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What About the Beethovenz?

I love going to conferences. It’s probably my favourite part of being an academic because it’s one of those very few opportunities you get to be surrounded by people who are not only excited about your discipline, but who are truly in a position to be excited about your scholarship. It can be even more exciting when your institution sends a particularly large contingent to a major conference, since you get to feel like part of an important group of people who are making real progress in your field.

This year, my doctoral institution has the honour of sending the largest group of scholars to the biggest conference in my field. It’s a gratifying feeling, or at least it was until the local know-nothing music critic wrote a long op-ed in the paper decrying the state of the field.

You see, he’s mad that contemporary musicology isn’t engaging in enough hero-worship of the “great masters,” thanks to an ever-broadening focus on musics of different times, places, and communities. What a scandal!

Suffice to say, I was pretty annoyed. So annoyed, even, that I wrote the paper’s editors a letter. Since they’ve not seen fit to print it, I’ve decided to share it here for all of you.


To the Editors of the Gazette:

We were disappointed–if not especially surprised–to see Arthur Kaptainis’s decidedly anti-intellectual take on this year’s joint meeting of the American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory (AMS/SMT) appear in your publication. Mr. Kaptainis has never been particularly amenable to the idea that academics might have interesting things to say about music that he doesn’t personally find important or culturally worthy of study (viz. his recent conniption over the publication of a collection of scholarly essays on Lady Gaga [ed. note: both this article and a lovely response to it by McGill Professor David Brackett have since been removed from their website]), and it’s unfortunate that this year’s programme seems to have upset him so greatly.

Let us first assuage his fears: the study of the classical canon Mr. Kaptainis admires with such ardour is not going anywhere. Many of us, in fact, teach that repertoire every day and love it deeply. It is also–and let this point be emphasized–plainly absurd to draw sweeping conclusions about the state of contemporary musicology based on whether or not certain composers’ names appear in a Ctrl+F search of a conference programme. Mr. Kaptainis can rest assured that the old standbys will be receiving plenty of attention at the meeting this year, just as they always have and will continue to do for the foreseeable future.

That said, we have trouble determining exactly why Mr. Kaptainis should view the growth of the professional study of music to include new times, places, and cultural perspectives as such a negative development. What makes it so deserving of his utter disdain? Is it really his belief that only the works of a few long-dead German men are “great” enough to deserve professional scholarly consideration? Are the notes on the page so much more valuable to us as musicians and lovers of music than the “eddies of social meaning that swirl around” them? Is it even possible to disentangle them in the first place?

It may well be that Mr. Kaptainis’s dismay derives from some fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of academic conferences. This is a condition for which he might be forgiven, having as he does a background in journalistic criticism rather than scholarship. To clarify: the purpose of a meeting such as the AMS/SMT is not to pass judgment on the relative sublimity or ticket-worthiness of the MSO’s latest rendition of a Beethoven symphony, nor is it to gush with pathos for poor Chō-Chō-san as she meets her sorry fate for the thousandth time. Rather, it is to present new research to our peers, and in so doing push up against the boundaries of our current understanding of the culture, practice, and creation of that mysterious and wonderful, deeply and integrally human thing we call music.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Mr. Kaptainis’s cursory googling of a few presentation titles did not prove especially enlightening for him: original research is, basically by definition, new. It’s not even permitted on Wikipedia! And yes, the professional study of music, like every other academic discipline, can sometimes involve the kind of jargon that limits its accessibility for the general public. But again, the AMS/SMT meeting is a not a public venue; it is intended for scholarly exchange among academic practitioners. Anyone interested in what it is that we do is encouraged to seek out the many public talks, pre-concert lectures, videos, articles, and blog posts that we produce in order to share our passion for music with the public at large.

Lastly, we would like to remind Mr. Kaptainis that graduate students and independent scholars are in fact professional researchers, and deserve to be afforded the same courtesies as full-time university faculty. This includes, perhaps more than anything else, the right to be properly cited in public discussions of their work.

Here are, for the record, some of the researchers whose work Mr. Kaptainis discussed and/or disparaged anonymously in his article: Samuel Dwinell (Cornell), Angeline Van Evera (Vienna, VA), Anne Searcy (Harvard), Jacob Walls (U. Oregon), Mimi Haddon (McGill), and Dan Donnelly (McGill).

To prevent future misunderstandings about the content of individual scholars’ presentations, we also invite Mr. Kaptainis to actually read the (freely available) abstracts on the conference website. Doing so might well spare him from further confusion, not to mention save him the work of googling all those terms he does not understand. Failing that, he is always welcome to ask us any remaining questions about our work directly. Answering questions about music is, after all, our job.

No office hours this week, though–we’ll be in Milwaukee.

Yours on behalf of McGill’s AMS/SMT contingent,

Dan Donnelly
Doctoral Cand. in Musicology
McGill University


That’s all for now, Doubters—wish me luck on my paper!

Featured image: Title page of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, “Eroica,” with its original dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte famously scratched out.

[Edit: Anne Searcy (Harvard) has been added to the list of slighted scholars]

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

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