Guilds and the political economy of music theory

Over the next few weeks I plan to do a large volume of reading focusing on music history and political economy. I’ve never been much of a note-taker, but I don’t want to rely solely on my memory for retaining this information. I also want some kind of schedule to keep myself honest as the quarantine weeks drag on. So I hereby commit to writing something here at least once a week summarizing my readings and what I’ve gleaned from them.

Through my time studying at McGill, I’ve realized that the most interesting developments in music theory are taking place in the history of theory. My thesis work, which I began with the intention of writing a standard essay in analysis and performance, morphed over time into a study in the history of metric theory and performance with translated passages from and commentary on theoretical treatises of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The analysis kept getting sidelined by the theoretical issues, which struck me as much more compelling. But I also sense serious problems in the way the history of music theory has been written about, at least until very recently.

The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, published in 2002, is the most comprehensive survey of the history of music theory ever undertaken in English. And it has done a real service to the field by consolidating knowledge that was spread across hundreds of books and articles in several languages, concerning music theory across more than two millenia. Anyone who reads the Cambridge History cover to cover will have taken in a solid survey of what had been accomplished in the field by the turn of the century. The problem is that the field keeps moving, and with every new book or article that is published the theoretical shortcomings of the Cambridge History are made more apparent.

As I understand it, the major problem with the Cambridge History and the style of historiography it embodies is that it is essentially a summary of and commentary on various musical texts. The number and variety of texts it covers is impressive, and the work involved in compiling such a summary and commentary is nothing to sneeze at. But music theory is a living body of knowledge. Texts are only a part of this knowledge, and not necessarily the most important part. Texts provide a place where dead ideas can rest, awaiting rediscovery and revival when they become relevant again. Actual theory is embedded in pedagogical practices of various kinds. Texts may be used as a tool in musical practice (as Fux’s Gradus has been for nearly 300 years), and they can provide various kinds of evidence about practice, but they are not themselves practice. And without being continually reproduced by practice, theory lacks any force. Continue reading

Alfred Uhl at Neumarkt

I’m currently preparing for a concert where I’ll be performing Alfred Uhl’s Divertimento for clarinet quartet, a piece written during the Second World War. I discovered, after already having programmed the piece, that Uhl was in the army during the war and served as the commander of a prison camp in France. To put it lightly, this is not a quality we typically admire in our composers, so I thought it was necessary to learn more.

Not much is written in English about Alfred Uhl, and information on his activities during the war is even sparser. I was, however, able to find a biography in German. Below is my rough-and-ready translation of the passage concerning Uhl’s time as the head of a prison camp.

And then the war seized Uhl and solved all problems for him. On 24 Feb. 1940, six weeks after the birth of his son Peter, Uhl was drafted into the military; three months later he moved to Gmunden, where he underwent a hard military training. And the same musician, who once wrote to his sister from Switzerland the passionate words: “such a war is just about the worst thing that people have invented,” carried now his military duties with utter serenity: “I have just shifted into a state of desirelessness, as Schopenhauer understands it.”

The lance-corporal was assigned as the leader of a French detention camp in Neumarkt on the Ybbs, a task he received thanks to his ability to speak French, and with the help of music he imparted a humane accent to it. He accompanied church services for the prisoners on the organ French church songs, which he learned by ear and during the mass gave impromptu harmonizations. His organ preludes and improvisations lured the local residents in droves toward the church, where they were not allowed to enter, and shook the prisoners to tears. In 1960 a former camp inmate, now a priest, wrote to him a touching note of thanks from France.

On 13 Sept. 1941, Uhl was summoned to the Russian front…

Alexander Witeschnik, Alfred Uhl: Eine biographische Studie (Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1966), 28.

(As a bit of context: very shortly after being moved to the Eastern front, Uhl stepped on a mine and was severely injured. He spent the rest of the war out of commission.)

For the most part I’m reserving judgment on this issue. My impression is that Uhl was mostly wrapped up in musical matters, was drafted into the army with a low rank, ended up where he did solely because he was able to speak French, and tried to treat the prisoners well during his short time in charge of the camp. However, this is from a source obviously well-disposed toward Uhl, which does not investigate the details very closely or ask any inconvenient questions. I also don’t know what the camp conditions were like at Neumarkt. So it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from this. But I wanted to make this passage available in English for any others who may have similar concerns.

Justifying music theory in a time of crisis?

