What is the problem with musicology these days? I suspect it is one inherent in the way the humanities are practiced in academia. After your few general introductory courses (Music Theory 100, History 101, etc.) the trail leads inevitably to more and more specialized material. As soon as possible you need to focus on one or two specific areas. In the recent past they might have been things like a single composer, Stravinsky, say, or Bartók. Or perhaps reception theory or Beethoven's sketches. But these areas got used up pretty quick. You can't offer a dissertation for your doctorate that is in an area that has already been cultivated. So then attention moved to women composers, sexuality in music and so on. More recently it is turning to things like race, class and gender in opera, Cuban dance culture, Wonder Woman and, god help us, music in Pepsi ads. You can't study things like Haydn quartets, Mozart symphonies or Beethoven piano sonatas because someone else has already done that. Professors of music in university are so specialized that they are poorly acquainted with the basic repertoire. Because of this, people like me, who spent eight years in music at university, have the sketchiest knowledge of the most important classical repertoire. But we know our Cécile Chaminade and all about cultural appropriation in Madame Butterfly. In order to get a more comprehensive music education, I have had to spend a decade or two studying Haydn string quartets, Mozart symphonies, Beethoven piano sonatas, Shostakovich quartets, Stravinsky, Steve Reich and on and on. The fruits of a lot of this study appear here at The Music Salon.
So the occupational hazard of musicologists is that they are fixated on the fashionable areas of study of the day, identity politics, post-colonialism, cultural appropriation, the things that you have to be expert in to get your dissertation approved and achieve tenure, or even just get a job. If someone like me comes along and says, hey, no-one really wants to hear Chaminade because she is a boring, second-rate composer, then I am immediately categorized as "part of the problem." But, of course, I am right as the great majority of concert goers would agree. If you catch them off-guard a musicologist might agree that, yes, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and all those other dead, white, European males did write the better music, but I can't think about that right now because I have to prepare my piece on campuses as sites of hate crimes and racist imagery for Musicology Now.
It seems as if all too many of the newer musicologists are, instead of being serious scholars, enslaved to a really nasty ideology, and one that prevents them from seeing very clearly what their discipline really consists of and what its job should be. Instead of revealing to new generations of students the great tradition of Western music they are holding "Teaching Under Trump" seminars:
Introducing the “Teaching Under Trump” series, Louis Epstein identified a central question that inspired the series: “what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment?” [emphasis mine] What if, instead, we asked ourselves what response was good? What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose? We might graffiti over those swastikas instead of walking past them. We might petition administrations to offer strong statements of support to our marginalized community members and to back those statements up with action—something Deaville did along with students in his seminar on music and disability. We might make strong statements of support in our own classrooms. We might offer assistance (tracking down legal help, providing connections to campus health resources, locating potential places of sanctuary) to students who seek it.I feel very sorry for them, I really do. They are driven mad by will-o-the-wisps and believe their own "fake news."
Now let's listen to a musical antidote to scholarly madness. This is the String Quartet op. 20 no. 3 in G minor by Joseph Haydn, played by the Quatuor Mosaïques:
If you think that there is nothing more to be said about that music after Donald Francis Tovey and Charles Rosen, then I have news for you: you're wrong!