Can there be such a thing as music criticism?

John Deathridge

  • Music and Civilisation: Essays in Honour of Paul Henry Lang edited by Edmond Strainchamps, Maria Rika Maniates and Christopher Hatch
    Norton, 499 pp, £35.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 393 01677 3
  • The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914 edited by Kay Dreyfus
    Macmillan, 542 pp, £25.00, December 1985, ISBN 0 333 38085 1
  • Musicology by Joseph Kerman
    Collins/Fontana, 255 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 00 197170 0

Musicologists are notorious both in and outside academic circles for their arcane habits of mind and their usually enraptured view of the mediocre and obscure. Paul Henry Lang – doyen of American musicology and the author of the magisterial Music in Western Civilisation – was never slow to point this out: ‘A scholar who, like a Hindu ascetic immersed in self-contemplation, confines himself to his narrow field of specialisation, loses the larger view. The first requirement for the musicologist is to realise that the choice of studying other disciplines is governed not by his tastes and ideas alone, but by sheer necessity. Further, he must not only absorb the content of other disciplines, but – and this is much more difficult – put each to constructive use in his own field.’ Lang believed that the musicologist should not shy away from his role as disturber of the peace in the serene and pleasurable world of music, where awkward questions about performing practice, sociology, theory and aesthetics are still too often regarded as an infringement of the right simply to ‘enjoy’ music. This view seems to have been taken to heart by most of the former colleagues and students who have contributed to the handsome volume in his honour. Their essays range from Rose Rosengard Subotnik’s philosophical investigation into aspects of meaning in Mozart’s last three symphonies to James McKinnon’s critique of the myth of the Phrygian aulos, the instrument whose exciting and sensuous sound was supposedly rejected on ethical grounds. The collection starts well, with a scrupulous examination by Christoph Wolff of Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah, which was highly respected until the advent of the historical performance movement tarnished its reputation for good. Wolff reflects on the spiritual link (as the late 18th century probably saw it) between a young genius and a revered master, and sets the tone of Lang’s Festschrift with some cogent remarks on the diplomat and music patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the guardian angel of Mozart’s late style.

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