Music History, and the Status of Knowledge

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Were the cello suites written by Anna Magdalena? Nope.Were the cello suites written by Anna Magdalena? Nope.There have been two incidents recently where the mass media portrayal of classical music has had scholars in those specific fields in a state that oscillates between outrage and despair. The first was the showing on BBC4 of Martin Jarvis’s film purporting that some of JS Bach’s works may have been written by his second wife, Anna Magdelena. The second was BBC2’s programme about the Monteverdi Vespers broadcast on Easter Saturday.

The problem with the first of these is, in summary, that the research supporting the claim is shallow, wrongheaded and ignores in-depth work done by previous scholars. Ruth Tatlow’s critique (shared courtesy of Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog) gives the details. Indeed, the problem is not merely that Jarvis’s methods don’t live up to the standards of bibliographical engagement you need to make any sort of claim to expertise in well-trodden fields like Bach studies. The bigger problem is that he imputes vested interests to established scholars to explain why they do not agree with his findings. If his evidence were sound, he wouldn’t need to invent a conspiracy theory.

The problem with the second was that it appeared to have been based on scholarship that was decades old, with the result that it stated lots of ‘facts’ that were either (a) suppositions based on limited evidence in the past that more recent scholarship has shown not to be true or (b) narrative interpretations of historical significance (e.g. Monteverdi as ‘father of modern music) that in the 21st century seem simplistic and out of date. At least to people who dedicate their lives to studying the stuff, obviously they still seem fresh and interesting to non-musicologist programme makers.

The close juxtaposition of these two incidents brought into focus something that has bothered me on and off for two decades. The narratives of music history available through the mass media seem largely impervious to scholarship. I can recall, back when what we used to call New Musicology was still new, how frustrating it was that the grand narrative of Great Works of Great Masters that was being systematically unpicked in the pages of scholarly journals continued undisturbed on the airwaves of Radio 3.

Likewise, teaching any view of music history to undergraduates that didn’t just regurgitate the clichés was tough, as they had learned the clichés from their school teachers and instrumental teachers as they developed their basic musical identities. You couldn’t blame the teachers for having been educated with out-of-date scholarship, because at the time they were educated, it hadn’t gone out of date yet. But you could see this incredible drag of past assumptions on the entire profession, which made it hard for scholars doing new work to rewrite the old narratives.

And of course our library shelves were full of the clichés too.

There was a section of my second book, that I eventually excised as a distraction from the primary focus, relevant here. Some of the literature on choral conducting, principally that aimed at undergraduates in US music education courses, contains potted histories of western music in much more abbreviated forms than you get in even the most cliché-ridden text whose primary focus is music history. And this boiling-down of music history’s standard narrative reveals how it operates by a collection of stereotypes just as crass as any that UKIP could peddle.

The French are garlicky, the Germans don’t laugh, the Polish are all plumbers; Baroque music is fiddly, Classical music is elegant and rational, the Romantics rebel against the constraints of the past. Is Beethoven Classical or Romantic? He is Genius, therefore he is both. It’s all very trite when so ruthlessly summarised, but much of what passed for in-depth musical knowledge in the last century was basically these cartoons overlaid with greater detail until they took on an aspect of realism.

Of course, all history is narrative constructed from the flotsam of the past. But the point of scholarship is to examine both the evidence base and the narrative itself to check they are still fit for purpose. And scholars are doing this day in day out, without, it seems to me, very much effect on the outside world’s concept of what constitutes knowledge in our discipline.

I wonder if other disciplines in the arts and humanities share this problem? Do art historians and scholars of English literature tweet irately and shout at the telly as so-called arts programming recirculates the ‘common knowledge’ they’ve have to correct every new intake of students about for 20 years? I suspect it doesn’t happen in the sciences so much. You can’t really imagine a prime-time television programme about Fermat’s last theorem saying it has never been proven, can you?

I’m not one for pointing fingers of blame - it’s the academics’ fault for being too ivory-tower; it’s the fault of lazy and arrogant producers who can’t be bothered to fact-check - that kind of mud-slinging feels easy to put energy into but unlikely to be helpful. Rather like blaming a Romanian cleaner for the state of our nation’s finances, ahem.

But I am feeling a resonance here between the disregard of scholarship by the mass media (it’s not popular culture per se, possibly ‘popularising culture’) and the increasingly embattled state of the arts and humanities in universities. All that innovative, dedicated, rigorous and imaginative work going on, and nobody really seems to care about it.

And it strikes me that the people making decisions about arts programming could make a positive difference here. They presumably care about the arts, after all. If the BBC’s producers would only talk to the people with appropriate expertise more often, especially about material destined for high-profile broadcast, the senior managers in those experts’ universities might be less cavalier about the imposing the kinds of cuts and corporate bullying that are increasingly common features of life in British academia.

With History of Maths or the History of Science it depends a lot on who they involved in writing it. If they have involved historians of maths (and some of them do) the programs tend to be mostly OK, although they often dumb down the maths/science a lot.

The difficult comes when it is a program about science/maths which includes a bit about history. Most mathematicians and scientists only know a small amount of relevant history, often biased towards the so-called Whig theory of history in that the whole of scientific progress was heading to today.

In particular they get the bits where science and religion were in conflict wrong: especially for example around Galileo, who was deliberately antagonistic towards the Catholic hierarchy.

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