Sunday, September 24, 2017

Veridical and Illusory Aesthetic Characteristics

Getting back to Monroe C. Beardsley's book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, I want to do a few more posts on aesthetics.

The title sounds rather fancy, I know. It is just pointing out that some characteristics belong to the aesthetic object, while others do not. For example, knowing that Sibelius had great financial difficulties or that Charles Ives worked in the insurance industry are not facts or characteristics belonging to the music they wrote. So much of what we read in program or liner notes actually points us away from the music, rather than toward it. Things that depend on knowledge of the causal conditions of the production of an artwork, whether a building contains steel beams or not, or whether a composer used software rather than manuscript paper, are not part of the aesthetic object as perceived by the viewer or listener. Beardsley writes:
...to hear properly certain kinds of music, it may be necessary for a listener whose phenomenal field is easily affected by his beliefs about the lives and loves of composers to push those beliefs out of his focus of attention: if Schubert's music sounds pathetic to one who sympathizes with his poverty, that is a mistake. [op. cit. p. 52]
This is not to say that we come to all aesthetic objects cold: an experienced listener brings to the table a lot of knowledge of the style, genre, and general construction of the work even if hearing it for the first time.

There are some interesting problems associated with the performing arts that do not trouble us in the case of, say, paintings or sculptures. The main ones have to do with the fact that a musical composition has various productions, each of which may reveal some, if not all, of the characteristics of the aesthetic object. Beardsley writes:
Let us, then, distinguish, in the case of music, three things: (1) There is the composer's artifact--in this case, the score. (2) There is the performance; any rendition of the sonata that is recognizably guided by the composer's instructions in the artifact will be called a performance of that sonata, but there will, of course, be many different performances of the same work. (3) There is the presentation-- a single experience of the music--and for each performance there may be a number of presentations. [He means that there is a presentation for each listener, including the performer. Op. cit. p. 55]
There is an interesting problem that arises: how do you answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor?" If we look at this clip of the movement conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste we see that it is 15:34 long:


But when we listen to this clip of the same piece conducted by Vaclav Naumann it is 17:19 in length:


So how long is the movement? Fifteen minutes or seventeen minutes? This just demonstrates that the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, first movement, is not the name of a single aesthetic object. These are both productions of the same work, but they are not producing the same aesthetic object. Music critics, when they are reviewing a performance of a musical work are reviewing a particular production of that work as it was presented to them. A music theorist or musicologist, however, might be talking, not about any particular production or presentation, but about the composer's artifact, i.e. the score. So I might be tempted to answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 by saying, "It is 547 measures long" which is how many measures there are in the score.

There are some interesting differences in popular music where there is often one unique production of a work. For example, The Beatles' recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is the one and only original production of the song (though there are some varying and fragmentary recorded versions created during the writing of the song--we could consider them "sketches"). It is 4:07 in duration. So for this composition, there is an answer to the question, "how long is Strawberry Fields Forever?" Mind you, each "cover" of the song by other artists will have a different length.

So there you go, just some little observations about aesthetics to muse over.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century

Way back in the mid-1970s I was enrolled in an undergraduate course in music titled "20th Century Music" that was a survey course. Twenty years later I found myself in a similar course, "20th Century Theory and Analysis" (a doctoral seminar) taught by the same professor! At one point he remarked that every year he taught either course it got more difficult because the century got longer. When he started, he only had seventy or so years to teach, but now it was almost a hundred. Actually, I think it would be much easier now because the winds of time have started winnowing down the repertoire you have to cover. Back then you had to discuss Momente by Stockhausen and Le Marteau sans Maître by Boulez and something by Ligeti and Xenakis and Nono and Kagel. But now I think we can ignore that stuff as it seems to have sunk below the surface due to widespread audience rejection. The uncomfortable truth is that the audience does in fact have the final word. If no-one wants to hear your music, then musicians will sooner or later give up playing it.

One of the best ways to attract traffic on the internet seems to be by doing lists. Of course if you are doing lists of classical music you do limit your audience! Much better to do lists of the best cat videos or the stupidest things politicians said this week or best recipes for pasta sauces. Still, my list of the top ten pieces for classical guitar remains a perennial favorite, the most-viewed post on the blog. So here goes, my pick of the ten best compositions of the 20th century. I suspect you know what number one will be. In traditional internet style, we begin with number 10. The links will undoubtedly decay over time, but for now I will put in clips of each piece.

