Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 3 (Summer 2003)

Insights and Outlooks: On Waking Up in the Year 2003

By Colin Eatock

You remember the story of Rip Van Winkle, don't you? When I returned to the University of Toronto last fall to begin graduate studies in musicology, I felt like I had just woken up after a seventeen-year nap. Online cataloguing was a new thing for me - what happened to drawers full of cards? I discovered a curious fetishization of the word "discourses," as though it embodied some bold new concept. And I learned that the phrase "the music itself" must now be placed in ironic quotation marks. But unlike Van Winkle's experience, in my case it was not just the world that had changed: I had also changed - I had become oriented towards the "real world." Learning what Counts and what Doesn't Count in the current regime of musicology has been an interesting challenge.

Some of the older professors around the Faculty of Music remembered me and were vaguely aware that I had spent some time at the Canadian Opera Company. Yes, I worked there for about a dozen years, as an editor, publicist and fundraiser. Others recalled seeing something I had written somewhere. Yes, I've written more articles about music than I can number - about a hundred for The Globe and Mail alone, plus many for Opus, Opera Canada, Wholenote, and other magazines. But I soon learned that all these activities fall under the rubric of Things That Don't Count. The only publications that Count are academic journals, and of these I had little knowledge: at a panel discussion in September about scholarly publishing I naively asked how much these journals generally pay their contributors.

Clearly I had much to learn, but I was also aware that I had learned a great deal in my years spent outside academe. At the Canadian Opera Company I acquired a respect for connoisseurs - for their sincere love of the repertoire and its performers, and for keeping the wheels of classical music turning by buying tickets and attending performances. (At the COC I also encountered career arts administrators. Unlike the connoisseurs, some of these people knew nothing about opera. Following a successful run of three Mozart productions, one senior manager suggested that the COC should mount a cycle of Beethoven operas.)

Is there a point to my ruminations? As a matter of fact, there is. It is that we should not forget that there is more than one model of knowledge about classical music in the world. For the connoisseurs, knowing about classical music means - first and foremost - being aware of the status and activities of prominent performers, and being able to aurally recognize canonic repertoire. ("Advanced" connoisseurs may also take an interest in the biographies of composers and the history of musical style.) Many connoisseurs would be surprised to learn how little musicologists concern themselves with performance and, in some cases, how little attention they pay to the classical canon. How many people reading these words could offer an informed opinion of the relative merits of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, with specific references to their performances? And any musicologist who has to ask who Valery Gergiev is - as I was recently asked by a professor when I mentioned that I was going to interview him - would be regarded by the connoisseurs as a very odd creature. To them, such a gap in awareness would seem as strange as someone with a PhD in American politics who couldn't name the current president of the United States.

If this is how the connoisseurs view the musical world, I hasten to state that this is not quite how I view it. I'm well aware that musicologists know things that the average connoisseur could not begin to fathom. Piano enthusiasts may be able to recognize any Beethoven sonata after two seconds, without any idea as to how a sonata is put together. Ask the average Wagner fan - the sort of person who knows the Ring Cycle's libretto by rote - what the Tristan chord is, and you'll probably get a blank stare. Most classical connoisseurs know little about non-Western musics, would find Adorno incomprehensible and McClary merely offensive, and couldn't tell a Schenkerian analysis from Pavarotti's behind.

Since my return to university I've been struck by the recent academic interest in various forms of popular music and their attendant cultures. There's nothing wrong with that - it's refreshing to see people studying whatever kind of music they most care about. But I would like to suggest there is also a "popular culture of classical music" that is worthy of study. Contrary to opinions expressed by some New Musicologists, who proclaim the imminent "death" of classical music with thinly veiled triumphalism, it is a populous, globe-spanning and economically potent culture. Its most dedicated adherents are as enthusiastic and committed as the fans of any other music.

Yet it seems that many musicologists who study classical music distance themselves from this culture, or dismiss its models of knowledge as irrelevant to serious scholarship. To say or imply that this culture is just another thing that Doesn't Count borders - in my humble opinion - on arrogance. Could faculties of music the world over survive if the popular culture of classical music were truly dead? Would institutions of higher learning be willing to maintain support for the study of an art form with no presence in the "real world"? And what about the private donors whose contributions, in North America, are crucial to music faculties? I would wager that most of these donors view university music faculties as a means to maintain classical music performance traditions, rather than as an end in themselves. Music faculties are locked in a symbiotic relationship with the popular culture of classical music: in an environment where classical music was no longer performed, music faculties that emphasize it would have to re-invent themselves beyond recognition, or close their doors.

I write these thoughts partly in response to an engaging article in the previous issue of Discourses in Music, in which France Fledderus underscores the differences between musicology and pop music journalism. Although classical music journalism gets short shrift in her observations - it is treated more as a hypothesis than a real thing - I share her concern about musicology's failure to reach a broader public. If musicologists really want to communicate with the rest of the world, perhaps they would do well to follow the examples of ethnomusicologists and popular music scholars: to integrate the study of cultural participants with the study of "the music itself" (note ironic quotes). There have already been some steps in this direction - in such areas as reception history and the study of canon development - but much more research could be done on the value-systems and knowledge-models of classical music connoisseurs. And if their interests sometimes seem trivial to us, we would do well to reflect that many of our concerns would probably strike them the same way.

Seventeen years ago, when I last "finished" my education, musicology seemed (to me, at least) quite divorced from the culture of performance. But musicology has changed, and now admits a variety of previously taboo areas of inquiry. Perhaps it should change again, and make a greater effort to bridge the gap between classical music scholars and classical music audiences. We could call it "contemporary reception theory of Western art-music," if that makes us feel better.

Colin Eatock holds an M.A. in music criticism from McMaster University, and a Mus.M. in music composition from the University of Toronto. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the U of T. His articles and reviews have appeared in Canadian, American and British publications; and his compositions have been recorded on the Furiant, Echiquier and Toreador labels.