Sensation in Musicology

September 24, 2011

Alex Ross retails the “top ten titles” for papers at this fall’s Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society:

Francesco Dalla Vecchia, “Sopranos Gone Wild: Flashing in Seventeenth-Century Venetian Opera”

Craig Monson, “‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’ — ‘They Would Claw Each Other’s Flesh If They Could’: Conflicting Conformities in Convent Music”

David Kasunic, “Beethoven in the Background: Music and Fine Dining in Nineteenth-Century France”

Amanda Eubanks Winkler, “High School Musicals: Understanding Seventeenth-Century English Pedagogical Masques”

Rachel Cowgill, “Filling the Void: Theosophy, Modernity, and the Rituals of Armistice Day in the Reception of John Foulds’s A World Requiem”

Jessica Wood, “An Old World Instrument for Cold War Diplomacy: The Touring Harpsichord in 1950s Asia”

Elaine Kelly, “Late Beethoven and Late Socialism in the German Democratic Republic”

John Howland, “Nobrow Pop in the New Millennium?: Nico Muhly and Post-2000 Chamber Pop”

Paula Higgins, “Josquin and the Dormouse: Aesthetic Excess, Masculinity, and Homoeroticism in the Reception of Planxit autem David”

Joseph Auner, “Weighing, Measuring, Embalming Tonality”

It happens that this year is the first time I’ve ever had a paper proposal turned down for the Annual Meeting. Clearly I have not kept up with the times in terms of sexy, provocative titles! (Compare the list above with the title in the illustrated 1986 Journal.)

UPDATE: My notifying the AMS List of Alex Ross’s Top Ten List brought on correspondence that caused him to make an addendum to the Ten.


It is in the period that we call by the refreshingly positive name of Renaissance that we first find composers who behave like composers, writing and publishing appreciable amounts of music, obviously learning from identifiable teachers, and influencing students whose names we know. Our ingrained Darwinism is gratified when history arrives at this—the beginning, significantly, of what historians call the Modern Era. Missing Links in stylistic lineages have been tracked down with a thoroughness that would edify paleontology. The composers of the Renaissance tend obligingly to group themselves into Schools (or at least not to resist over-much when we so group them ourselves) and generally give us what we want in the way of compositions in the various genres of the time.

But to look at Renaissance composers thus is to view them in a way that would have surprised them—and especially startled their employers—very much. Josquin Desprez, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance, is usually called in the old documents such things as “biscantor” (as a singer at Milan Cathedral), “cantor di capella” (when a ducal singer in the Sforza family’s service), “Josquin chantre” (as he ventured into France during his leaves from the papal chapel), and “maestro di cappella” (or teacher of the singers attached to the court of Ferrara). That he became renowned as a composer was a sort of bonus (though, in his case, an unprecedentedly large one) attached to, and greatly ornamenting, his occupation as a performer and trainer of musicians. Even his teaching of composition was described solely as an adjunct to day-by-day performance in the choir:

My teacher Josquin … never gave a lecture on music or wrote a theoretical work, and yet he was able in a short time to form complete musicians, because he did not keep back his pupils with long and useless instructions but taught them the rules in a few words, through practical application in the course of singing. And as soon as he saw that his pupils were well grounded in singing, had a good enunciation and knew how to embellish melodies [i.e., improvise around the written notes] and fit the text to the music [since much of this was left to the discretion of the performer, too], then he taught them the perfect and imperfect intervals and the different methods of inventing counterpoints against plainsong. If he discovered, however, pupils with an ingenious mind and promising disposition, then he would teach these in a few words the rules of three-part and later of four-, five-, and six-part, etc. writing, always providing them with examples to imitate.

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Jacksonian Democracy

June 29, 2009

Michael-Jackson-p04 What we like to call, with disdain, the media circus surrounding the death of Michael Jackson was predictable. I’m finding, though, that the reactions of people I know are not so much so.

There has been an intermittently stimulating discussion of the list-serv of the American Musicological Society that appropriately asks the question of how fitting the toolbox of the scholarly musicologist is to the artistic legacy of Michael Jackson. Since modern musicology is conversant with the language of reception of art and the influences, upon it and by it, that are not altogether musical, the subject need not be an embarrassment to dispassionate research. But passionate research is what many will enter into when it comes to a figure whose effect on masses of humanity is not yet completely understood.

One blogger has taken up the task of aggregating serious writing on Michael Jackson — a worthy and particularly 21st-century-media thing to do. It will be interesting to watch how it develops. It can be expected to produce a mixture of scientific content wrapped in a commonplace wrapper and commonplace content disguised by scientific lingo (and I certainly know which I prefer).

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