10. Charles Ives, Three Places in New England


9. Alban Berg, Wozzeck


8. Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2


7. Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie


6. Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms


5. Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 5


4. Bela Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta


3. Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5


2. Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians


1. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring


(I don't know why, but this clip insists on starting a few seconds in. Just put it back to the beginning!)

Enjoy! And explain to me how I'm all wrong in the comments. I wasn't too analytical with this. I just went with my gut for most of it. These are pieces that continue to fascinate me and that I always enjoy listening to. For some of them I could have swapped in others: instead of Wozzeck I could have listed the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Instead of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto I could have listed the Sibelius Violin Concerto and so on. The only ones on the list that are really indispensable are The Rite, Steve Reich's Music, and the Turangalîla-Symphonie because they really don't have any equivalents! But I could have replaced the Shostakovich symphony with a couple of other pieces by him and the same with the Bartók. Anyway, these are my choices! If I had one more space I would have included the Symphony No. 3 by Gorecki or something by Arvo Pärt.

Just a final note: I do in fact think that The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky is the finest composition of the 20th century and there is a lot of evidence to back that up. But for the rest of the list, the order is somewhat arbitrary. If you want to say that the Sibelius symphony should come before the Bartók, then I won't argue. These pieces are in such different styles that they are rather incommensurable. Which is better, Wozzeck or the Symphony of Psalms? Or the Music for 18 Musicians? Tell me about it in the comments.

Models of Artistic Lives

Artists of all kinds are outliers in the social fabric. The reasons for this are probably complex, but they likely include things like the difficulty of earning money through artistic creation, a disinterest in the usual criteria of success in life and an ambiguous relationship with the social hierarchy. All this does tend to free one to focus on the creative act, but it also complicates ordinary life.

In the era of patronage, when most artists were funded by the church or the nobility, often in competition with one another, what you had to do was fairly clear, I would imagine: appeal to the tastes or vanity or ambition of your patron. Italy seems to have been particularly blessed with wealthy, visionary patrons which partly explains the great art of the Renaissance and Baroque. As the eighteenth century came to an end the patronage began to shift from the aristocracy, more and more eliminated by revolution and social change, to a widespread support by the middle class, who began to adopt some of the artistic tastes of the nobility. Haydn was supported for most of his life by a single aristocratic family, the Esterházys, Beethoven by a circle of wealthy patrons, but Schumann wrote music criticism and edited a journal. Chopin taught private students, Mendelssohn was a conductor, as was Mahler, and director of an important music school. Some composers, like Wagner, still had aristocratic patronage, but that was rare in the later 19th century. By the time we get to someone like Sibelius (1865 - 1957) the struggle to support a family was dire indeed. Here is a lament he wrote in 1911:
My domestic harmony and peace are at an end because I cannot earn sufficient income to supply all that is needed. A constant battle with tears and misery at home. A hell! I feel completely unworthy in my own home ... Poor Aino! [his wife] It can hardly be easy to manage the house on so little. It makes me more than aware of the truth in the old saying: do not marry if you cannot provide for your wife in the style to which she was accustomed before. The same food, clothes, servants -- in a word the same income.
Sibelius, like many Finns, was a family man. He and Aino had six daughters. Most artists, while they are, as I said, outliers, they are outliers from a certain level in society--the upper middle class. Yes, there are working class artists and aristocratic artists, but I suspect that they are the minority. Most come from some level of the middle class, especially considering that this is the largest part of modern societies. All his life Sibelius struggled with the two problems of providing for his family and his overindulgence in cigars and alcohol. He received support from the state and an income from publishing, but this was never quite enough.

Charles Ives' life (1874 - 1954) illustrates the difficulties of an artist in the New World. Though he studied music at Yale, he never seriously attempted to earn a living as a composer. Soon after graduation he entered the insurance business and later on founded his own company. It was Charles Ives who invented the field of estate planning for the wealthy! He composed a great deal of largely experimental music, but stopped around 1927. His manuscripts moldered in a garage and his music was largely ignored until Leonard Bernstein did some important premieres in the 1950s.

In the later 20th century things got even worse because few governments outside of northern Europe provide any pension for their artists, just a few paltry and sporadic grants. Nearly every composer has to follow the path of academia, teaching theory and composition in a conservatory or university. This does not seem to lead to much brilliant, creative work! The outstanding composers all seem to be outside that model. Philip Glass worked at lower class jobs like driving a taxi, being a plumber and a furniture mover and he did this well into his forties when he started getting enough commissions to scrape by. He lived a largely bohemian life. Steve Reich seems to have found enough patrons to subsist until he formed his ensemble and began doing a lot of performances and recordings.

