Musical associations

Last night, I got home from this year’s Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association. The RMA has been running since 1874 as an organisation which was founded ‘for the investigation and discussion of subjects connected with the art and science of music;’ and from occasional meetings of distinguished gentlemen (mostly with impressive moustaches and beautifully folded ties), it has grown to take account of three things that its founders were probably not likely to expect within the profession: women, an enormously wide range of musical styles and approaches, and systems to help the modern music scholar deal with the vagaries of university testing and legislation.

If you’ve read the first paragraph of this, are thinking ‘ah, she means Royal Musicological Association’, and are consequently thinking that it’s an organisation – and indeed a blog post – that has nothing to do with you, stick around a minute more. Because if you’re currently visualising a conference that is largely populated by the sort of bewhiskered individuals that might have visited such an event in 1874, you couldn’t be more wrong. Highlights of my conference trip included a session on musical groups working in prisons, an amazing initiative uniting Indian classical and European pop styles in a group of talented young musicians, a paper on forging musical works to make them sound old and authentic, and a whole panel on the Eurovision Song Contest. Plus virtuosic lecture recitals, and in-depth conversations between composers – because I did indeed say ‘Musical’ when I gave you the title of this Association, and that means everyone working in music, practitioners as well as theorists. Was that what you were expecting? No. Thought not.

Wall of magnetic tapes

The RMA – and indeed, research that falls under the ‘musicology’ label more generally – is a long way now from live white men writing about dead white men (which is, let’s be honest, what it largely was for quite some time). I learned some fascinating things about more traditional musicological research areas as well at the conference, including some fascinating work on tracing the history of Tudor partbooks – not just how these beautiful objects were made, but how later owners scribbled on them, chopped bits off, stuck bits in, lost a volume here and there but carried on trying to sing the things regardless, and so on. There is still a lot to be said about these topics, for the simple reason that the information we have grows over time, and the way we explore and investigate topics or artefacts changes with passing decades. One scholar in the Tudor partbooks paper remarked how, several decades previously, anyone looking at those books would only have been interested in the pieces of music they contained, and that the actual object would have been considered only as an imperfect means of passing on the pieces. Real, deep consideration of what these physical objects are is new, and of course helped enormously by advances in digital technology that allows certain sorts of scanning and analysis that wasn’t possible before – not to mention the fact that these beautiful things can be scanned for viewing online. Check them out. They’re well worth a look.

In addition to new approaches to old treasures are all the projects working on current practice, like the music in prisons schemes, and Eurovision panel. And we had a good deal of myth-busting, too, particularly around the idea of ‘poor Schubert’, underfunded and underappreciated in Vienna in the 1820s. Not so, according to one of our keynote speakers. When I asked her afterwards how we could change the perception of Schubert from this impoverished, unloved figure that is so beloved of films and novels – and indeed old-fashioned or lazy scholarly writing – her answer was not ‘write an inaccessible 950-page book that will cost at least £300 and be in specialist language.’ She shrugged, said it was difficult, and then suggested that someone should make a movie. Best way to reach a large audience, and if it was well done, it could really change minds. Look at Amadeus (poor Salieri!).

It’s so easy to think that an ‘ology’, and particularly one around the performing arts, is sort of irrelevant to the practise of the arts themselves – that these dusty -ologists are only analysing and producing papers because they can’t actually do the thing itself. But that’s looking at it backwards, particularly given the current state of music scholarship, and the fact that university researchers also includes composers and performers. These folks have broad tastes, wide-ranging research interests, want to engage people and use pop culture references and deal with difficult subjects like gender identity and racial integration, music in correctional facilities and ethical questions about the psychological and emotional effects of certain repertoire. They talk politics, and they make slideshows featuring quotes from Indiana Jones. They care, and they want you to care too. Of course there are also some dull musicologists, just as there are dull people in any profession – though I have to say, I didn’t meet any at the RMA Conference. But let’s stop side-lining these folks, and using musicology like it’s a dirty word. They have a lot to share with us, and if we’re that keen on listening to the music, we should take a moment to listen to them, too.


  • Twenty years, ago, the myths about ‘Poor Schubert’ were strongly contested by Christopher H. Gibbs, in his article ‘“Poor Schubert”: images and legends of the composer’ in the Cambridge Companion to Schubert (which he also edited), published in 1997. This approach also informed his biography of Schubert, published three years later by CUP (which currently sells new in paperback at £21.99 on Amazon, and is very far from being inaccessible). A whole range of subsequent books on Schubert have made reference to the original “Poor Schubert” article, so it’s questionable to what extent it could be said that such myths remain at least in scholarly discourse? I’m quite curious to know how Lindmayr-Brandl’s work relates to that of Gibbs.

    Movies may change minds, but are rarely subject to much scholarly ratification – ‘Immortal Beloved’ is a classic example. Very few Beethoven scholars would endorse the idea that his sister-in-law Johanna was the Immortal Beloved. If anything, movies are more likely to serve as myth-makers than myth-busters.

    • Katy

      So long as older volumes are still in circulation – as well they should be, given the information many contain – myths have a tendency of hanging around. And of course movies make myths, their priority is to present good stories and that doesn’t always align with documentary/scholarly priorities. But they can also make myths that are more informed by new research. And whatever we like to tell ourselves, however useful we find them as scholars, Cambridge Companions are not likely to be on the bookshelves of most passionate amateurs performers or listeners. Certainly they aren’t in the homes of most of the hundreds of amateurs I’ve encountered. For other examples of things we know to be true, prove over and over again and are still ignored, see climate change and the benefits of music education.

  • Well, I know of no major film about Schubert’s life, certainly not one in wide circulation, so I wonder from where people today get their myths about Schubert? If they would take the trouble to read a book, they might take the trouble to read a more recent one which, even if written for a non-academic readership, might at least take account of scholarship from 20 years ago. Gibbs’ work was too recent for the 1998 books by Elizabeth McKay and Brian Newbould (which are both nonetheless extremely good); I haven’t read the more recent biographical works by Henry Frost or Oscar Bie, but a recent glance suggests no reference to Gibbs, which is a shame. Maybe people get the myths from radio presenters and the like? It would be good if more radio programmes engaged musicologists or at least the presenters and producers became more familiar with the state of scholarship (some do, for sure).

    But in the UK, part of the problem is the lack of institutional respect recognition afforded by academic institutions to work which is thoroughly researched and up-to-date, but written for a non-specialist readership. Gibbs’ biography, however, is perfectly readable to anyone with a more casual interest, I believe.

    There is an overwhelming consensus about climate change, as far as I can tell, amongst scholars. On the benefits of music education, or at least certain types of music education, that is far from the case.

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