Friday, May 10, 2013

Susan McClary vs Beethoven


Susan McClary is one of a number of people responsible for the 'new' musicology, that is, musicology that looks at music from the point of view of gender, class and race. Musicology was one of the last bastions of the pre-'progressive' approach to the humanities and I suspect there are still some corners of musicology that are relatively free of this kind of approach. Here is the Wikipedia article on Susan McClary. She is married to Robert Walser, a musicologist specializing in heavy metal music. She taught at McGill just before I returned there to do my doctoral work in musicology, but I met her at a conference in Rochester on popular music. As I recall, we had a fascinating conversation about the blues and Robert Johnson.

One of the ways that Susan McClary gained a lot of attention was with this comment on the 9th Symphony of Beethoven, published in the January 1987 issue of Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter:
The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.

Wikipedia comments on her understanding of sonata form that:
McClary suggests that sonata form may be interpreted as sexist or misogynistic and imperialistic, and that, "tonality itself - with its process of instilling expectations and subsequently withholding promised fulfillment until climax - is the principal musical means during the period from 1600 to 1900 for arousing and channeling desire." She interprets the sonata procedure for its constructions of gender and sexual identity. The primary, "masculine" key (or first subject group) represents the male self, while the allegedly the secondary, "feminine" key (or second subject group), represents the other, a territory to be explored and conquered, assimilated into the self and stated in the tonic home key.
If you have been reading my discussions--I hesitate to call them analyses--of the Shostakovich string quartets you have noticed that this is exactly the kind of thing that I really abhor. One commentor on the 13th String Quartet called it a "languid dance of death". A commentor said about the 11th String Quartet that "In this quartet, Shostakovich portrays his fears with dark and grim moods." You could go on and on. These days, just about all writing about music that is not directed specifically to professionals falls back on this kind of speculative metaphor. My posts on these quartets try to get past these misleading and deceptive metaphors and actually come to grips with the music here and here.

Now, the 'new' musicology is supposed to give us additional insight into music, look at it from new angles. But I'm afraid that it is almost always the mere imposition of an ideology on an art form that usually does not deserve it. This is not to deny that music always exists in a social context and that this context is often of value in understanding the music. But the standards of proof and evidence should not be simply thrown away. What evidence does McClary present that Beethoven's music really represents "the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release"? Nothing that I would regard as dispositive. Wikipedia comments that,
McClary set the feminist arguments of her early book in a broader sociopolitical context with Conventional Wisdom (2000, ISBN 0-520-23208-9). In it, she argues that the traditional musicological assumption of the existence of "purely musical" elements, divorced from culture and meaning, the social and the body, is a conceit used to veil the social and political imperatives of the worldview that produces the classical canon most prized by supposedly objective musicologists.
This is actually an interesting example of the kinds of arguments used in the 'new' musicology. To cut through the abstraction (an essential part of the style), let's take away the passive constructions and link the attributions directly to the actual agents. Instead of "traditional musicological assumption" which just sounds iffy, we will say, "musicologists have traditionally assumed there are such things as purely musical elements." You bet. And we will continue to assume so because, hey, there are such things as purely musical elements. Here's one:


Saying that musicologists have traditionally divorced music from culture and meaning is a wild accusation not borne out by the facts. The 'new' musicologists have certainly amped up their focus on culture, meaning, the social and the body, but awareness of the context and reception of music has always been a topic in musicology. Choosing to look closely at the actual musical texture is not a 'conceit' but merely a choice. When I decided to ignore the idea that the 13th String Quartet of Shostakovich was a "languid dance of death" it freed me to see what was actually going on instead of trying to fit the quartet onto the Procrustean bed of the metaphor. Yes, it's all damned metaphor! And pretty ugly ones at times!

Notice also, the slander in the last part of the quote. 'Supposedly' objective musicologists are merely using the idea of "purely musical" elements in music to "veil the social and political imperatives" of their worldview. Leaving the content of this worldview unstated allows the reader to imagine the worst! All this is the worst sort of sleazy ad hominum argument.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let's listen to the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and see if we can hear that "throttling murderous rage of a rapist".


There are many things in that music: bold, powerful harmonies, themes and rhythms; intense, almost terrifying moments. But music does not deal in specifics: without an actual text, and there is no text in this movement apart from the tempo indication (allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso), there is simply no way to tie musical events directly to things in the world. Everything we say about the music of Beethoven is metaphor to one degree or another. Music is not events in the world, neither is it autobiography. If you like Susan McClary's metaphors, fine. But perhaps you might want to ask yourself what ideological positions they are designed to further. And if there is any real justification for them.

27 comments:

Abdel arch said...

Nah, it's just that we cant' see it as cisgendered males (who are presumably white).

Standpoint theory says so!

Bryan Townsend said...

I almost understand your point...

Rickard Dahl said...