Stravinsky seems to have been the last composer to have achieved enough fame in society to generate a good income. Early on he got significant commissions from Diaghilev and continued to write well-received ballets for decades after. He got a lot of important commissions and also derived income from performances, recordings and a long series of books written with Robert Craft.  Alas, with the exception of Philip Glass, who has followed a similar path in his prolific writing for theatre and film, this seems out of reach for anyone else.

One siren call these days seems to be to figure out a way to emulate or share in the bounty of popular music where it is possible to earn fantastic sums of money. But while the occasional popular artist might dabble in art music and the occasional classical composer might dabble in popular music, the two seem largely unreconcilable.

It ain't easy!

Let's listen to a fairly early piece by Charles Ives. This is Central Park in the Dark, composed in 1906. This the Northern Sinfonia conducted by James Sinclair:


Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking off the miscellanea with the 50 best-selling music artists of all time from the Independent. It starts with The Beatles, of course:
England's greatest rock band holds the top spot on the all-time ranking of best-selling artists by album sales, and it looks untouchable on a bizarre list filled with a number of surprising appearances.
It's somewhat shocking to find out, for instance, that smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G has sold more albums than Eminem, and that Garth Brooks has sold more than Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. 
We compiled this list by ranking the most successful acts in music history according to their total certified album units sold in the US, as provided by the RIAA. 
I have GOT to release a "smooth classical" album! Here are the top 4:
4. Led Zeppelin -- 111.5 million units
3. Elvis Presley -- 136 million units
2. Garth Brooks -- 148 million units
1. The Beatles -- 178 million units
The thing is that this is only for the US. Other lists have the Beatles and Elvis Presley tied for first place with about a billion units each on worldwide sales.

* * *

The Washington Post has an article on the legacy of Leonard Bernstein:
But Bernstein also spotlights some of the fault lines running through the American musical establishment, and the centennial makes it clear that, in spite of his example, they haven’t changed all that much. Ironically, the classical music world will be feting Bernstein in part for his role in merging the American vernacular with high-art music, in works such as “Candide” and “West Side Story.” But throughout his life, critics castigated him for not being serious enough. And even today, the classical music world tends to look down on Broadway, or film scores, as not being fully serious, or somehow tainted. Some of the artists who most energetically took up Bernstein’s mantle as a champion of both musicals and operas — such as DeMain and John Mauceri, who worked closely with Bernstein for 18 years — haven’t always gotten the respect accorded to conductors who focused on the standard European canon.
That last bit is just the usual shibboleths isn't it? If you write light music or Broadway or film scores it is not that the classical world thinks you are unserious or "tainted" (good grief, tainted?), it is just that these genres have a different function and audience. Even Beethoven wrote light music such as Scottish folksong arrangements and Wellington's Victory and no-one says he is "tainted."

* * *

Yes, I know I am often complaining about Alex Ross, but he had quite an interesting item on his blog about John Wooldridge who was both a Royal Air Force bomber pilot and a composer. The two streams met when he wrote the music for a film, starring Dirk Bogarde, about his, Wooldridge's, life!
The best account of Wooldridge's life available is a Music Web International essay by his son, Hugh Wooldridge. During the war, he flew ninety-seven missions, an extraordinarily high number. He continued to compose while serving in the RAF. Hugh Wooldridge writes: "During the first three years of the war, and in between flying, he wrote his first and most notable musical work — a symphonic poem The Constellations (1944) working alternately on borrowed pianos and the local padre’s organ. Much of this was sketched during the long bombing missions over occupied mainland Europe."
* * *

The New York Times weighs in on the Oregon Bach Festival controversy. You should read the whole thing, but this bit really caught my eye:
After the Eugene Weekly broke the news of Mr. Halls’s firing last month, the festival released an upbeat statement claiming that it was “moving forward in an exciting direction.” Janelle McCoy, who became its executive director in 2016, said in the statement that she wanted future festivals to be planned by “guest curators” — “a choreographer, stage director or jazz musician, for example” — not by a single artistic director.
So we go from Helmut Rilling's "old-school, big-symphony approach to Bach" to Matthew Halls' more historic approach to this new, exciting direction? I think that I would describe a Bach festival with a music director who was a choreographer or jazz musician as rather a horrifying prospect! But I actually like Bach, unlike, it seems, the current administration of the Oregon Bach Festival.

