"The Day the Music Died"

By Martin G. Selbrede
March 01, 2001

When Andrew Sandlin asked me to write on the topic, "The Day the Music Died," I realized that matters musical had worsened significantly since I last published material on the topic, between 1982 and 1985. Back then, I documented the extent to which humanism dominated music, contra James Jordan's opposing viewpoint that music had emerged relatively unscathed by humanist influence in comparison to the other arts. Now, standing on the edge of the new millennium, one can survey how completely the intervening fifteen years of humanist domination has altered the landscape. The easy part is compiling the evidence; the hard part is wresting control from the kingdom of man.

I write from the standpoint of one immersed in the musical enterprise at many levels. I've had many of my symphonic compositions performed by orchestras, and currently hold a paid post as the assistant conductor of the New Valley Symphony Orchestra, a 65-piece Los Angeles-based orchestra. I've also cast my critical eye on the educational scene vis-à-vis music, sometimes to the discomfort of my subjects (see my article in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction X:1 [1983], pp. 40-41). I can speak with some authority (garnered from first-hand experience) on the current state of classical composition as taught in our conservatories and universities, having created the computerized score and electronic performance of a work by Cesar Mateus-Chavez that constituted the final requirement of his doctoral work in music composition at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1998.

In my view, the overall prognosis is grim — grim outside of Christ, that is. And grim within the prison walls of an ever-intensifying humanistic culture.

Feminist Revisionism

At the tail end of the Christmas 2000 issue of Newsweek, columnist George Will concatenated a litany of memorable
news items, among which his citation of the current Bowdoin College catalog's description of a women's study course stood out: "Is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony a marvel of abstract architecture, culminating in a gender-free hymn to human solidarity, or does it model the process of rape?" This "news" provoked so universally outrageous a response
that otherwise mortal enemies (e.g., Jews and White Racists) published nearly identical denunciations of it. But, as often is the case in such matters, Will's "news," echoed in the Washington Times Higher Education's Dirty Dozen List for 2000, wasn't really new. Take the red pill, and I'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Robert Bork opened the eleventh chapter of his 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, with a reference to this feminist attack on Beethoven, citing it in conjunction with a feminist condemnation of Isaac Newton's Principia. From the opposite sides of the ideological track, Madeline Wald presented a paper on April 18, 1998 to the Humanist Association of Ottawa presenting the same two facts, in the same order that Bork presented them. Wald quoted from Who Stole Feminism by Christine Hoff Sommers, while Bork cites U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo as his source. Leo wrote in December of 1994, while Sommers' book appeared in 1995. But the strand goes back farther yet, and involves the feminist musicologist Dr. Susan McClary (cited by Bork and Wald), who propagated her phallocentric interpretation of Beethoven's work even earlier.

Lest one think that McClary might be misrepresented here, consider her following comment concerning Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: "The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, drumming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release."

When did this idea germinate? At least as far back as her 1991 book, Feminine Endings? Actually, earlier yet. In 1996, author Robert Anton Wilson quoted McClary's statement above and wrote, "I didn't make this up. You can find McClary's analysis in Minnesota Composers' Forum Newsletter, January 1987." Wilson averred that even feminist Camille Paglia denounced such revisionism inasmuch as it crosses the line "to an idiot caricature of Feminism." Notwithstanding critiques from fellow feminists like Wald and Paglia, McClary's ideas have actually gained considerable academic standing since 1987. She even received a (reported) six-figure grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1995 to further her revisionist research.

For our purposes here, it is enough to trace the thread to 1987. Significantly, McClary attacked Bach that same year, albeit using a different strategy, one characterized by The New Criterion's Samuel Lipman in September of 1991 as "explaining away the achievement of Bach." Lipman quotes from McClary's article, "The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year," published in Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (Cambridge University Press, 1987), edited by McClary and Richard Leppert, as follows:

[A]t the same time that [Bach's] music shapes itself in terms of bourgeois ideology (its goal orientation, obsessive control of greater and greater spans of time, its willful striving, delayed gratification and defiance of norms), it often cloaks that ideology by putting it at the service of an explicit theology. The tonal procedures developed by the emerging bourgeoisie to articulate their sense of the world here become presented as what we, in fact, want to believe they are: eternal, universal truths. It is no accident that the dynasty of Great (bourgeois) Composers begins with Bach, for he gives the impression that our way of representing the world musically is God-given. Thereafter, tonality can retain its aura of absolute perfection ("the way music goes") in its native secular habitat. This sleight of hand earned Bach the name "the fifth evangelist" I would propose the age-old strategy of rewriting the tradition in such a way as to appropriate Bach to our own political ends.

