No Better Than He Should Be

Those interested in contemporary concert and art performance may subscribe, for better or worse, to Norman Lebrecht’s blog Slipped Disc.  Lebrecht was a music journalist for a time, and has written plenty of books, fiction and non-fiction.  His first novel The Song of Names won a Whitbread Award, one of his best known books is The Maestro Myth, etc.  I find the site most useful for obits; it is no news to anyone familiar with the site that he trades in gossip and condescension.  Richard Taruskin has dismissed him as a “muckraker,” and as of today’s updates it’s hard to take issue with that.

Here’s a selection of March 9’s updates: “Just in: English National Opera Co-Opts Barbican Boss,” “Just In: Covent Garden Grabs American Chorus Director From Berlin,” “Paris Opera is On Strike Again,” “Another Big Five Orch Loses its PR,” a couple of items about George Martin (he lets us know that he interviewed Martin twice), etc.  Two caught my eye especially, though.  The first of these is “An Opera on the Innocent Youth of Bill Clinton”; this simply reproduces the press release for a forthcoming production by Opera Ithaca, which in part reads, “Billy Blythe is a snapshot of Clinton’s life in Arkansas in 1959. His relationship with his family and several events reveal the inspiration behind Clinton’s motivations to achieve success despite challenges.”  “You wouldn’t think they’re sucking up to the next prez, would you?” snarls the intrepid and probing Mr. Lebrecht, apparently unaware that 1) since he knows nothing of the opera, it may put Bill Clinton in a less-than-complimentary light and thus offend one of the two Democratic candidates; 2) Opera Ithaca does not stand to benefit from currying favor with a Presidential candidate, or even a President, really—not being a monarchy, we don’t have royal privileges and so on; 3) there is no presumptive President yet; the Michigan primary demonstrated that pollsters can be wrong, Democrats were very confident in 2000 and 2004 and…etc.  This may be nothing more than traditional British anti-American superciliousness; an opera about young Bill Clinton is obviously infra dig, though the British composer Thomas Adès, who composed an opera about the Duchess of Argyll (grist for the English gossip columns—we’ll draw the curtain of charity there), instead got a breathless, finger-licking piece from Lebrecht.  We get it; the sun never sets, Clinton was a hick but as for the duchess have you heard, etc.  It’s not like condescension from a British newspaperman would be a new thing.

I take another one personally.  “What Musicology Is All About In 2016” offers one remark: “You couldn’t make it up” (which is high praise from a novelist, presumably) and a call for papers for a forthcoming conference.  The conference is dedicated to the music and career of Billy Joel, and (to quote the listing) “this is not simply a gathering for scholars and/or enthusiasts.  Rather, the conference has been conceived as a “public musicology” event—graciously co-sponsored by the American Musicological Society—from its initial planning stages.  It is an opportunity to put on display our collective ability to talk about music familiar to non-academic audiences in ways that are accessible, insightful, engaging, and entertaining.”

Well!  Can you just imagine. A meeting devoted to a pop star?!  It’s curious because musicologists often come in for a bashing amongst Lebrecht’s twittering acolytes (not so much this time, it seems), and the usual stereotypes are rehearsed: “words without song,” how trivial and marginal our studies are, how far we are from actual music-making, and so on.  Why, it’s enough to make one flutter one’s crinoline petticoats in displeasure while looking askance through one’s lorgnette.  Are we out of our lane in studying popular music…is that beneath the dignity of our profession?  Our profession doesn’t get much respect on this site as it is, but to try to reach out to non-specialists…

Can someone tell me what Mr. Lebrecht’s education is?  I can’t find it.  I don’t know if he has any musical training at all, or is just a glorified gossip scribbler who likes opera…or, more accurately, the larger-than-life people involved with it.  There’s no crime in that, of course, but if so, one would hope that he wouldn’t be quite so jumped up (a lovely British phrase) about who he is and what he purports to write about.  Some might regard musicological attempts to reach beyond a narrow academic audience as a positive development, a temporary escape from the ivory tower.

Not Mr. Lebrecht.  Apparently, study and appreciation of popular music is beneath what even trivial musical pedants should be doing.

Nurse must have forgotten to give him his treacle.  Here’s hoping he feels better.

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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2 Responses to No Better Than He Should Be

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    I too would love to know his education. I read his blog, occasionally, as it does have information of hirings and departures here and there that I might not otherwise know about. But he is at least a muckraker, and sometimes just a smug, condescending ass. Having crossed swords with him once or twice, I would like to know on what background he bases his assumption of superiority.

  2. He’s the tabloid newspaper of the classical music world in the UK. A prurient gossip-monger. It distresses me when apparently intelligent colleagues tell me that they find his site “fascinating”…..

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