Some 35 years ago, I was strolling through Manhattan with my friend Dan, a poet whose work showed Emily Dickinson’s influence. Somewhere in the East Side we passed by the building housing the Poetry Society of America.
“It’s an establishment place,” explained Dan. “They are all modernists. And when modernists become the establishment, you know it’s the end of the world.”
It wasn’t, Dan. It was only a harbinger of doom. For, objectionable as those modernists might have been, they still championed what they thought was good poetry. They might have been corrupting their art, but at least they still hadn’t replaced it with woke obsessions.
We’ve since lost touch, but I wonder what Dan would think today, looking at, say, the field of music criticism. The other day I wrote about Dr Philip Ewell of Hunter College who describes himself as “an activist for racial, gender, and social justice in the field of music theory.”
At the time Dan and I enjoyed our stroll, that statement alone would have consigned the good professor to the loony bin – this even before he opined that the only reason Beethoven is considered a genius is that he’s a white male.
That was typical of today’s academe, I wrote, hoping that the pandemic of madness hadn’t spread to the media that have more influence on public tastes than the blog of a Hunter College academic. That hope was forlorn.
Those who haven’t lived in the US may not realise the influence The New York Times music critics have on both performers and listeners. In my day, the paper’s Harold Schonberg, Bernard Holland and Donal Henahan could make or break careers with a flourish of the pen.
They practically decreed what and how musicians should play and evaluated performances on the basis of compliance or noncompliance. They then indoctrinated the public in the same vein, and I knew concert-goers whose tastes never deviated one iota from Schonberg’s prescriptions.
I don’t know if the NYT still acts as the oracle of music tastes, but I’m sure it still has a massive influence. There’s no musical god other than the NYT chief music critic, and musicians are his messengers.
That lengthy aside was necessary to communicate the singular importance of that post, which at present is held by Anthony Tommasini. And what do you know? Mr Tommasini spouts the same gibberish as Dr Ewell, if in marginally less strident tones.
The other day he vouchsafed to his panting readers his assessment of Beethoven’s sonata in A flat major, Op. 110. For those who have wisely cultivated more productive interests than classical music, this is one of the greatest works in the piano literature – which is to say one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit.
Not so, according to Mr Tommasini: “Looking back, I can’t believe how much I bought into the masterpiece mystique surrounding the Beethoven sonatas. Today, the word masterpiece itself is problematic. Wasn’t the good-humored Haydn sonata I played a masterpiece? Or Chopin’s stormy ballade? (To say nothing of too often overlooked works by composers beyond these white, male totems.)”
The word ‘masterpiece’ only becomes problematic when it’s preceded by the words ‘the only’. If it isn’t, anyone other than a clinical moron will assume that music accommodates numerous masterpieces, including Haydn sonatas and Chopin ballades. That they too are masterpieces means neither that Op. 110 isn’t nor that the word itself is invalid.
But of course it’s Mr Tommasini’s parenthetical phrase that’s the crux of his paragraph. That’s what he really wanted to say.
So who are those off-white and female composers who take Beethoven et al. down from their totem poles? Samuel Coleridge Taylor? Clara Schumann? Esperanza Spalding? Stormzy? Tommasini and Ewell will probably shrug and say “Why not?”
You say Beethoven is better than Stormzy, he says you only think that because you are a racist, sexist troglodyte, who’s to say who’s right? Certainly not one of the most influential formers of music tastes in the US.
Lest you may think I’ve got it in for America, the pandemic of ideological lunacy has spread to Britain as well. Here it’s not just musical education, but education as such that has been shoved into the domain of psychiatry.
Thus a study by the National Literacy Trust (NTL) suggests that playing video games is the best thing for youngsters’ education. That finding, which will definitely be accepted as a call to action, falls into the same clinical category as Mr Tommasini’s and Dr Ewell’s pronouncements.
But let’s not be too hasty. Let’s find out what, in the view of that august organisation, the study actually means.
“We know that video games are a part of everyday life for so many children, young people and families across the UK,” says Jonathan Douglas, NTL’s chief executive.
“So it is exciting to uncover the opportunities that video game-playing can provide for young people to engage in reading, stimulate creativity through writing, enhance communication with friends and family, and support empathy and wellbeing.”
Sounds good, if ever so slightly counterintuitive. But exactly how do video games exert such a welcome effect?
Turns out that nearly 80 per cent of those who play video games also read materials relating to gaming, such as fan fiction, reviews and blogs. That encourages reading and, since they occasionally text their fellow players with LOL and How R U messages, also communication.
In other words, the entire intellectual and cultural world of those youngsters is circumscribed by video games. They either play them or read up on them or talk about them monosyllabically. I can’t imagine a more effective assembly line of cretins than that.
But then we need such assembly lines for the Ewells and Tommasinis of this world to have an audience. They are the roosters in the hatcheries of barbarism.