With a Little Help from My Friends

“Henceforth [i.e., from the 1870s], Grieg was the Norwegian composer in the eyes of Europe and America; and, as always, it was reception, not immanent content or character—consumption, not production—that proved decisive in making him so.” (III, 818, emphasis in original)

Consumption, not production. This is a radical up-ending of the 19th-century nationalist narrative (see my recent post on Elgar). It’s supposed to matter where you’re from (production), not how you’re marketed (consumption). But Taruskin is right on this one. Has any composer entered the canon without the benefit of a highly influential advocate, whether of their own time or later in history?

4 Comments

  1. Hi Mark and Zach,
    My name is Kathy Abromeit, and I’m a music librarian at Oberlin. I mentioned to Claudia Macdonald, musicologist at Oberlin, that I am reviewing OHWM Online for Choice, and she sent me the url for your blog. It’s a fabulous blog. I will most certainly chime in after my review is due to check on your progress. If you have anything you’d like to point out for consideration in my review, please be in touch!

    kathleen.abromeit@oberlin.edu

    Good luck with your project!
    Best,
    Kathy

  2. Dear Kathy,
    Thanks for visiting the blog, and for your kind words! Send us a link to your review when the time comes…

  3. Consumption is apparently the greatest virtue of all. Production is a mere trifle. Isn’t this a reflection of our own society’s model for the last generation? Isn’t this what has gotten our economy in trouble?

    It’s important to realize how much of the trendy models being passed around in musicology are simply ways to flatter our own society and lifestyle.

    Of course, every composer now viewed as significant has had advocates. How else would composers continue to be valued after their deaths? But the danger here is unthinkingly applying the marketing model–we know that good marketing can make any product at all saleable, even pet rocks–to an art form, which is far more complex than a target market. Could Dusseck or Hummel have been marketed as successfully as Beethoven? Tia DeNora thinks so. Well, just listen to lots of their music. I would never deny that Dusseck and Hummel were very, very good, and occasionally extraordinary. But I have not heard anything in their music as extraordinary as what Beethoven achieved consistently throughout his career.

    Sometimes its more important to listen to and study music closely and critically than to talk and read about it.

  4. Franklin,
    Thanks for your contribution here, and it brings up an issue that I think is really important.

    You’re right, of course, that snazzy marketing does not a Beethoven make. But that was not my implication—nor Taruskin’s—in the first place. The production/consumption discourse too frequently, in my opinion, is made a matter of virtue and morals. A composer who “panders” to an audience is a charlatan. An indie band that signs with a major label is a “sell out.” These are hairy issues that merit full discussions (and have already inspired many scores of words from scholars, journalists, bloggers).

    But the consumption/production moral dichotomy needs be broken. To talk about consumption is not necessarily to imply that production is unimportant. It is just to discuss the other side of the coin. In the case of the Grieg quote above, it is to explain the process of how he came to be the Grieg of the history books, not how or why he wrote his piano concerto.

    As musicologists, we can’t talk about Western art music without also talking about the context of its reception and historiography. In the twentieth century, this is unquestioningly bound up in the processes of marketing, branding, and commodification. I’m convinced we can talk about these topics without stripping the music of its artistic integrity.

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