Guest post: Gillian Rodger, “Cultural Cringe”

A second guest post, this time from Gillian Rodger, in response to the #MNkerfuffle. If you missed my original call for blog participation, click here.


Like many scholars engaged in musicology (broadly defined) I have been watching the debate that has risen around Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s essay on teaching opera to a class of incarcerated students ( I will admit that my first reaction was to watch with a kind of disengaged interest, but the longer it has gone on, the more I realized that the people arguing, sometimes on opposite sides, were people I knew and often people I liked. It was also clear that what I was watching unfold was not likely to change any minds and risked hardening the position of the various combatants. While I am not a musicologist by training, I have spent my career with one foot in musicology, and I train students to pursue study in this area, so I guess I do have a dog in this fight.

This semester I happen to be teaching a seminar for students in the Musicology MM degree. Because all of my students are interested in writing their theses on topics that fall in the period between WWI and WWII, I shaped the seminar to focus on a broad range of music and related topics in the US between the 1880s and 1940. We are currently considering the ways in which nineteenth century thinking and logic continues into the early twentieth century, and at the moment we are in the middle of a unit that I have called “19th and Early 20th Century Moral Reform.” I read so many articles getting ready for this class that I had forgotten that I had assigned Gavin Campbell’s essay “A Higher Mission than Merely to Please the Ear”: Music and Social Reform in America, 1900-1925 (, but while re-reading it in preparation for my seminar, I was shocked at the degree to which it provided both context and commentary on this situation.

Campbell’s discussion centers on the ways in which western art music developed in the United States. While his discussion centers on the early twentieth century, he also shows that the tactics used by advocates for music in this period shifted very little from those deployed by Lowell Mason almost a century earlier (see, for example, Campbell also explains the way in which art music came to bear a great cultural weight in this period, while also discussing the claims that were made to advocate for it as a cure for social ills (many based on cultural/class/ethnic/racial/religious difference). In an effort to both cool tempers and also keep momentum moving in the direction of inclusion I would highly recommend this article to all of the folks who believe that teaching art music in the way that we were taught it is entirely unproblematic. Until we can take a step back and examine the cultural baggage this music carries in the US, and the rhetorical strategies that have been employed, sometimes with the best intentions, to privilege one body of music over others, we aren’t going to get very far.
The logic Campbell describes is not purely American–it was equally applicable in Australia when I was growing up, where distinctions were drawn between “good” English-based culture and “bad” popular culture, which was dismissed in polite circles as “American.” When I came to the United States I discovered that much of the culture that had been dismissed as “American” was not American at all, but rather the culture of working-class Australians. While the class bias in describing music was became clear fairly early to me, it took me decades to realize that this dismissal was based in the historical fact that much of the low theater–circus, vaudeville, musical comedy–came to Australia from America, while spoken drama that was more associated with elite audiences built on English traditions. I was raised in a milieu in which Western art music stood for all that was good and pure and that it needed to be cultivated to civilize an otherwise hostile country in which European culture had only shallow roots. Upper-middle-class audiences looked overseas for “real” culture and I knew older Australians who had been born and raised there, who referred to England as home and were always mildly disgusted and disappointed in the way Australia was developing in the multi-cultural 1970s. This memory is what connects me to my research topics in the nineteenth century U.S. because I sometimes feel the same disappointment and ambivalence in American writing on the arts, and the panic that what little progress they had made was being undermined by immigrants.

As the child of immigrants I knew all about this view, and I received my music training, at least initially, in the hands of teachers who had very strict ideas about what was good and what was not in music. These women, and they were all women, trained me well in theory, form and analysis, and they drilled me in sight singing and other musical skills that have stood me in good stead for my entire career. But they did not instill a love of music in me. That came from my mother, an uneducated music lover who could whistle every Beethoven symphony from beginning to end, and who was equally passionate about folk music and a broad range of popular music. When my teacher dismissed Gilbert and Sullivan as “not opera” it didn’t matter because my family was a place where an irrational love for G&S could flourish alongside my love of symphonic music, Vivaldi, medieval chant, 1970s pop music and songs from the music hall stage, and I learned to keep my mouth shut on all issues about which I was uncertain at school.

