Extreme academe

Lots of radio stations play music. Most of it is pop music, but there are quite a few which play classical music and so are a bit more to my taste. Some specialise in a particular composer, such as 'Vivaldi FM' or 'Bach FM'. They do what they say on the tin. Most though play a mixture of classical music, albeit mainly those with the more memorable tunes.

There is a Swiss station which plays classical music with, between tracks, just a simple statement of what is being played and who the artists are. Others, like Classic FM, try to engage with the listener and so use biographical detail about the composer or artists in order to make it more interesting. Musicology provides that biographical detail, and stations such as Radio 3 and France Musique take it even further with the often very detailed information given to the listeners and the in-depth discussion of performances and compositions.

For all this information, obviously we need musicologists, although perhaps not to the extent that musicologists would want us to believe. Most of us would actually be quite happy with a relatively superficial knowledge of the subject. But then that’s true of many aspects of academic life.

One of our leading musicologists is Professor J. P. E. Harper-Scott of Royal Holloway, London University. He has though now resigned his post. This is because he no longer sees academic freedom as normal in universities. The professor is an interesting person. Brought up in a former mining town in Durham, he says that although he did not live in actual poverty, his family was not at all well-off. Music in his earlier years consisted solely of pop music and it was only in his later teens that he was introduced to classical music. Because of encouragement from his teachers, he went to Durham University, the first in his family to have such an education.

He tells us that his plan to leave academia was a long time in the making, and the reasons for it were almost entirely intellectual ones. “I entered the profession as an outsider, from a social class that put me distinctly at odds with the sensibility, taste, and attitude to work that characterize the discipline of musicology perhaps even more than other scholarly disciplines. At the time, I still clung to the vestiges of the completely uninformed romantic view of the scholarly life that I held as a teenager. Until I went to university, I naively imagined them to be how they were presented in novels and TV programmes: sometimes quite bumbling and unworldly, but always committed to the pursuit of truth, never trusting in a commonplace ‘fact’ without subjecting it to the most serious sceptical scrutiny. This did not turn out to be true.”

Most of what follows is extracted from his explanation of why he has left academia - he became profoundly disillusioned by it. “It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. There are, of course, many musicologists who are everything I could have dreamt they would be. But they know as well as I do that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Nothing I am saying here will surprise them: we have discussed it together many times over the years.”

He puts the problem in this (Kantian) way: “I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic. Consider the following statement, which fairly well articulates an increasingly common view in musicology.
Nineteenth-century musical works were the product of an imperial society. The classical musical canon must be decolonised.
The statement, and the attitude that goes with it, are dogmatic. It does not matter that the statement in the first sentence is one that I can assent to. It becomes dogmatic by virtue of the second sentence, which admits of no doubt, no criticism, no challenge. An outcome of that dogmatic statement could be that music departments stop teaching music by Beethoven, Wagner, and co., in the (frankly insane) belief that doing so will somehow materially improve current living conditions for the economically, socially, sexually, religiously, or racially underprivileged."

"A critical statement (in the Kantian sense) – one that better represents the ideal of scholarship, and of undergraduate and postgraduate education, in my view – would read something more like this:
Nineteenth-century musical works were written during the period of empire, and they carry that history within them. But as well as being part of the imperial world in which they appeared, they are also musical works. As with a protest song written at the time of the Vietnam war (which occurred during the US’s imperial epoch), a piece of classical music is simultaneously imbued with the history of its own time and also minimally separated from it as a partially autonomous object. As with a protest song, there therefore exists the possibility that it could offer a form of critique of existing social conditions. There is also the possibility that works of this kind will affirm the existing social conditions. What actually transpires in the music itself is therefore determinative of the question whether we can judge it to be for or against anything in particular.
An outcome of this second, critical statement could be that music departments continue to teach music by Beethoven, Wagner, and co., and use that music – whose essence as music is analysed in order to allow it to feed into the general framework – to offer intellectually critical insights into the social, political, economic, legal, and other structures of the world in which it was written, and later canonized, and now consumed by the musical public. This music is sometimes of relatively little interest on its own (a lot of grand opera springs to mind), but of great importance as social history. But this music is also, very often, an almost incomprehensibly brilliant expression of human creativity and ingenuity."

"When it entered into my life in a community that was centred on coal mining (by then, thanks to Thatcher, only as an absence that explained the appalling unemployment and poverty of the time) and manufacturing industry, into a world where novels, poetry, art, theatre, good food, broadsheet newspapers, political awareness, higher education, or classical music had absolutely no purchase, and were in fact broadly considered the luxurious excesses of a monolithic, Thatcherite, uncomprehending South, it opened up stunning new vistas.

I discovered, largely through this music, that the world was far bigger than I thought, fuller of beauty and majesty and possibilities for fulfilment. It transported me, to oversimplify things a little, from starting school on free school meals to being a full professor in my late 30s. Why would I not want to share that music with everyone who came into my classroom? More to the point, why would not all musicologists?

There are many other ways in which musicology is currently committed, in an intellectually irresponsible (or plain unintellectual) way, to dogmatic thinking, but this attitude towards the classical musical canon is perhaps the most significant. That alone did not lead me to want to leave academia: there is nothing new about it, and I have been quite cheerfully arguing, in a scholarly way, against that attitude for the whole of my career.”

As I have said, there are still plenty of critical scholars in musicology. But in recent years the dogmatic mode of thinking, in which uncritical commitments are enforced by mechanisms involving public humiliation, no-platforming, and attempts to have scholars fired, has become to seem like it has become endemic. Now, too many humanities scholars move in lock step with the general ideology of our time, dogmatically echoing the opinions of politicians, the media, and business.

Universities should be places where the commonplace ideas of a particular time and place are subjected to remorseless critical interrogation. That does not necessarily mean that scholars should disagree with everything about the way their contemporary world makes sense of its reality. Scholars might often agree with large parts of everybody else’s opinions. But if universities become a place where that basic commitment to scepticism and a critical mode of thinking is increasingly impossible, they will have ceased to serve a useful function. I am not optimistic.”

Paul Buckingham

21 September 2021

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