* * *

Just as my Rite of Spring series comes to a close, the Wall Street Journal reviews a revival of a Pina Bausch production.
At 35 minutes in length, “The Rite of Spring,” the older of these works, closes the program with generically fraught and repetitious moves. Two 16-strong contingents of female and male dancers moving, sometimes at frantic paces, all over designer Rolf Borzik’s plush-rug-thick layer of russet-colored peat provide moments of visceral impact. But, mostly, Bausch reduces Stravinsky’s primal and often thundering sonorities evoking the arrival of a dramatically changed season into an animated depiction of matched sets of fearful women and overweening men. Climactically, to the score’s “Sacrificial Dance,” a woman, who’s been singled out from the group by an anonymous man, dances, at an exhausting pace, many of the sharp and flailing moves that have come before.
 * * *

The Paris Review has a review of a performance, on violin, of John Cage's 4'33. It is the kind of stream-of-consciousness that Virginia Woolf might have written.
And even bad music, and especially bad music, has what they call hooks, bits you can remember and by remembering enjoy, but the music Cage “composed,” the music the “red-haired” man was “playing,” and everything ought to be in quotes because everything is partly something else. And because the “silence” I was hearing wasn’t something else, had no hooks to distract me from the purity of what it was, although that sounds pleasant, in the actual act of sitting there, I noticed anger arising. That’s how D. T. Suzuki, the Buddhist writer and the teacher of Cage, would have described it, and it was arising in me because, beneath the anger there was a desolation I didn’t want to feel, an aversion that caused the anger, and yes, I was judging myself, my inability to confront that desolation, and the judgments, were evolving like the music...
* * *

My feeling is that the perfect review of 4'33 would be more like this:













If you see what I mean.

* * * 

Also in The Paris Review is a piece on my favorite musical, The Band Wagon, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (who has possibly the greatest legs ever):
I’ve always thought of The Band Wagon as a poor man’s Singin’ in the Rain. In film classes, one is encouraged to compare the two, presumably because they are contemporaneous and both regarded among the top five of the genre. If The Band Wagon holds together at any point, it’s because of a certain continuity of mood and feeling. It’s the consummate “putting on a show” musical. And it’s a movie about the theater that seems to suggest, even more than Singin’ in the Rain does, that if your problems can’t be fixed by love, they can still be fixed by art. And that art, in turn, can be fixed by self-knowledge, including the knowledge of one’s own limitations. “I’m just an entertainer,” says Astaire, trying to nip the “Faust” business in the bud. Entertainers have no business making art. But of course, art is the result of The Band Wagon’s messy weirdness, in both narrative and meta-narrative—and it lends the film a sense of completeness in spite of itself. The Band Wagon is a movie that tries to break up with the Hollywood system while using all its tricks.
* * *

 Let's have a double-barreled envoi today. I would like to put up The Constellations by John Wooldridge, but there are just a few brief clips of his film music on YouTube. This is an excerpt from his music for the movie Angels One Five:


And for our second item, the famous scene from The Band Wagon where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse learn how to dance together in Central Park:



Oh, and notice that the dance number is shot in just a couple of long takes instead of the frenetic jump cuts of today's videos. Fred and Cyd had to memorize the whole sequence and perform it flawlessly because, no editing!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ad hominem plus guilt by association!

