The Roaring Lion: Critical Musicology, the Aesthetic Experience, and the Music Department

By Gramit, David | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Roaring Lion: Critical Musicology, the Aesthetic Experience, and the Music Department


Gramit, David, Canadian University Music Review


Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. . .

1 Peter 5: 8-9a (NRSV)

To open with a biblical text, however time-honoured it may be for a sermon, runs counter enough to established norms for a musicological paper that it risks dismissal for a variety of reasons, ranging from mockery to affectation. By doing so, however, I am both acknowledging a text that sprang to my mind as uniquely relevant to the musicological phenomenon I will consider, and suggesting parallels between the religious discourse exemplified in the sermon and the musicological discourse that, I will argue, is a prominent feature of the discipline as institutionalized in North American universities. The methodological disputes of the past decade, and in particular the sometimes vehement reaction encountered by socially-grounded discussions of art music, have given rise to a rhetoric reminiscent of that employed by the author of 1 Peter: the tone and persistence of such reactions would suggest that there is indeed an adversary seeking to devour, and resistance is based in unwavering adherence to a foundational faith.1

Before developing this analogy and seeking to identify the nature of the faith being advocated, I will clarify my topic in relation to the discipline of musicology. I will be discussing what I have termed "critical musicology," for want of a less ambiguous label, or, more precisely, the place of that enterprise in relation to musicology as a discipline. "Musicology" as I use it here is not the broadly inclusive term used by Philip Bohlman in an essay that provides a stimulating alternative perspective on many of the issues I will discuss.2 To use the term as he does, to refer to any scholarly study of a musical phenomenon, has historical precedents but marks the discipline as open to music and enquiries of all sorts. As I use it, however, the term is more restrictive but also more representative of the activities most strongly associated with it: the discipline I am discussing is that which has made the European art music tradition its primary object of study, establishing strong but usually only implicit bounds not only to suitable repertoire, but also to appropriate approaches to that repertoire. My aim in what follows is to suggest an aspect of the ideological underpinning of this familiar disciplinary situation and to trace its influence on the development and reception of a critical musicology.

What, then, is critical musicology? Despite the similarity of the name I have adopted, it is not to be equated with Joseph Kerman's influential vision of musicology as directed toward the ultimate goal of music criticism, the sympathetic discussion and evaluation of individual works of music. First explicitly defined as a scholarly program in 1965, Kerman's agenda has had a substantial and continuing impact on the practice of musicology in North America, as both his own later overview of the field and the continued work of Kerman and those who have explicitly or implicitly adopted his program make clear.3 Still, despite substantial methodological and rhetorical differences from the positivistic mainstream Kerman initially opposed, his program shares crucial common ground with that mainstream, maintaining and even strengthening both its traditional focus on the canonic Western tradition and the centrality of composers and their works that characterizes that tradition. As I will suggest below, however, this is also true of some important examples of what I would term "critical musicology." Indeed, it is precisely the pervasiveness of a mode of discourse that situates the experience of listening to individual works as the essential focal point of musicological study which lends that mode extraordinary significance. While I do not propose that critical musicology should banish either close readings of works or talk of musical experience, I will claim that it must remain aware of the ideological underpinnings of these approaches and draw attention to how they can either intentionally or inadvertently limit the object of musicological inquiry in a way that excludes from the start much of what could fall within the scope of the discipline. …

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