It should not be surprising that when I got to college I was drawn to ethnomusicology and eagerly participated in Javanese gamelan and Chinese jiangnan sizhu, and also early music ensemble, while also being obliged to participate in orchestra. As my training progressed I realized I had little love or passion for performing, and eagerly pursued further training in ethnomusicology where I could participate in music from which I derived pleasure. Through academic coursework I learned to consider this music analytically, but I also learned that my aesthetic needs had to be flexible and to suit the music.

But despite my engagement with musics of other cultures, I did not lose my love for the musics I had been raised listening to, and I did not forget the solid training in Western music theory and history I had received in high school and college. When I finally got a tenure track job, these skills were useful because I landed in a small program in which I needed to be flexible and to be able to teach Western art music, popular music and global musics. As I began to construct syllabi for the mandatory survey and the occasional period course, I found myself working through the material by asking the questions about the music that I had been taught in my ethnomusicology training, considering context, function, patronage, social status of musicians, the way in which musicians were trained and what musics undoubtedly existed but have been left out of the narrative because they were not written down.

Over the years, these questions have expanded and I now routinely consider why I am teaching particular musics to different student populations. In the debates that rippled through musicology in the 1980s around positivism and criticism, Charles Rosen referred to gen-ed music appreciation courses in a way that suggested that they were primarily designed to make potential audiences and to instruct the uncultured in “good” music ( By the time I taught similar classes to gen-ed students it was the early 1990s and most students had never heard Western art music, let alone set foot in a concert hall. But in that period, Western art music still carried cultural weight with the older people who would employ my students, and I used that fact, and the fact that they thought of themselves as middle-class, to help them forge connections to distinctly unfamiliar music. We looked at structure and musical details in broad strokes, and we also considered patronage and the kinds of themes and ideas associated with works over time as patronage shifted. I challenged the students to claim their culture by taking a field trip to the concert hall or opera house and not letting the old folks in fur coats intimidate them. They came back energized and excited to have discovered a new form and I was happy. But as I taught I also found myself drawing parallels to the music they knew, to the themes that emerged in familiar pop songs, etc., and I now wonder if they were willing to connect with “my” music because I showed that I was connected to theirs.

In my position now I primarily teach students aspiring to be professional musicians, so I am more concerned that they understand the finer detail of music-technical detail. At the same time I want music history to be a living and vibrant world for them, given the likelihood that they will be playing music written in the past. While I often ask them to locate the formulaic structures that organize the music they play, I also ask them to look at the scores in their anthology and to read the analysis provided in order to try and imagine what the musicians who wrote and played this music already knew. What did not have to be written down? What did the composers assume musicians knew? Moving further back in time, at what point did music not need to be written down because musicians knew it? I also teach in ways that humanize the figures whose music my students will encounter in their professional lives so that they understand why Haydn wrote so many symphonies, and why Beethoven didn’t. What were the economic forces that governed the lives of these men? And what did nineteenth century composers do for their day jobs that underwrote their compositional efforts? How had expectations for music and composers changed since the mid-18th century? My hope is that my students will take the skills they learn in my class and use them to form imaginary collaborations with the dead composers whose works they play, and also forge relationships with living composers whose work they might also come to play. I want them to behave as professionals when encountering all music, even music that does not challenge their virtuosity, but also to find ways to derive pleasure from all of the music they play.

In many ways, teaching music majors is so much less problematic than teaching gen-ed students. It is easier to help students understand the peculiar habits and culture of musicians and to warn them against taking themselves and the music they play too seriously even as they learn the discipline and work habits that will sustain their professional career. For the non-major, art music is, too often, irrelevant; it is the music of old white people that they tell me is boring. They might have been introduced to this music as children, but few if any have gone back to it. I also find that the arguments I used in the 1990s no longer have as much weight now because western art music is no longer the music of the middle class. My gen-ed students, many of whom come from the city I live in and are students of color, may view classic rock or Motown or early rap as the music of their parents and grandparents.

Rather than viewing this as a shame, and the students as culturally deprived, I prefer to view this as an opportunity to introduce students to a bunch of cool music that I love despite my ambivalence about it. I don’t pretend that this music is free of the politics of whatever period it was written in. I am not a huge fan of nineteenth century opera because of its participation in oppressive gender construction, but I do not imagine that the power relations in Baroque opera, which I love with a fiery passion, are any less problematic. Learning to love despite being troubled at times is important, I think, and it keeps me in a constantly changing relationship with the music I listen to, where I can’t imagine it is superior because my ambivalence reminds me that it isn’t. This is as true of Baroque opera as it is of popular songs of the early twentieth century, with their sexism and racism as well as their snide, ironic urban charm.
When I introduce any of this music to my students, I do so being up front about its problems and my ambivalence. I find myself teaching in ways that complicate the master narrative, no matter what musical genre I am considering. Taking a Geertzian thick-descriptive approach, I consider how all music both reflects and shapes the society from which it emerges. Together with my classes, I consider the associations different musics have as well as the way that these have been used historically to manipulate listeners by capturing their emotions, by persuading them to buy products, by signifying class and aspiration. It is also possible to take a thematic approach that cuts across period and genre. In an LGBTQ Studies class I have considered cross-dressing in theater through both pop music and opera. It would be entirely possible to group Renaissance madrigals on the subject of love and sexual pleasure with nineteenth and early twentieth century popular song that ponder the same subject and sometimes in as coded a way. My primary goal in teaching music is to provide my students with a deeper understanding, rooted in history, for the culture around them.

Taking these approaches has definitely taken work, but I am convinced that it was worthwhile, not just for my students but also for me. Forcing myself to constantly rethink the questions I ask of a broad range of musics, and to listen to the kinds of questions my students ask of the same music, has helped me ask better questions of the music I research. For a long time I avoided dealing with the sheet music of the songs sung by the nineteenth-century popular performers on whom my work centers, but forcing my students to ask scores what musicians of the past knew has also forced me to do the same. Earlier in my career I struggled with how to represent the musical skills I sensed these people possessed because my own musical training and biases prevented me from being able to ask the right questions. Now, rather than reading the scores for popular songs as though I knew what they meant because they were written in staff notation, I have learned to look at them with the goal of determining the musical skills possessed by different performers of the past–what is the length of the phrases? What is the range of the song? What kinds of rhythmic movement are present? What about chromatic motion? Ornamentation? Interpolated spoken comedy? Paying attention to these details and noting the genres with which styles of songs are associated (variety vs. burlesque, for example) has allowed me to talk about specific skills for musicians who have too often been dismissed as unskilled because they performed in what we consider as a “low” form and because they did not have formal musical training.

Teaching my students to ask different questions than I was taught to ask was key to my beginning to overcome the biases inherent in my own musical training. In part this was possible because I was taught a different set of questions through my training in ethnomusicology, but it was also due to the fact that I was never satisfied by the questions I was taught to ask in my western art music classes. If I had not felt the scorn of my high school music teachers as they encountered the more free-wheeling musical culture of my family, I might never have learned to navigate a more fluid world in which music has always interacted on a global scale. My high school music teachers were no more malicious than Prof. Polzonetti, or any of the professors I encountered during my musical training. Their definition of “music” just did not align exactly with the definition of music I learned at home. We are rarely if ever asked to consider the biases inherent in the music culture we know and love, and in the conventions for talking about that music culture. Given the history of music education in the United States, and likely elsewhere, how might we think about reshaping, rebuilding our curriculum for both gen-eds as well as music majors, in order to recognize that these forces are out there and that we have all been shaped by them. Until we can take a step back and examine the cultural baggage this music carries in the US, and the rhetorical strategies that have been employed, often with the best intentions, to privilege one body of music over others, we aren’t going to get very far.



2 thoughts on “Guest post: Gillian Rodger, “Cultural Cringe”

  1. For those following this conversation, here’s a full citation for the Charles Rosen essay: “‘The Proper Study of Music’: A Reply,” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn – Winter, 1963): 151-60.

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