Sexual Politics, The New Musicology,

and the Real World


Beethoven's Ninth and Mc the Knife


an Underground Essay by

Henry Kingsbury


There are listeners… to whom it is a cause of nervous irritability that [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony is recognized by orthodoxy as the most sublime musical composition known.  Orthodoxy happens to be perfectly right, here… and if there are large numbers of contemporary music lovers who are in heated revolt against the aesthetic of Beethoven’s music, that is a nervous condition which concerns nobody but themselves.

Donald F. Tovey, 1939

The point is not to hold up Beethoven as exceptionally monstrous. The Ninth Symphony is probably our most compelling articulation in music of the contradictory impulses that have organized patriarchal culture since the enlightenment… Beethoven resists the exigencies of formal necessity in the moment of recapitulation of the opening movement [of The Ninth] and at the beginning of the final movement, [but] he also finally embraces and perpetuates them, and even raises them to much higher levels of violence.

Susan McClary, 1991

March, 2010



Some eighteen years ago, in the pages of Perspectives of New Music, there appeared a thirty-page verbal explosion from the American composer Elaine Barkin, who was railing against what she saw as musical and political dangers of the writings of musicologist Susan McClary (PNM 30/2, summer, 1992, pp. 206-33).  Barkin in her essay complained of  "McClary's unrelenting language(s) of warfare and moral rectitude" (p. 210).  She warned of totalitarian implications of McClary's enterprise ("Does she not... risk becoming as reductionist and repressive as those whom she is critical of?" - p.212), with ominous allusions to East Berlin under Communist rule.  "McClary's voice, tone, language, [and] attitude all too resoundingly perpetuate and reinforce those very 'patriarchal practices' she is deploring" (p. 219), Barkin argued.  She concluded, in direct address to McClary, "your chronic, mean, tit-for-tatty geschri turns me off" (p. 223).  Barkin's essay was followed by a very brief response (pp. 234-38) from McClary, who characterized Barkin's piece as a "caricature," and concluded that "if nothing else, the present controversy is motivating many who otherwise would remain hidden behind data and graphs to advance other positions.  And this is healthy.  I hope it lasts."

A year or so later, in 19th Century Music, McClary's polemics were again subjected to sharp critical review, this time by the feminist musicologist Paula Higgins. In the context of a substantial, forceful, and detailed critique, Higgins suggested that "one wonders at times if [McClary] has not strategically co-opted feminism as an excuse for ideological guerilla attacks on the field," while finding some of McClary's stuff to be "breathtaking[ly] naive[]" and "so ludicrous that it might be construed as facetious" (note). And there was more. Composer David Schiff added opprobrium of his own, observing that McClary's writings went from the "glib and superficial" to the "crudely essentialist" (note).

Also in 1993, however, McClary received an invitation from the ne plus ultra of American musicology, Joseph Kerman, to deliver a series of distinguished lectures (the Ernest Bloch Lectures) at the University of California/Berkeley. And with that, her academic prestige was carved into stone. In 1995, she was awarded one of the prestigious MacArthur "genius prize" fellowships (I'll return to the circumstances of this award in the concluding chapter). In the ensuing years, Susan McClary has come to be regarded as something of a savior to the discipline of musicology.  Some see her as a courageous iconoclast who slew musicology's twin dragons of sexism and homophobia; others see her as leader of a thrilling revitalization in musicology -- "the New Musicology," which is freeing music scholars from the tyranny of boredom, from dusty-moldy archives, from an almost anal unilineal historicism -- audaciously throwing open the intellectual curtains to let the humanistic sun shine in (in the introduction to Feminine Endings, McClary pointedly identified herself with the woman in Bartok's opera Bluebeard's Castle who insistently throws open the locked doors of patriarchal secrecy), energetically bringing musicology -- at long, long, last -- into the mainstream of enlightened cultural studies. 

Prior to McClary's academic arrival, things had seemed rather bleak for musicologists.  For example, writing in 1982, a respected but professionally unemployed musicologist named Rose Rosengard Subotnik had chided academic musicology for being an intellectual "backwater," rhetorically asking, 

How many non-musicologists... find it worth their time to attend our conventions?... who in this Society would persuasively argue that musicology is characterized by free speech? (citation)

In 2008, however, a somewhat changed Rose Subotnik (she had for some time been secure in a tenured appointment at Brown University, where for seven years I was her departmental colleague) was celebrating the intellectual vitality of academic musicology by singing the praise of Susan McClary --

the brilliant, exciting, ever-probing mind; the incomparable originality; the unshakable honesty and independence; the ability to inspire new questions and new ways of questioning; the beautifully direct writing that cuts through historical and intellectual tangles... (citation)

Subotnik's high-spirited encomium appeared in a publication that, as she herself acknowledged, is of a type "no longer in fashion."  Her accolade was the epigraph of a Festschrift -- a book of "essays in honor of Susan McClary."  That in itself is curious, for although McClary had gained a reputation for being a firebrand upstart polemicist, Festschriften generally pay homage to the status quo -- honoring the staid, typically ponderous, often Teutonic (that it should be a German word is itself significant) discipline of an honored elder scholar, as he (yes, it is usually a man) approached retirement.    The real significance, it seems to me, of the McClary Festschrift was less the honoring of an individual scholar at mid-career than the re-asserting of lost legitimacy for the discipline in which she had risen so strikingly.  The real significance of Musicological Identities: Essays in honor of Susan McClary is its implicit assertion that the methodological malaise that Subotnik (and a good many others) had exhibited in the 1980s was a thing of the past.  The book's existence is an implicit claims that contemporary American musicology not only is stimulating and controversial, but also is respectably well-established.  It "has legs."  After all, by now McClary's disciples are themselves established scholars, paying tribute to their master -- the original.  A revitalized discipline is spanning the generations.  The McClary Festschrift avers, unmistakably if implicitly, that American musicology has renewed vitality:  all is well.

Alas, it's not. 



Chapter One Sexual Politics in Classical Music?

Chapter Two Allegory in Musicology

Chapter Three Cold Fusion Feminism?

Chapter Four McClary's Ninth

Chapter Five The Ballad of Mc the Knife

Postscript The Simulation of Ritual Murder



© 2010 by Henry Kingsbury