How should music scholars write for non-specialists? That is the wide-ranging question that Dave Hesmondhalgh raised in an essay for Naxos Musicology International in November 2019. (NMI is available to anyone who subscribes to Naxos Music Library or whose library does. Click the “Musicology” button on the left edge of the homepage.) Hesmondhalgh lays out numerous beneficial possibilities. But he passes quickly over the single most frequent form of scholarly outreach: books and articles (for newspapers, CD booklets, blogs, online magazines) that address topics likely to be of interest to many. Hesmondhalgh would place this in the category of “traditional public musicology.” He mentions two fine instances: the program notes of Donald Francis Tovey (which were then gathered into the now-classic, multi-volume Essays in Musical Analysis) and the rock criticism of Simon Frith. By profession, I am a historical musicologist. But I got my start as a writer publishing concert reviews. This was, I think, in 1967, when I was 18. At age 66 (in 2015), I began again to publish reviews on a regular basis, now focusing primarily on CDs (though I also write about some books and live performances). It occurs to me that my experiences, struggles, and doubts—or, worse, my haste and lack of doubt!—might be worth sharing here. My examples are two reviews that I wrote nearly fifty years apart and that treat one and the same work (an Offenbach operetta).
The streaming experience, June 27 at 5 PM, depicted Mr. Hamelin behind a view of gray skies on a rainy seacoast day replete with undulating seagulls underscoring Schubert’s somber and dark study with the neatly folded ensemble of insouciance, ribbons of color, and fleeting flights of weightlessness.
For over a decade I’ve covered the Glimmerglass Festival and have celebrated its ascension to an internationally lauded event under the direction of the boundlessly energetic and resourceful Franscesca Zambello. The cancelation of the 2020 season was another of many tragic cancelations of sister opera houses world-wide.
Maestro Søndergård gave his all, with the Berliners spurning any sign of pandemic gloom. Of course, the program reflected the bitter irony of the variegated excesses of the 1920s. Like a dream of a pristine past, Sibelius’s Sixth, the centerpiece, stood in reflective and almost solemn relief.
Let it never be said that French musical culture is reluctant when it comes to matters of the heart. Speaking in caricature, we incline to think of England as prudish and of Italy as choked-up and glottal-stopped with amorous emotion. The French, though, seem to be the official “culture of love," and--let’s be clear—French musical “impressionism” is largely about sex. All those satiny string breezes and quivering woodwind dewdrops mean little if we don’t imagine languid lovers at center stage. That’s what Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is all about, of course, as is Daphnis and Chloe. But there is a reserve in both Debussy and Ravel which keeps the listener at an artistic remove. No one would accuse Debussy’s Jeux or Ravel’s Mother Goose of louche sensuality. Florent Schmitt, on the other hand, like the film noir composer he could have been, is happy to confront sensual moments in real time. Schmitt’s constantly shifting rhythms mirror the quick intensity of actual emotions and thoughts, the changeable “eclectic” quality of human happenings and the physical process of sex itself. There are moments in La Tragédie de Salomé where you might as well be listening to the headboard banging against the wall.
Numerous early- and mid-twentieth-century German operas failed to reach our shores, or came but made little impact. Even today, several of Richard Strauss’s many highly accomplished and gratifying operas after Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos remain largely unknown to most opera lovers. True, their librettos are often cumbersome, wordy, or obscure, but the works are still well worth hearing and seeing—or getting to know at home through recordings and DVDs. The there’s Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who, having traveled to Hollywood to write film scores, ended up staying here because of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Yet his operas—quite successful for a time in the German-speaking lands—somehow never caught up with him in America.
What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March. My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines.