good. This is Davide Lorenzato conducting the vocal ensemble AllaBreve with the Tiroler Kammerorchester:

1 comment:

Will Wilkin said...

I stopped reading Slipped Disc because I'm not a professional classical musician and therefore don't much know or care about the individuals gossipped about.