Susan McClary is either mentally ill, thoroughly ideologically brainwashed or a nasty liar (or maybe a combination of those things). I remember that I read that quote about Beethoven's 9th on this blog a while ago and it got me enraged but I forgot about where I found this post and later forgot about it. Anyways, feminism is a hateful ideology at its' core, denying research that isn't at its' advantage, full of double standards and not really for equality (rather it focuses on giving women privilegies while discriminating men. There's something called the men's right movement which focuses on getting rid of the double standards and expose the hatefulness of feminism. Unlike feminism it's based on facts and actual (objective scientific) research. Either way the only right approach is equality for both genders. Dr. Warren Farrel is a great speaker who approaches equality from both sides.
Anyways, "feminst research" doesn't belong in regular science and doesn't belong in musicology either. Musicology should be approached from a non-ideological standpoint, only including ideology if it's relevant (i.e. historical accurate/not anachronistic). Sorry about the intense reply but Susan McClary is one of the many reasons why civilization is in a cultural and moral decline (and she also deserves being treated worse than she treated poor Beethoven).

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, I hate to disagree with you, but I don't think Susan McClary is as you describe her. Yes, I do think she is mistaken and operating from very flawed premisses, but she is certainly not mentally ill or brainwashed. What she is, I think, is very cleverly taking advantage of the career opportunity of being among the first feminist musicologists. She was given a $100,000 MacArthur "Genius" grant and they don't hand those out to just anyone! Does she believe everything she says, or is she exaggerating to catch people's attention? Hard to say. But my preference is to attack her ideas and arguments and not her personally. I have met her and she is an interesting and engaging conversationalist.

Rickard Dahl said...

Right, maybe I was a bit too harsh. But if she is simply taking advantage of the career opportunity then she is a sort of liar. If she actually believes what she is saying then she is maybe not ideologically brainwashed but just very ideologically driven. Still, at least we agree that she is mistaken and operates from very flamed premisses.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, quite so! There is a whole generation of celebrity musicologists that have come along and made a name for themselves by saying outrageous things (often with very little evidence). This kind of 'careerism' I attribute to the fact that it is extremely difficult to get a good job in musicology as there are just too many recently-graduated PhD students out there.

Anonymous said...

All university departments of Arts and Humanities (and history and science) are now branches of Political Science, which is not even really a science.

Calling Beethoven a (musical) rapist is essentially just a way to run a flag up a pole that says "hey, givers of grants - look over here!"

Bryan Townsend said...

There is certainly some truth in what you say. But we shouldn't forget that, toiling alongside these celebrity musicologists who have won some big grants by being bold and outrageous, there are all the rest of the musicology department. There is still a great deal of respectable scholarship going on. For an example (that contains many examples) I would cite Richard Taruskin's mammoth Oxford History of Western Music and indeed, everything he has written.

Rickard Dahl said...

Yesterday (I think) I've finally figured out what a good way to call Susan McClary is: con artist. She lies to others by making outrageous statements that don't hold any grain of truth in order to get attention and get awarded for 'fighting the good fight' (according to the political correct people who think classical music (especially when written by men, i.e. basically all of it) is opressive (sexist, promoting a class society, whatever) and doesn't hold any value today). But hey it works, she earned some good money by lying/conning (some) people.

Bryan Townsend said...

The humanities, including musicology, have been invaded by cultural Marxism over the last few decades. It follows the classic Marxist strategy of portraying various groups in society, the proletariat, women, minorities, as being oppressed. It says that we know who the oppressors are and they must be pulled down. Perhaps the first generation of these class crusaders are sincere, as Lenin was, but the successors, like Stalin, are mere exploiters and manipulators. In Western developed countries the economic plan has been largely rejected, but the strategy is going strong in cultural fields. Here is a typical example where the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation creates a story about classical music's "shocking gender gap":

http://music.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2014/3/Classical-musics-shocking-gender-gap

"It’s a shocking gender gap among classical music’s soloists and conductors, and talented women are being prevented from having the successful careers they deserve." Prevented by whom, exactly? And using what means? The story never talks about that, but just cites statistics as if they unambiguously imply a moral injustice.

Rickard Dahl said...