I want to return to the matter of Bach later in this article. For the moment, it is enough to appreciate the death grip that consistent (dare we say epistemologically self-conscious?) humanism ultimately applies to every conceivable target, living or dead.

What of responses to McClary? If you're unaware of how far back and how deep those revisionist roots go, you might deceive yourself into thinking this a passing fad. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Richard Wernick thought so. Interviewed by Thor Halvorssen in the March 1996 issue of The Red & Blue, Wernick, a then-retiring professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said of McClary, "She is crazy. McClary wrote several articles in which she views Western art music as being phallocentric. In one article she says that the recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth symphony was the musical equivalent of rape."

That sounded reassuring — even more so when Halvorssen asks Wernick, "What is your view of articles like that and of professors who use their academic positions to state such things?" and Wernick replies, "I laugh at it." But then, Wernick lets the other shoe drop: "And she is not the only one. If you look down the lists of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation you see a lot of gender stuff." Yes, Wernick finds McClaryesque revisionism to be "comical," but notice the tragic bail-out that ensues when Wernick closes the interview:

I am a firm believer in the canon. I am a firm believer in Western culture being one of the great glories of the world. I am not willing to see this watered down. I am not willing to see standards watered down. I don't want to participate in this anymore. I have been given the opportunity and I am taking the opportunity. I am retiring. Hasta la vista!

Still feel encouraged and reassured? Someone retiring from the battle, who alerts you to a growing legion of fresh enemy troops being financed by Guggenheim capital, is hardly in a position to instill confidence that things will somehow work out. We're at least fourteen years into McClary's trajectory, and the juggernaut is stronger than ever. We haven't even considered other manifestations of humanism yet in this overview — only the radical feminist variety.

Other Humanist Encroachments

What of other humanist encroachments? What could be worse than equating Beethoven with rape, and Western music with phallocentric male hegemony? The 1994 compendium, Queering The Pitch, edited by Wood and Thomas, surely gives one possible answer. Not surprisingly, McClary contributed an article marshalling "proof" of the homosexual aspects of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Handel isn't exempted from attempts by musicologists to "out" him posthumously, either.

Standing back a bit, it is possible to discern the common root of moral inversion. Sometimes, this is explicit enough to be denounced by critics of the "new musicology." Alex Ross, in the July/August 1994 edition of Lingua Franca, points out that McClary "declares the symphonies of Beethoven to be more violent, bar for bar, than heavy metal is." To which Ross replies, "Are we seriously to believe that Axl Rose is innocent of malevolent cultural influence while Ludwig van Beethoven, dead these many years, commits acts tantamount to rape?" As a matter of fact, yes: we are being asked to believe exactly that, which is why George Will, six years later, is still aghast at this entrenched phenomenon.

Conservative columnists aren't alone in their reaction. "Old school" musicologists have become apoplectic over the new musicology, but, as Ross noted in 1994, they've been unable to dislodge it: "[I]t shows no signs of flagging, despite stolid opposition from the musicological old guard." The situation has only worsened since then.

Ironically, Ross' historical survey shows that this ideological shift in musicology arose after 1985, after I had last published on the subject, and after my last published exchanges with theologians more optimistic about music's relationship to humanism. In my view, the humanistic advent of manifesto-like agendas in the musical arts was primarily fueled by a Christian-created vacuum in these disciplines. My 1983 citations from the prescient works of Rushdoony have been fulfilled to the letter: "true religion is a total concern; any area vacated by a religion is only occupied by another religion." This tendency to "infect every sphere" corresponds to the fact that "the more faithful the Church, the greater its visibility." We have a predominantly invisible, forfeit-happy church to blame for this.

