Musicology is thriving. The recent Society of Musicology Ireland Conference hosted over 60 speakers, a smaller than usual number because of the recession. What do we mean by musicology? It is the study of music as an intellectual discipline. But such a wide definition is of little use. Does it include music analysis, for example? In fact, few papers presented at the SMI could be described as analytic. Academics now want to think around music rather than about it. This is where my problem with it arises. Too little of the subject as it is practised in universities gives any flavour of music in its particularity and quirkiness. Everyone seems to have a story (or should I say, narrative) within which the music itself gets pushed around like draughts on a draughts board, or, in more than one case, ignored altogether. Few speakers at conferences go to the piano to illustrate their points. The emphasis is on the word. This strange state of affairs is doubtless connected to the circumstance that so few academics are performers or composers. Words are their element. Yet the question must squarely be put: how much can profitably be said about music fom a non-practical standpoint? Someone asked Franz Liszt (I believe) to explain a piece he had just played, to which his response was to sit at the piano and play it again. This delightful and salutary anecdote is not one to entertain the table with at the average musicological conference dinner. It will not go down well.
It is something of a shock to realise that within this culture of words about, and sometimes words about words about, music, there are trends, movements, rebels and heretics, kings and pretenders, and that well-paid careers are built upon it all. And to what end? Music’s place in the general culture is more marginal than ever. And the point of musicology for musicians themselves is even more doubtful. Phillip Larkin said that his problem with academic writing about literature was that it did not help him to write a single word. When so much effort and ingenuity is expended to so little purpose, it is surely time for some new thinking.
We all know the uses of musicology in the sense of true, if limited, scholarship. First among these is the reviving and editing of deserving composers who have been forgotten. An early beneficiary of this strand of the discipline was Henry Purcell. And the same applies, oddly, to music now. Scholars can play an important role in bringing little-known contemporary music to wider attention. (I first learned about Gyorgy Kurtag at a conference in Liverpool.) Without musicology we would not have the great collections of folksong, though composers like Bartok and Vaughan Williams must take much of the credit for this.
But very little of what you will hear at conferences has any relation to this good agenda, and the time is instead filled up with dreary narratives, subtexts, gender-theories and spurious parallels with literature and the other arts. Musicology has become discourse about music in which discourse trumps music. This kind of writing thrives on the unprovable (because irrefutable) pronouncement. Hence: Schubert’s vagrant tonality reflects an ill-defined sexual identity. Well, go ahead: try proving this statement wrong. Another staple absurdity is what I call the one-way comparison: Maxwell Davies’s tonality is a reworking of the tonality-modality dichotomy found in Sibelius. So Maxwell Davies is like Sibelius. But does this mean that Sibelius is like Maxwell Davies?
It seems to me that too much of what happens in musicology lacks an anchoring connection to the living art as practiced by performers and composers. Perhaps I am wrong.