Discourses in Music: Volume 6 Number 1 (Summer 2006)

A Response to Sandy Thorburn’s Response to “How We Got Out of Analysis and How to get Back In: A Polemical Re-Appraisal of Joseph Kerman”

By Leslie Kinton

When I was told that Sandy Thorburn was to write a response to my article “How We Got Out of Analysis and How to Get Back In: A Polemical Reappraisal of Joseph Kerman,” I was delighted. When I was further told that he disagreed with most of what I had written, I was further delighted. It has always been my belief that vigourous debate is what makes the academic world go around, so long as scholarly decorum and mutual respect is maintained, and I looked forward to what I thought would be an ongoing discussion where, even though there may be no clear winner or loser, each of us might profit from the other’s insights. It was in this optimistic frame of mind that I left for a two-week, eight-concert tour of China on December 1, 2004, fully expecting to “have at it” when I returned on the 15th.

You can imagine my disappointment when, instead of reasoned argument, what I found in most of Thorburn’s response was an loose collection of unwarranted inferences, context dropping, and mischaracterizations of my original article (i.e., putting words in my mouth) all packaged in a sniping nastiness of tone that I found shocking in an academic journal. I will leave it to the reader to ferret out most of these misdemeanours for themselves, but there are two things I cannot allow to go unanswered.

In paragraph four, Thorburn states the following: “Kinton’s assertion that dissertations dealing with Beethoven piano sonatas could not be written in past years because these subjects were considered ‘done’ is clearly a subject that would be worthy of criticism if it were true, but a cursory glance at the AMS list of current musicology dissertations reveals that this is obviously false.” Frankly, this sentence is so badly written that it took a while to parse out its meaning. The subject of the verb “is” has to be “Kinton’s assertion,” so it seems Thorburn is stating that if my assertion were true, it (the assertion) would be a “subject [?] worthy of criticism.” Since this makes absolutely no sense, I have to infer he attempting to make the point that if it were true the Beethoven piano sonatas could not be written about in past years, this fact would be worthy of critical investigation. Thorburn’s mangled diction continues into the final clause of his sentence; since the antecedent of the word “this” is grammatically ambiguous, I can only conclude he is referring to my supposed assertion that nothing “could” be written about the Beethoven piano sonatas, and that he is saying “this” is not true.

I use the expression “supposed assertion” because I was very careful to qualify what I wrote with the words “probably” and “most likely”, something Thorburn seems to have forgotten in his précis. Just to set the record straight, this is what I actually said in my article:

One of the problems in attacking Kerman’s position is that his basic starting point is a valid one. Until his clarion call for music studies to be subsumed under the umbrella of “criticism”, the field had been dominated by historians and bibliographers, as literature had been before the emergence of what is now known as “literary criticism”. This in no way is meant to impugn these highly important and fascinating fields, but their defining of the discipline had two consequences: first, most dissertations were either bibliographical studies (in the sense of Fredson Bowers), source studies, or a life and works; second, after a composer had been exhaustively studied, he or she was considered to be “done” and off limits to anyone wishing to do a Ph.D. A proposal, for instance, to do one’s doctorate on the Beethoven piano sonatas would probably not even have been considered, and most likely would not have been approved. There was nothing more do be done with them in terms of scholarly research ... at least according to the musicology of the day. [italics added]
Perhaps I should have worded this more precisely, but the context makes it clear that I am indulging in some mild rhetorical hyperbole based on anecdotal recollection in keeping with the article’s polemical nature. It should also be clear that my reference is to the Beethoven piano sonatas, and speaks of Ph.D.s in musicology from a time preceding the appearance of Kerman’s offending article; i.e., before 1980.

In an endnote, Thorburn lists seventeen dissertations he claims show what I write to be “false.” The fact that they are all lumped together without being clearly separated gives an apparent sense of visual weight to what he is saying, and also tends to discourage a close reading of his list. However, if one actually examines each citation, the following facts become clear:
1) Two of the seventeen dissertations are D.M.A.s, not Ph.D.s, which means they are either in performance, conducting, or composition, not musicology.
2) Three are clearly designated as Ph.D.s in theory, not musicology.
3) Two have no mention at all of Beethoven in their titles.
4) Three are about Beethoven and other composers.
5) Five that are only about Beethoven are on works other than the piano sonatas.
6) One is about Louis Spohr’s chamber music (?).
7) Seven were written after 1984 and are therefore subsequent to the period of which I wrote (one is as late as 1997, and three others have no date).

In summary, only four of the seventeen in his list are actually musicology Ph.D. dissertations on the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Mr. Thorburn tries to cover himself by calling it a list of "Beethoven Sonata related dissertations," but I specifically say, in the article, the "Beethoven piano sonatas", not the symphonies, quartets, or the works of C.P.E. Bach or Schumann, or "sonata form expositions" in general. Clearly, he is trying to discredit what I have written by the number of citations he can come up with, and that is fine; what is not fine and, furthermore, is academically impermissible is his padding the list in a manner that misrepresents the content of my article. Unlike Mr. Thorburn, when he later accuses me of misreading Susan McClary, I will do him the courtesy of not saying that this misrepresentation was deliberate.

As to my reference to McClary, this is what she writes in Feminine Endings vis ŕ vis the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth:

... the desire for cadential arrival that has built up over the course of the development finally erupts, as the subject necessarily (because of the narrative tradition) finds itself in the throes of the initial void [which she characterizes earlier as “womblike”] while refusing to relent: the entire first key area in the recapitulation is pockmarked with explosions. It is the consequent juxtaposition of desire and unspeakable violence in this moment that creates its unparalleled fusion of murderous rage and yet a kind of pleasure in its fulfillment of formal demands. (128)
It does not take a sophisticated grasp of English to infer that she is talking about rape, and to pretend otherwise (as Thorburn does in his response) is disingenuous nonsense; Nicholas Cook, in “Theorizing Musical Meaning” (Music Theory Spectrum Vol. 23, No.2, Fall 2001, 182), goes so far as to use the expression “sexual killer” in reference to McClary’s text. Moreover, I was referring to Feminine Endings, not, as Thorburn writes, an article in the Minnesota Composer's Forum Newsletter which McClary has supposedly repudiated and which I have not even read. Of all the academic sins one can commit, putting words in someone’s mouth is one of the most heinous, and I resent it being done to me in the (virtual) pages of this journal.

Until now, Discourses in Music has been characterized by a collegiality that could serve as a model for other journals. It is to be regretted that the editorial board has allowed Thorburn’s so-called response to pass through editorial review.

Oh yes. Mr. Thorburn did get one thing right: I misspelled Rebecca Clarke’s name. Oops.