Past Chalcedon staff writers have prophetically "popped the hood" on these trends even further back than their putative birth in 1987. In 1991, McClary singled out Theodor Adorno as a dominant guide in her work, but Adorno was the object of prophetic warnings in several Chalcedon Report articles by Otto Scott nearly a decade earlier.

(To appreciate how Adorno, who died in 1969, served as guide to McClary, consider that Adorno singled out for analysis the exact passage in Beethoven over which she cries "Rape!" Adorno, a composer in his own right and student of Alban Berg, proposed the following in Music and Language: "In the supreme moments of great music, and they are often the most violent moments — one instance is the beginning of the recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony — this intention becomes eloquently unambiguous by virtue of the sheer power of its context." His dialectic allows that music "contains a theological dimension," but he sees this as amounting to "demythologized prayer" and little more.)

I, for one, am astonished how dull of understanding we've become, how unappreciative we are of the truism that ideas have consequences. And it's not because we haven't had advance warning on any of this! Otto Scott put it this way in the June 1993 Chalcedon Report, explaining why he had submitted his March, 1982 article on Adorno for republication: Adorno's work [on fascism in this context] "was largely unknown to Christians when it appeared, remained unknown ten years ago when I mentioned it here, and is still largely unknown. It is more than time that these threats to the faith be recognized and their authors named and read. Perhaps [my essay's] relevance will be more easily recognized, this time around." Prophetically, Otto Scott's original article began, "It is not enough to agree with Richard Weaver that 'ideas have consequences'" He was surely right — and that inadequacy has us on the ropes today.

We are reaping what we have sown, but we are not interested in changing how and what we sow. Inertia has gutted our resolve as Christian men and women, and inadequate half-way measures have been hailed as good solutions to the problem when, in fact, they are not. My published recommendations were regarded as extremist by many in 1985; now, it seems, those "extremist" views of our Christian responsibility appear barely adequate to stem the rising humanist tide. Our ghetto is too comfortable, apparently.

Some dismissed my 1983 documentation of the interrelationship of statism to music (Marxist statism in particular). Lo, the Marxists have since advanced a more thoroughly-developed ethos of music than Christians have ever imagined possible. An organization called Ultra-red, founded in 1994, explicitly "radicalizes the conventions of electro-acoustic and ambient music to explore acoustic space as enunciative of social relations." As their mission statement declares, "Ultra-red has developed projects around a variety of urban ambiences including needle exchange (Soundtrax, 1996), public sex (Second Nature, 1999), public housing (Structural Adjustments, 2000), issues around globalization (Value System, work in progress) and labor." Feminist McClary isn't the only scholar issuing radical manifestos.

Ultra-red's founders concede, "Our starting point, as it has been for many contemporary artists and thinkers of sound, was Jacques Attali's seminal text, Noise: the Political Economy of Music. And yet our interest in Attali, unlike new musicologists like Susan McClary, John Mowitt, Stephen Leppert, Rosa Subotnik, and Jeffery Walser, did not lead us toward a reformulation of Theodor Adorno's sociology of music as an end in itself. Consonant with Marx's call to change the world, Adorno felt the true task for music, its radical potential was its capacity to transform history." In thick, academic prose, the Ultra-red scholar-musicians laud Marx and Lenin, explain how music can crush capital, develop a post-Cagean "materialism of music," and codify an impressively elaborate activist programme for realizing "revolution on the edge of music." No current Christian alternative to this is in evidence.

Evolution, Anyone?

What does the work of Harvard naturalist and noted neo-Darwinian Dr. Stephen Jay Gould have to do with music? Does this aspect of humanism also impinge on the musical enterprise and its analysis? Professor Jeffrey Perry at Louisiana State University fears it does, as his article "Music, Evolution, and the Ladder of Progress" in the November
2000 edition of Music Theory Online suggests. Individual composers who have written about themselves have often placed themselves at the top rung of a supposed ladder of musical development. Wagner, Schoenberg, Webern, and Boulez have all done precisely that, in keeping with Gould's evolutionary "Cone of Increasing Diversity," in which simple archetypes give rise to complex, refined descendents. Boulez bolstered his self-conceived position at the top rung by belittling other contenders for the slot (most notably Schoenberg).

