Recently a complimentary first issue of a magazine devoted to classical music happenings in New Orleans made it into my mailbox. Curious, I perused it a little detachedly. Small features of different programs were peppered throughout the publication. My eyes alighted onto an article briefing describing the program of an early music group here in NOLA (they're not that great, but I was curious to see what they were performing).
I quote directly: "It includes songs of troubadours and touveres, the traveling French minstrels of the 12th and 13th centuries, focusing on the works of Guillame Dufay, who is regarded as the first of the troubadours." I'm not kidding!!
Two glaring mishaps are staring at me in unblinking ignorance. The first I can forgive somewhat if I choose to read "the traveling Fr minstrels of the 12th and 13th centuries" as a phrase in a series rather than apposition with troubadours and trouveres, who were not minstrels and may not have been itinerant. Minstrels were a completely different social group of people pretty much on the equivalent of slaves/servants.
The second mistake is simply inexcusable for any publication that considers itself to be taken seriously. That would be the phrase, "Guillaume Dufay, who is regarded as the first of the troubadours." Guillaume Du Fay (this is now the accepted spelling of his name) was not a troubadour. There is no plainer way to say such. Du Fay lived from 1397-1474, a far cry from the 12th century! The author of this article is confusing Guillaume Du Fay with Guillaume IX, duke of Auquitaine (a patriarchal figure in the line to the great Eleanor, wife and mother to kingS). The confusion is obvious, they have the same first name. That's like confusing my sister Mary with the Blessed Virgin!! In order to hammer home the absurdity of this statement I will make an analogy from the world of art. Saying that Du Fay was the first great troubadour is like saying that Picasso was the first to use perspective in his paintings, a natural confusion since his name and Donatello's both end in "-o".*
My other encounter with music and jounalism comes from The New Yorker. I've never been a fan of Alex Ross, and he hasn't done anything to ingratiate me yet. What really bothers me about him in addition to writing that is frankly undergraduate** he has no idea what historical scholarship is about. In an issue from a couple of weeks ago he brought up some of the biography problems that have been perpetuated about Shostakovich. Having written a Shostakovich paper within this past year, I was familiar with the works he was talking about. An enthusiastically Soviet-opposed fellow by the name of Volkov portrays to the Western world a probably more subversively minded Shostakovich than was actually the case, which is old news to the musicological world.
Ross quotes the findings of musicologist Fay:
There is no signature on the first page, it turns out; that claim was something other than the truth. Instead, there is a signature on the third page, which perfectly overlaps with a bland essay that Shostakovich published in 1966. Fay subjects the entire document to Sherlockian scrutiny, noting that a couple of the recycled pages had been doctored to remove datable references.
Sherlockian scrutiny? How about every day scholarly research. Oh, if he wants he can call it Sherlockian scrutiny, but it's really what one would expect for this kind of historical research.
Then Ross starts to shine through in the way that just irks me:
To dismiss Fay’s evidence is to disregard a great artist’s right to speak in his own voice. If Shostakovich had known what was going to be printed under his name, he might have hated Volkov with a passion that not even Joseph Stalin inspired in him.
I love how he posits emotions onto Shostakovich. It's such a warm, fuzzy thing to do. Frankly, the artist can speak with his own voice nowadays, because he's dead! Even what is unarguably his words will always be reinterpreted through our interaction with it. It's naive to think that a historical figure has an unadulterated voice in the present. Oh yes, they have presence, but it's a presence in our world, here and now, not then, and we can't help but bring our here and now to the page when we read what he said.
Ross draws up a bit some of the exchange between Fay and other scholars and notes: "Perhaps the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” are ready to end, and a more evenhanded assessment can begin." Umm? Wars? Scholarship is about argument and counter-argument. That's how we learn things.
When Ross talks about Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, I frankly don't see him being much better than Volkov:
If the premičre of the Fourth had gone ahead as scheduled, in the fall of 1936, the composer might have met the same fate as Abram Lezhnev. At the last minute, however, he withdrew the symphony. In its place, he produced the angrily affirmative Fifth, and bought another forty years of life. Shostakovich’s urge to defy authority was always tempered by an instinct for survival.
S's "urge to defy authority"? his "instinct for survival"? the "angrily affirmative Fifth"? These are the words of Volkov. Sure, Shostakovich wasn't devoid of these emotions, but they are highly subjective, problematic, and qualified by the vast amount of conflicting literature out there. I find it odd that Ross spends half the article bashing Volokov and then committing the same crimes.
No, I still maintain my stand. I'm not a fan of Alex Ross. And I wonder if classical music will ever fare well in journalism.
*I'm not asserting that Donatello was the first to use a perspective. Just drawing the comparison of a relatively similar time gap between the two Guillaume's in question.
**I don't mean to insult undergraduates. But I would expect better from a staff writing at the New Yorker.