Teaching Music You Hate

Jonathan Bellman

One of the assumptions made about musicologists—especially those of us that have been called upon to fill the generalist’s role in addition to the specialist’s one—is that we actually like everything. Gregorian chant to the most cutting-edge performance-art music, not only are we responsible for making it “live” to those who might not be inclined to think it (at least all of it) does; we somehow end up suggesting that we like it all.

In fact, we all have blind spots. Generalists may (or may not) be inclined to like a broader cross-section of the repertoire, let’s say, or to take responsibility for teaching it, but it is unlikely that there is someone who really loves everything. The dark secret is that sometimes we hate stuff, and have to teach it anyway. When I taught music appreciation, years ago, and first-year and second-year music history surveys (more recently), and the graduate-level nineteenth-century music survey, Richard Wagner was and is on the syllabus. In terms of his importance and influence, both on his contemporaries and those who came after him, he absolutely should be. I have always made up my own syllabi, and have never taught to anyone else’s, so I take full responsibility. Fact is, though, I dislike it, the music and the man both, intensely.

I have been repelled by his music ever since I was young, long before I knew anything of his anti-Semitism, his—er—approach to history and autobiography, his psychological issues, or the way he treated those around him. The kind of soprano noise without which there is no Wagnerian opera has simply never been to my taste. (Indeed, I’m not much of an opera guy per se, unless we’re talking about Mozart and a certain few others.) The sheer pretentious bombast of the music dramas, though, really trumps everyone else. Then one learns about the poisonous writings, the contempt with which Wagner’s fellow-creatures, including those who labored in the cause of his music, were, treated, and so forth. And the plots! I find the theme of self-sacrificing female destroying herself for flawed-but-worthy male embarrassing and adolescent, and he seems never to get enough of it. Now what? Do I “reinvigorate” these works for people who have never heard them by bringing all this up, and “problematizing” the repertoire that way? That doesn’t really seem responsible, given how alien these grandiose operatic treatments of remanufactured Germanic mythology are in contemporary culture anyway. Is there a right way to do this?

When I teach Wagner, I cannot dwell on what I would consider the morality of his whole situation. I do my best to talk about Leitmotif structure, harmonic language, the unification of all the arts and so on, and to relate him to other Romantic traditions. I don’t feel hypocritical about this; first things first, and at more advanced levels one can dig into deeper issues. For now, even acknowledging that pedagogical objectivity doesn’t exist, it still seems that visiting the hard edge of my personal feelings about the music on the students does not seem quite right. So I don’t dwell on that unit, but I hold my breath and teach it as soberly and responsibly as possible, and move on.

OK, an admission: sometimes I play his little 1840 Song Without Words for the class and ask them to guess the composer. (Special thanks to the San Francisco Wagner Society for making me dig deep enough, one time in the early 1990s, to find it.) ABA+coda, and he clearly cribs Mendelssohn—obvious from the outset, given the title—then Chopin, and for the coda Meyerbeer. A tad ignoble of me, perhaps, or petty: here’s the Great Man doing compose-by-numbers in 1840, before he was to publicly revile his models.

Or perhaps not. Understanding someone’s compositional influences—for however brief a time, and even if two of them were his Jewish-blooded bêtes noires, and whether he owns up later or not—is important, regardless of the standard historical, which tends to skim over this point. Wagner’s somewhat obsequious admiration for Meyerbeer and Halevy and so on in the late 1830s (check out the book Wagner Writes From Paris) is a matter of historical record, and to leave that out distorts the picture as much, possibly, as only presenting what the propagandists would prescribe: The Great Compositions, Wagner as almost sole author of the Music of the Future, and so on.

Glancing back at where I began, then: all these matters have to be weighed, balanced, tied up in a finished little bundle etc. within one class period, or less. Multiply all this by the dozens of composers it is our responsibility to present. Sometimes the life of a top specialist seems like a real piece of cake by comparison!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Teaching Music You Hate

  1. Matthew says:

    When I was at BU, I took Joel Sheveloff’s Wagner seminar, and he set aside an entire class period just to discuss what a “bastard” Wagner was, and how much it should matter. He made sure to bring up all of Wagner’s Jewish influences and collaborators (Meyerbeer, Levi, etc.), the point being that, even as an anti-Semite, Wagner was a hypocritical blowhard. I think it’s the only honest way to teach about him. (There are people who claim we should separate the music from the man, but I mean, Wagner never did.)
    I’ve always been a little confused by Wagner’s godlike status in music history, even considering his influence and innovations. Certainly the man went out of his way to encourage his own deification, but the extent to which otherwise reasonable people bought it, and why, is probably a dissertation in itself. Or maybe it’s just nice guys finishing last again.

  2. I have to say that I agree (being a trombonist, that is complete blasphemy, I know!). I can’t put on Wagner just to listen and enjoy. The only time I listen to it can also be defined by the playlist on my iPod: Audition Prep. That’s that.

  3. Charles Freeman says:

    All fine and good, if the composer in question has a fairly strong legion of discontents (in general or in academia), as does Wagner. Far better (or at least safer), however, to zip one’s lip when the composer in question, the one whose musical appeal or popularity you just can’t fathom, is more universally adored without apparent dissent.
    And heck no, I ain’t tellin’.

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