My 1998 labors in notating the doctoral work of composer Cesar Mateus-Chavez, a Boulez proponent and sympathizer, corroborated this perspective of modern musical thinking: the tendency to look down on works less complex in construction as evolutionarily backwards. From a Darwinian perspective, this conceit is justified, and Perry cites only three composers who even partially bucked the trend (Debussy, Busoni, and Partch). As Perry notes, the evolutionary perspective has even found its way onto "the cover of the Indiana Theory Review, a respected journal published by the Graduate Theory Association of the Indiana University School of Music, on which one may see a Ladder-of-Progress consisting of (from left to right) medieval neumes, fifteenth-century white mensural notation, Baroque figured bass, and so on, right up to graphic notation a la Berio or Crumb!"

Another musicological implication of the evolutionary mindset has cropped up, although it is not generally recognized as such. Dr. Nicholas Cook, writing in the May 1999 BBC Music Magazine, points out in passing that, "[H]istories of music tend to over-emphasize innovation at the expense of the many musicians who work within established styles." The shift to the next evolutionary level is regarded as more important than craftsmanship within a level.

Every time I've published documentation of the music-humanism link, I've had to severely abbreviate the compiled data: there's just too much of it. Today, that data would constitute a massive deluge. Let's shift gears, then, and turn to pedagogical issues.

Education Reform and Reformation

In The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 19, 1989), Dartmouth professor and composer Jon Appleton wrote an article entitled "The College Music Curriculum Is in Pressing Need of Reform." John Lofton brought this material to my attention a decade ago, and its significance has become easier to evaluate with the passing of time. Appleton bemoans the current state of music theory education in terms that seem to have come back to haunt us: "It is meaningless to teach skills such as counterpoint and four-part harmony based on a literature few people know."

Further on, he adds, "if we don't change the way we teach composition, we will soon have very few students. The significant decline in applications for graduate degrees in composition testifies to the need for reform." Does the "reap what you sow" principle hold? Yes. Professor Gary Karpinski of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writing in the August 2000 issue of Music Theory Online, revealed that, "[A]s a reader for the GRE music test I must tell you that ... counterpoint lags dismally far behind other bodies of knowledge and skill among our students (at least among those applying to graduate school)." If you disdain to teach a skill, it's no surprise that the skill has atrophied among musicians ten years later. Yale's Professor Allen Forte, replying to Karpinski, also acknowledges the problem, but probes a step further, "Why, then, is counterpoint instruction in decline?" Forte guesses that incompetent instruction is to blame, never hinting that Appleton's agenda may simply have hit the ground running.

My previous articles on music published by Chalcedon in 1983 documented the fact of musical elitism and its deadening effects on musical pedagogy. Some critics then disputed my research and conclusions, but today even secular music pedagogues acknowledge the rampant elitism inherent in the current system.

Unfortunately, solutions to the problem have taken divergent routes. On the one hand, we have a complicated notational system in Western music, and on the other hand, we have students who don't understand it. Ray Lindsey, who shares my opposition to musical elitism, has taken an approach akin to bringing the mountain to Mohammad, creating a simplified notational system to bridge this gap. Because the system doesn't cover all the chromatic pitches of Western scales, it lends itself better to instruction using Lindsey's cleverly modified steel drum design (patent pending, so I'm informed). No flutophones/recorders, and the notation is kid-friendly. But are lowered expectations the proper foundation for a Christian reformation of musical pedogogy? Should we address the gap between goal and student by lowering the goal, or by elevating the student? Or have we given up on raising a new generation of Mozarts and Beethovens (which accusation I made, without apology, in 1983)?

I have long hailed Bach as the proper starting point for music instruction. We should embrace Bach for the same reasons McClary assails him (just re-read her opposes in Bach, we would heartily affirm). Bach remains the nexus for reconstructive efforts in music pedogogy, theory, and practice. In Bach, the vertical and horizontal (harmonic and linear melodic) aspects of music are simultaneously maximized while extending dominion over the entire tonal domain. Nothing short of this starting point will suffice.