Recently, the usually reliable Current Affairs put out a puzzling article by chief editor Nathan J. Robinson. The article turns on a bit of Internet nonsense, a response to a response to an abstract Robinson wrote for a hypothetical essay. The abstract is titled “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time of Crisis?,” and it’s about exactly what you’d think. Now, I’m never one to shy away from calling academics useless, but Robinson goes awfully far in suggesting that philosophers have some kind of moral imperative to give up and retrain as public health professionals.

Someone called the “Maverick Philosopher” bristled at this suggestion, and Robinson’s article is largely a response to this little-known blogger. On its merits this dispute is hardly worth paying attention to, but I suspect that many Current Affairs readers are, like myself, aspiring academics of one stripe or another. It would be unfortunate to let this deeply flawed argument go unchallenged.

I’m a graduate student in music theory, a field not known for its social conscience, vision, or utility to the broader world. I’m also, if I may say so without bragging, a reasonably smart person with skills that might fruitfully be put to use elsewhere. How do I square this?

As it happens, I considered this question at length during my undergraduate studies, and again before choosing to pursue academia rather than become a performing musician. I’ve never come to a definitive answer, but I’ve managed to satisfy my guilty conscience after wrestling with the issue for a long time. Some questions and comments that come to mind are:

Is music really so useless? (You could easily substitute whatever “useless” activity you like here.) Or perhaps a healthy society is one that has many people pursuing a variety of different activities, including and especially ones that are not directly related to daily sustenance? Obviously becoming a musician or music professor is a withdrawal from the social or political realm in a way that becoming, say, a union organizer or a nurse isn’t. But many people with respectable careers are several degrees removed from any useful or urgent activity, or even actively doing harm – why then is teaching and researching in the humanities a uniquely questionable pursuit? Is it good enough to say that I’m doing what I like and harming no one in the process?

Ultimately, is my choice of career that important? Is it not presumptuous to lavish so much attention on this question, as if I’m some kind of potential messiah? More realistically, I’m someone who has the potential to make a modest contribution to one of a handful of fields, and must make a choice between them. In terms of broad systems, the outcome of that choice scarcely matters.

In his response to the “Maverick Philosopher,” it never seems to occur to Robinson that his question is an elementary one that most people have answered hundreds of times over by the time they have a career in a useless humanities field. When people are short with you, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether they’re truly dazzled by your logical prowess or just sick of rehashing the same arguments to justify themselves – especially to half-bright Ivy League shitheads.

Throughout his article, Robinson relies tacitly on a notion of fungible skills – the idea that some people are just “smart,” and could become advanced metaphysicians or public health professionals just as easily. This is obviously false, as anyone who has met a philosophy student can attest. Different fields of endeavour require different skills, and not everyone is equally suited for everything. In a perfect world, everybody would devote their life to something they’re well-suited for and happy with. In this fallen one, we do what we can. I would never blame anyone for taking the opportunities available to them.

In general, we should feel some sort of imperative to be good citizens – to be active in our communities, to help others, to push for a better, more equitable world. But this can look different for every person. For an academic, this might mean striving to make academia a more hospitable place for all its inhabitants. The primary role of even the crustiest professor is, after all, to teach the young professionals whose futures Robinson cares so much about. Or it might mean putting a lot of energy into political activism in one’s spare time. Or it might mean keeping one’s head down, doing good work, and being decent to one’s students and colleagues. We have to recognize that not everyone can or will contribute equally, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you’re not doing evil, or actively blocking the path of those opposing evil, you’re doing good enough.

In most spheres of life, no one person has an overwhelming influence. A sober look at this fact might lead one to conclude that cultivating personal virtue is not the be-all and end-all. People who devote their lives to running charities or curing diseases are admirable – but this does not mean that those of us with less exciting lives are somehow slacking off. Individual effort is overrated. We may be in a time of crisis, but that does not mean every available person must devote every available bit of energy to solving it. It’s not possible to mobilize the entire population in this way, even in times of war.

Ultimately, Robinson’s problem is that, despite his no-nonsense attitude, he’s bought into the delusion peddled by the elite universities: that meaningful change will be driven by the problem-solving exertions of the professional class. Does it really seem plausible that the reason poor Alabamans get medieval diseases is that not enough smart people are getting degrees in public health? Or is there a more systemic problem, perhaps requiring some kind of large-scale collective solution? I’m pretty sure there’s a word for such a thing, but I can’t quite think what it is. Maybe I should have paid more attention in political philosophy class.

Feature image credit: excerpt from Heinrich Schenker’s Harmonielehre (1906). Public domain.