I wonder if my critique of the Musicology Now website a while back has not galvanized them into more activity. If that is so, I certainly apologize, because the heightened level of activity has not led to an improvement in quality. But given their core assumptions, I suppose that was to be expected. If Musicology Now is an accurate index of current musicology (which I don't believe), then they seem to have surrendered entirely to cultural Marxism. For an extended discussion, follow the link. But this quote gives some idea:
Cultural Marxists argue that all of life is a struggle against the forces of oppression and repression. Originally, classical Marxism focused rather narrowly on economic oppression and class conflict, but by the 1930s Neo-Marxists began to widen the scope of their cultural critique to include a broader range of social issues and even psychological factors – in particular, issues related to sexual repression. In their condemnation of Western culture, they emphasized social injustice and the plight of marginalized minorities – those victims of the bourgeois social order that included the working classes, racial minorities, radical feminists, homosexuals, and non-Christians in general. Therefore, it was within the context of their Neo-Marxist Critical Theory that they encouraged the politicization of the arts as part of a full-scale assault on Western culture.
The claim that all music, indeed every aspect of life, is political is a blatant ploy to end the discussion before it starts. If you disagree, then you are just another evil oppressor! My philosophical background leads me to reject all these sorts of arguments. One of my commentators alerts me to a recent post that really sums up what is wrong with this approach. The post is titled Does "Music Trump Politics"? Dennis Prager and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. The first part is a re-hashing of the recent controversy over a conservative pundit conducting a benefit performance by the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. The discussion is little more than an ad hominem smear as if you follow the links you will find that Mr. Praeger has been seriously misrepresented. The author, Ted Gordon, complains that the performance, instead of bringing people together, was divisive. Ironically, it is precisely the identity politics of cultural Marxism that result in deep social divisions. We are not allowed to enjoy a concert without dissecting it for political aspects. All of life is a struggle against the forces of oppression and repression! Of course, as it is the cultural Marxists that define what oppression is and who are the oppressors, they turn out to be the major force of repression.

The second part of the post is all about guilt by association. Apparently, as poor Joseph Haydn wrote a slow quartet movement that was later used as the anthem of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he has a "long history with politics." Another sin was to be admired by the music theorist Heinrich Schenker. Haydn himself appears to have done nothing wrong except to write very fine music. But still
"As scholars, we must think seriously and carefully about what we mean when we talk about "classical music"--and how to remain vigilant against the promotion of "Western Art Music" in the name of "Western supremacy" built on hatred, fear, and bigotry."
These are not arguments: they are nothing more than vicious ideological assertions with no basis in reality. But wow, a lot of people fall for them.

Let's listen to that hateful, fearsome and bigoted piece of music by Joseph Haydn, the "Kaiserlied," originally the slow movement to the Op. 76 "Emperor" Quartet. The performers are the Veridis Quartet:


UPDATE: Misspelling of "ad hominem" corrected.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 6

We're getting very near the end, as some pop lyricist said, and not many pages remain to cover in this series. Taruskin delves into the ways that Stravinsky evokes and contrasts three different modalities or "polytonalities": the octatonic collection, the whole tone collection and the diatonic collection. Out of these three he can construct simple C major chords, or strong dissonances. As Taruskin summarizes:
we now have whole-tone, octatonic, and diatonic constructs from the source melodies all running concurrently, and all intersecting on C, which pitch is thus promoted to the status of a specious tonic. [op. cit. p. 930]
I have worked with this kind of structure myself, to a limited extent, and it is both effective and curious. It seems as it you are writing, sort-of, tonal music, but always with strange twists. This is so different from the completely atonal approach of Schoenberg and his followers, where you are always wandering in a trackless (though at times very, very symmetrical!) landscape.

The "Dance of the Earth" is the section that the above discussion is about and Taruskin describes it as:
at once one of the most radical sections of The Rite--surely the most radical by far in Part I--and the dance most rigorously based on folk-derived source melodies.
He goes on to say that The Rite is Stravinsky's "Eroica," referring to the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven which represented a similar kind of fundamental breakthrough. Nothing before (except, perhaps parts of Petrushka?) prepares you for the bewildering originality of The Rite. Taruskin's book, brilliant as it is, is not a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the work. For that he directs us to two books: The Harmonic Organization of "The Rite of Spring" by Allen Forte and Stravinsky and "The Rite" by Pieter Van den Toorn.

The Rite resonates, not only with folklore, but with earlier Russian music for the stage such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada and Snegurochka. Incidentally, the Opéra Comique production of the latter opera and Stravinsky's ballet shared not only the same designer of sets and costumes, Nikolai Roerich, but nearly the same designs! The characteristic timbres of Russian folk wind instruments is another shared quality. What Stravinsky did that was truly new and original was to take two elements present in Russian music, the folkloristic and modernistic, and synthesize them in an original way.

One unifying factor in The Rite is its use of two octatonic tetrachords, a tritone apart:


A characteristic "triad" is created by taking the outer notes of the upper tetrachord, D and G, and the lowest note of the lower one, G#, or the outer notes of the lower and the top note of the upper: G#, C# and G. This kind of sonority is common enough for Taruskin to dub it The Rite chord by analogy with the Petrushka chord.