Hmm, yes cultural marxism could be a good way to summarize it. Every time it's not near 50-50 males/females or it isn't female dominated, a gender inequality is suggested by these people. What should be important is that everyone gets the opportunity to work in a certain field (unless specific physical (or mental) requirements are needed, such as in the case of (military) pilots), not that it's equal distribution in every possible field. People are after all different (different skills, talents, knowledge, interests, goals in life etc.). and it makes no sense to try to fit everyone into a sort of equal distribution. Equality of opportunity should be considered more important than equality of outcome, yet feminists mostly complain about the lack of equality of outcomes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, of course, feminism is 'hateful" and the so-called men's rights activists are working from a place of "objective" research. This gender division is exactly part of what motivated McClary's analyses to begin with: the ways that gender is constructed and encoded in music. Men and the masculine are rational, "objective," forceful; women and the feminine are capricious, emotional, and weak. Cadences and themes, anyone?
And now, decades later, those same biases show up in a scathing denunciation and misreading of McClary's work. Ironic...at best.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Anonymous for weighing in on the other side, but I'm afraid you rather confirm our evaluations. First of all, if you are going to make a serious criticism, which is always welcome here at the Music Salon, I would prefer you do it in your own person rather than as "Anonymous". Don't you want to stand behind your claims? Second, neither I nor any of my commentators called feminism "hateful" so you have committed the fundamental sin of smearing our position through misattribution. Thirdly, your argument begs the question in the sense of assuming the conclusion. The things you imply we are saying we are not actually saying. So you are making yet another error by attacking a straw man.

Now there is the real irony, don't you think?

Paul R. Goldin said...

I really wanted to disagree with Bryan Townsend, but I can't. The notion that Beethoven's music can be reduced to "the social and political imperatives" strikes me as nothing more than a crude application of the theory of basis and superstructure.

For that matter--truly a question asked out of ignorance here--are musicologists so ignorant of modern theories of hermeneutics that it's considered acceptable to listen to a piece of music and decide that it must represent "throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release"? In literature, that kind of willfully subjective (one might even say solipsistic) interpretation would be laughed out of school.

Bryan Townsend said...

Paul, thanks very much for your comment and welcome to the Music Salon. Yes, musicology has lagged behind a lot of the other disciplines in some areas--something of a plus in my book--but the Gramsciists are now marching through our department as well. I don't think that the crudity of Susan McClary's original "rapist" quote would be acceptable today; indeed, she toned it down herself in a later revision. But it sure got a lot of attention in 1987. But no, musicologists do not spend a lot of time learning modern theories of hermeneutics (do you mean as in Gadamer?), instead spending their time listening to very long pieces of music with the score and trying to figure out what to say about Bartók's harmonic structures!

Anonymous said...

Pig woman should be burned at the steak...(yes, i know)

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm normally very proud of our comment section, but I think that this sort of comment is inappropriate. Susan McClary, much as I disagree with her, is an established scholar and deserves a reasonable level of respect. The same as anyone deserves!

Anonymous said...

Dear Bryan,

don't worry about ol' Viktor. https://www.facebook.com/viktorvanniekerk
He's well known for his ridiculous aggressive behavior.

He tends to write pages and pages of stuff, mainly for his own ego.
Nobody really cares to read that stuff; and if you do read it, it's all aimed at aligning outside reality with little Viktor's own world view.
And Viktor's world view, does not accept any other opinions.

In Viktor's world, opinions that oppose his own, are not opinions but considered to be "attacks" and "slanderous content".
The man's ridiculous.

He meticulously searches written content, to extract only that content that is useful to him. The big picture, and intent of the original author, don't really interest him.

To close.
Thanks for your blog.
(Don't get bogged down, by other's childish displays, guised as academia.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you Anonymous. This blog has, to date, been very lucky in not attracting this kind of behaviour, but I am going to be more alert in future. If you are intent on trolling, rather than making courteous comments, you will be banned and your comments removed.

Rickard Dahl said...

Getting e-mail notifications. Some of it is actually very comedic (in a sad way). Disagreeing with feminism (for very valid reasons) is apparently misogyny. Sorry, I can't support ideologies that seek to destroy Western civilization and perpetuate injustices.

Rickard Dahl said...

@George (so now you got a name?), I'm not a psychologist but I know projection when I see it. You're slandering me yet you accuse me of slander.

Bryan Townsend said...

This post has attracted the attention of a troll, unfortunately. All his comments, under whatever pseudonym he chooses, are easily identifiable and will be removed. So please do not respond.

Rickard Dahl said...

Sorry to post again (I really hope I won't post here again any more time) but isn't there a way to (IP) ban the troll? Maybe this could be helpful (I'm not sure as I haven't read through it): http://www.mybloggerlab.com/2012/06/how-to-block-ip-address-on-blogspot.html

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Rickard. If the problem doesn't solve itself, then I will make use of that option.

Lauren Michelle Lynley said...

This woman is insane. I am a feminist and a classical music student and this is absolute nonsense. Beethoven was a stormy, romantic genius who poured his humanity into his music. The sonata form is the height of musical aspiration. McClary should be drummed out of her profession, she is a disgrace as a "scholar" and definitely a disgraceful human being.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Lauren and welcome to the Music Salon. I think that your comment illustrates the real resistance in the world of music to a lot of the more outlandish claims of the "new" musicology. At the end of the day, Beethoven is going to continue to have a lot more respect and credibility among real musicians than Susan McClary's dubious readings.

Anonymous said...

I think she is talking about other interesting things. I recommend this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAgKJWE37Mc