In addition to Bach, I remain unapologetically convinced that we must add the foundational music theory of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) to complete the picture. Hindemith alone erects a comprehensive tonal theory based on essentially creationist presuppositions. On such foundations, the premise of Genesis 1:26-28 finds firm ground. That the dominion mandate of Genesis is explicitly under attack by modern musicologists was established during my 1989 lecture at the Chicago Christian Worldview Conference, where I read revealing passages from Christopher Small's 1977 volume, Music — Society — Education. Small decries “the emphasis laid on the subduing of the sound materials” by composers, and mentions the Genesis passage in particular as leading to a faulty musical ethos (comprised of polyphony a la Bach) that distorts the essential reality of music. Small's pantheistic affectations mar his whole presentation. Yet, where are the opposing volumes by Christian musicologists?

When I publicly recommended the study of Hindemith's work within the reconstructionist community nearly 19 years ago, few took up the challenge. Sadly, Hindemith (arguably the greatest all around musician who ever lived) has yet to make theoretical in-roads, for reasons I've long ago documented (his comprehensive theory excludes autonomy from the entire musical enterprise). Although he was the last individual without a formal degree to ever chair an entire department at Yale University, Hindemith has had to tolerate ungracious contempt for sticking to his convictions and having the temerity to share them. After delivering a lecture in Zurich, Hindemith asked the audience if there were any questions. As the late Georg Solti reports in his Memoirs, the distinguished conductor Otto Klemperer stood up and asked, “Herr Hindemith, wo sind hier die Toiletten?” Mr. Hindemith, where are the toilets? Solti admits this question reflected Klemperer's opinion of the lecture, and from our vantage point it is easy to feel sympathetically indignant. But remember: at least Klemperer was in the audience, listening. Can today's Christians say that much? Or does the beam in our eye speak for us?

Yale's Prof. Kofi Agawu, writing for Music Theory Online in 1996, held that neglect of music theory by the new musicologists “testifies to a willed amnesia on their part, a necessary strategy, perhaps, for redrawing the boundaries of the musical disciplines.” That phrase, “willed amnesia,” and its purported goal, “redrawing of boundaries,” sadly explain the contemporary reception of Hindemith's work. With Hindemith, as with B. B. Warfield, it can be truly said that the only way to deal with so strong a protagonist is to ignore him. This bares the humanist strategy towards Hindemith, but fails to illuminate the reasons Christians ignore Hindemith's work: willful ignorance with no Christian strategy surely yields worse results than willed amnesia with a humanist strategy.

Reformed thinker Alex Hammer describes Christian forfeiture and default even more pointedly:

To my pagan acquaintances I may boast of the music of Bach and Haydn [sic], the classic novels and poetry of some few nominal Christians (mostly heretics), the paintings of Rembrandt, and so forth. But what have we done lately? [e.a.] If the “world is the schoolhouse of the Christian, “as Calvin said, I am sure we have been playing hookey for several generations.

Hammer likewise rebukes miserable Christian achievement in the musical arts, issuing a warning that parallels Rushdoony's earliest pronouncements: “So long as we allow the godless to keep for themselves all the territory they invade, we will consign ourselves to an ever-shrinking aesthetic ghetto...” (cf.

The worst thing Christians can do is nothing. But the second worst thing is to adopt a crisis mentality (even if there is a crisis), “Crisis” is the great humanist crowbar, and articles with labels like “The American Symphony Orchestra in Crisis” (Joseph Hurwitz in Classical Pulse, Dec. 1993) are calculated to serve as calls to arms and pretexts for new agendas that will never truly lead to reformation. Healing of music's mortal wound will take twenty years from the point in time when Christians take seriously their obligation to raise a generation that self-consciously takes every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

The outlines of this obligation presented in my earlier Chalcedon articles on reconstruction of music, once regarded as extremist, now barely serve as a minimum platform for long-term victory. Solutions short of this are the equivalent of salt that has lost its savor, posing no threat to the humanists, who will only too gladly tread it underfoot with derision.

But give Christ the preeminence in all things, and even the demons tremble.

Topics: Culture , Education, Philosophy, Media / Arts

Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s magazine, Faith for All of Life. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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