Taruksin points to an exact contemporary of Stravinsky's, Mikhail Laryonov (1881 - 1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881 - 1962), as pursuing the same synthesis between folklore and modernism in his work:

Click to enlarge
Both have transcended their sources and contexts to achieve a "pan-human" result in the phrase of Roerich. Both are about a radical formal simplification, the sacrifice of kul'tura on the altar of stikhiya. The culture rejected by The Rite was that of the German symphonic tradition. Instead, formal procedures are stripped down to what is most basic: extension through repetition, alternation and sheer accumulation. This is what gives The Rite its elemental power. Instead of harmonic progression, thematic development and smooth transitions there would be stasis and abrupt discontinuities.

Taruskin sees two different kinds of rhythmic innovations: the immobile, hypnotic ostinato and the irregularly spaced downbeats, both features of Russian folk music. Here is an example of the latter, which Rimsky-Korsakov took down from the singing of Borodin's maid!


The barring, both in this song transcription and in The Rite, is rather arbitrary. When you combine the two different rhythmic techniques, as Stravinsky characteristically did, you obtain one of his most original textures.

And that brings us to the end of our long journey. I might offer a drive-by analysis of one or two movements in the near future, but this, I think, completes our survey of the context for The Rite of Spring. This has been just a collection of notes from Richard Taruskin's monumental work of music scholarship, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra.

So for our final envoi, here is, yet again, a performance of the work. This is the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez, which is, I think, the version I first purchased around 1970:

Monday, September 18, 2017

From Prestige to Notoriety

I don't have quite the right tag for this--my subtitle might have been "what has happened to our institutions of higher learning?" What got me thinking is the latest kerfuffle over the firing of Matthew Halls as director of the Oregon Bach Festival by the University of Oregon. If you want a quick, nasty take on it, read this over at Slipped Disc. For a longer and more nuanced treatment, there is an article in The Spectator:
Mr Halls insists he has not been told why he has been fired. Sponsors and supporters of the festival are also in the dark. Oregon University, which runs the bash, has said only that it intends to pursue a ‘different direction’ to the one pursued by Mr Halls, and hence he has to go. I would have thought there were a limited number of directions one could pursue with a Bach festival, most of them in the general direction of playing some Bach, but there we are. However, a very close friend of Mr Halls’s thinks he knows why he was fired. Reginald Mobley, a hugely talented counter-tenor, and an African-American, believes it is because a stupid white woman overheard a conversation between himself and Halls and construed one of Halls’s comments as being — yes, yes, we’re there again — racist. And complained to the authorities.
Another theory has it that the festival was experiencing a drop in attendance and this is why Halls was let go, but just a few weeks before his contract had been renewed to 2020, so that seems unlikely.

What I want to talk about is not the merits of this individual case, or related cases such as the debacle at Evergreen State College where out-of-control student protests allegedly created a hostile work environment for a biology professor and his wife or the fraught circumstances suffered by Madison Faupel at the University of Minnesota where she is president of the College Republican chapter. Instead, I want to examine what seems to link these and other cases: a collapse of integrity at institutions of higher learning.

If we go back a few decades, universities and colleges were very prestigious places where distinguished scholars pursued their researches free of political bias and did so with a certain amount of courage on modest salaries. This seems to have changed, though, I am sure, some still remains. But if you look into the instances I cite above and other similar ones, it seems that the best characterization of current institutions is that they are now vehicles for political indoctrination and the administrators seem to be unable to resist pressure from extremists. Indeed, these extremists now seem to be the mainstream.

Instead of courage, what we see is rank cowardice. If you hunt around you can find videos of college administrators being berated by groups of student protestors and all they seem able to do is appease them. This seems to me to be the tail wagging the dog. Undergraduate students have always been susceptible to wacky idealisms, but what we are experiencing now is a level of viciousness that seems so out of proportion that one wonders, is it simply political correctness gone viral or is this a very clever strategy?

What does seem to be revealed is an emptiness at the heart of Western culture that makes it susceptible to a ravaging virus. The idea of preserving, presenting and teaching the quality of Western culture as exemplified in, for example, the music of Bach, used to be its own justification. But now it seems that the whole hierarchy of value is overturned and the mere (false) suspicion of racism overrules anything else. What we need are some serious antibodies to fight off the infection! Oh, yes, and to recognize that this is a cultural war and one that needs to be won.

Well, I hope that wasn't too political! There are not a lot of clips of Matthew Halls on YouTube, but here is the Sinfonia from the Bach Easter Oratorio with him conducting the Retrospect Ensemble: