A reply to ‘In Defence of Lost Chords’

By Meadow Ground

A note from the editor: shortly after Professor Peter Tregear’s article appeared in the Australian Book Review, I received a message from someone who had felt compelled to write a response. They have chosen to go by the pen name Meadow Ground.

One of my goals for Fever Pitch is to encourage active and ongoing conversation on possible barriers to classical music having a flourishing future in Australia. I hope you enjoy this thought-provoking piece, with the original article linked below for your perusal. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki


Professor Peter Tregear recently published an article in the Australian Book Review which summarises several structural problems in the Australian classical music industry and the many ways the coronavirus pandemic has transformed these problems into crises. He argues, in a way that classical musicians will find surely find familiar, that state and federal governments consistently underestimate the educational value of music, with funding consequences for almost all educational and performing institutions (with the possible and problematic exception of so-called Major Performing Arts organisations). Fundamentally, Tregear thinks, we need to supplement the lack of “sustained public advocacy,” which seems responsible for classical music’s fall out of the public sphere, by ever-more-courageously enjoying and sharing our work.

This all seems reasonable. However, Tregear’s more specific intention in this article is to tie this advocacy to a ‘transcendent’ conception of musical value, which I find unsatisfying for a few reasons. This reply should be taken as good-faith critique, not as polemical bristling, because much of the detail in Tregear’s article is useful and accurate, and we share many goals.

Tregear wants to claim that Beethoven – whose 250th anniversary has been singled out for cosmic disrespect by our ongoing catastrophe – has a universal appeal, genuinely transcendental cultural and musical value. He draws, for an analogy, on a story told by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who lamented being a young Black intellectual for whom the burning question was (as posed by Saul Bellow) “who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” The ironic answer to this question, which satisfies Coates and Tregear, is “Tolstoy!”

Coates continues: “If you reject the very premise of racism – the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth – then all of humanity becomes ‘native’ to you.”

I want to push back against this analogy a little bit. It is possible to disagree with Coates on his specific claim: the ‘premise’ of racism that we should worry about is less this contextless prejudice against colour and more the structural fact of continuing, asymmetric violence enacted by one specific race against another, a violence which is surely registered in the very texture of the cultural works we’re here talking about. There is a sense in which Coates’ progressive erasure of racial and cultural distinctions potentially facilitates the smooth translation (or globalisation) of the canonical figures of one culture into and across other cultures. Especially those outside of Europe whose canons aren’t sufficiently powerful or institutionalised to resist having Beethoven or Tolstoy thrust upon them.

However, if we search up Coates’ original piece in The Atlantic we find that his real desire was not to rescue the canon from criticism and restore the transcendent value of Tolstoy, but instead to “create [his] own intellectual and artistic pedigree … to have it extend from Biggie to Wharton to Melville to Hayden.” This represents a kind of inclusive flattening out of cultural highpoints, an anti-canonical move, on Coates’ part.

Tregear’s article doesn’t quite fit in with this, the way I read it. He contradicts himself somewhat: on the one hand, Beethoven has universal appeal and value. On the other hand, this claim to value should be grounded in an engagement “with the inner workings of music” and not identity politics. Certainly I agree with this latter point. But a problem arises for Tregear: the more closely we analyse musical works, the more likely we are to arrive at an understanding of their value which is irreducibly immanent. In other words, we should stick close to the notes, to the properties of the artwork which are immanent to it, rather than properties which transcend it or which locate it in some transhistorical canon, for example. It is the historical specificity of Beethoven’s technical achievement which makes him worth talking about.

There is nothing transcendent, or universal, about Beethoven’s innovations in orchestration, or the length and complexity of his modulatory schemata, or the sublime and shocking violence of his dominant pedals or his flattened ninths, although certainly these innovations are incredibly interesting and valuable. Tregear insists on the “mesmerising intricacy of Beethoven’s musical constructions” and his ability to let us “think musically, to partake of a heightened kind of listening,” but I don’t see why this doesn’t apply to all music, sufficiently closely analysed, including, as Tregear mentions, the Indigenous musical traditions of Australia.

Tregear seems to agree with this claim when he writes that “great music in all its forms, in all its genres, where it is found, and however it is ultimately labelled by us, should be understood as belonging to, speaking for, and challenging each and every one of us.” This is a fine and proper sentiment. What I find unconvincing is his worry that when we insist on a connection between Beethoven and patriarchy or imperialism, or the entrenchment of “privilege”, we’re at risk of “[replacing] one set of unexamined assumptions about classical music with another”.

He quotes Richard Morrison, music critic for The Times, who argues that the class characteristics of composer Edward Elgar and contemporary pop singer Jess Glynne are basically the same, or more or less irrelevant, because Elgar had a shopkeeper for a parent and Glynne had a real estate agent for a parent. I find this stunningly lame, and much worse than anything Tregear himself sets down. Morrison’s claim here ignores everything about the actual musical reception and reproduction of the works of these two artists, and, more to the point, doesn’t do what Tregear insists we should: engage closely with the inner workings of the music. I don’t think it would be too controversial, so many decades after Susan McClary wrote about Beethoven, for me to insist that a close engagement with the inner workings of the music might be exactly where we locate the class qualities, the patriarchal desire and the imperialist functions, of Beethoven or Elgar.

This is why I find Tregear’s article unconvincing: I don’t think that claims for the transcendent value of canonical figures will help us in regenerating the consumption and discussion of classical music in the contemporary moment, especially when such airy universalisations pull us away from the richest possible engagement with the work itself. Beethoven doesn’t belong in the air, hovering transcendentally over all Australian music-making. We should bring him down to the stolen soil which figuratively and literally grounds our contemporary practice, which marks our culture with the imperialism which we have to acknowledge and work through. Immanently!

Tregear began his article with a quote from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory ­– a philosopher who in many ways exemplifies this critique of transcendence – and so, if I may be rather impertinent in conclusion, here is another Adorno quote, from, of course, “Bach Defended Against his Devotees:”

In being placed into the service of proselytizing zeal, the neo-religious Bach is impoverished, reduced and stripped of the specific musical content which was the basis of his prestige. He suffers the very fate which his fervent protectors are least willing to admit: he is changed into a neutral cultural monument, in which aesthetic success mingles obscurely with a truth that has lost its intrinsic substance. They have made him into a composer for organ festivals in well-preserved Baroque towns, into ideology. (Prisms 136)

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