Dissertations are read by few; these days, admittedly, blogs are also read by few. But Not Another Music History Cliché! has been an essential and widely disseminated outpost for myth-busting in a post-truth era, providing useful historical information undergirded by an ethical urgency. Linda has written for other outlets like VAN and The Outline, penned a ton of program notes, given interviews to the BBC, and even appeared on Jeopardy! Her posts were arriving less frequently lately, as she has been working on a book based on the blog.
A little over two weeks ago, however, she posted a new entry: “I didn’t finish the book, and I’m not resuming the blog. Instead, I’m dying.” Through her blogging career, Linda has been a cancer patient, and she has now entered hospice. A GoFundMe page is currently raising money for her husband and son; she hopes that her book will be completed posthumously by fellow scholars.
I’ve never met Linda, though we share many friends in the world of scholarship – I’m a musicologist, too – and travel in the same internet circles; we’re Twitter friends, in the close-but-far manner of so many relationships in the 21st century. I wanted to talk to her before she passed—for my own sake, and for the opportunity to share some of her final thoughts with the world.
We spoke on the phone on Sunday. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation: an exit interview with one of my favorite public musicologists.
WILLIAM ROBIN: How did you get into musicology?
LINDA SHAVER-GLEASON: Every musicologist knows that would be a necessary question. Like many, I started as a performer; I chose viola because it’s the weird one and I always liked being the one who’s out of place, the one who’s unexpected. There’s a lot of disrespect for violas – a lot of viola jokes – so why don’t I go in there and just be an awesome violist, and just blow them all away? So that was my attitude, when I was nine.
I loved the music, and I knew music was going to be some part of my larger life. I made it through college on viola and I applied to grad school and got in with viola, but I was already starting to look at musicology—there’s something really cool going on there! When I went to AMS [the American Musicological Society], my first big national meeting was 2010, and that is right at the date of social media hitting. It was like: This is a community I feel like I could belong in.
ROBIN: Why shift from playing music to writing about music?
SHAVER-GLEASON: I realized I was a lot more comfortable and better at writing than I was at playing. When writing, you can go back and fix your mistakes, whereas with performing, you have that moment in time, and if you screw up…. I couldn’t handle the pressure after a certain point, and I just lost all confidence. I can be confident in the writing because I can go back and change and improve. That’s my optimism.
ROBIN: Your doctoral dissertation focused on Mendelssohn’s reception in 19th century England. How did you come to that topic?
SHAVER-GLEASON: There was a biography/bibliography assignment [in grad school]: choose a composer and write about what’s out there. There was a commercial for pasta or something that used the “Italian” Symphony, and I’m like, I like Mendelssohn, let’s see what’s out there on him. I didn’t know about all the anti-Semitism and how much that made his story unique and powerful. Reading that, and then reading how different it is in England than it is in the rest of Europe—this is a story I can tell: What made England so different, and why do they treat him differently? Why is their disillusionment with him so much later than the rest of Europe? I was like, this fresh, this is new—I can add my voice before it gets too swamped.
ROBIN: Mendelssohn’s reputation and reception is filled with a lot of stereotypes and clichés, some of which are perniciously tied to anti-Semitism. Did your interest in Mendelssohn fuel a desire to debunk the myths of music history?
SHAVER-GLEASON: Absolutely. Before I did the true digging into it, I was like, everybody says his music is so nice and fluffy and superficial, and I don’t think so. “Superficial” was the big criticism laid on him, which has a lot of anti-Semitic implications. I was already arguing with the party line, that he’s like the lightweight Mozart. I want to take that on, and it turned into a confrontation with a lot of conventional wisdom about composers. There are certain go-to lines that people have when they want to prove they know classical music: “Oh yes, Mendelssohn, yes, so superficial, mmhmm.” Have you actually listened? Because it’s not.
ROBIN: Where did the idea for your blog come from?
SHAVER-GLEASON: I’m sorry to confess this, but a lot of it comes from the worst habits of musicologists—when we see an article, or somebody trying to talk about classical music, and we jump all over them for the details: “Oh, that’s not how it happened; that’s not what it is.” I was part of that: “Ugh, they just don’t know blah blah.” Later on, I’m like, well, why should they? They didn’t get this education, they didn’t go for college for this, why should they? I should be happy that they’re even interested.
That kind of turned it around on me. I’m asking, “Why should they know that?” How about, I’m why they should know that. I should tell them and then they should know it, as opposed to just expecting them to come up with this. There are a lot of things I had to shift in my perspective in order to make this a worthwhile thing to do, and part of that was to stop lecturing other people and to start finding out what they actually did think, and adjusting my writing to what they have on their minds.
Who’s telling people that’s how classical music works? Where do they get their information? We need to introduce ourselves as musicologists as experts, because it seems we’ve had this issue recently where when they think “expert,” they go to conductors or other public figures. They’re not consulting academics. And sometimes conductors aren’t the experts. Having been a performer, there’s a performer story you have to have in your head in order to make music, but there’s also the historical record. A lot of people don’t realize those are two different stories.
I get the impression that when I say I’m here debunking stuff, I’m afraid people think I’m taking their stories away. I’ve been a performer, I’ve been in studio class where they explain their narratives, take you through a piece, and I know it’s head canon, and I don’t want to get in the way of that when that’s how they understand the piece to play it. I think a lot of people think of musicologists as the people who are ruining the fun by saying, “But that’s not actually what happened!” I’m not trying to ruin that; I’m trying to give more information, to flesh it out.
SHAVER-GLEASON: I definitely have an ax to grind when people try evoke “science.” It’s so contradictory and twisted upon itself that it’s hard to get a hold on. You have people who think classical music is objectively “the greatest”: “It’s been around the longest, it’s the most established.” And then they start going into, “There are mathematical relationships between these pitches that cause them to be a more solid base than rock music or any other style of music, we have worked out the science behind the notes and this is what it’s done to your brain, blah blah blah.” Basically, you’re just trying to justify whatever your beliefs are about music in the moment. What it really comes down to is it makes them feel better about their choices. There is no objectivity when it comes to matters of personal taste, and when you step back you realize how much this is really just personal taste.
ROBIN: Do you feel like the blog became the center of your life as a musicologist?
SHAVER-GLEASON: I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. I was set to graduate that year, but when I got sick and started chemo, I was like, “Well, there’s no way I could ever have a teaching position, because I’m just not reliable enough.” There are going to be days when I can’t get to a classroom to lecture; there are going to be days when I’m not going to be able to grade. So I thought about that, and thought, how about I just let go of that as a career goal, and go and find something else. And that was incredibly freeing. Fortunately, I’m married so I didn’t have to worry as much about finances. Once I stopped trying to go on a job market that many people are finding impossible right now, it did help to open up the idea of doing a blog.
And that’s what I was getting feedback on. I got some feedback from my committee for the dissertation, but where I was getting a lot of feedback was from the various friends I’d made on Musicology Twitter. And talking with people, knowledgeable people who I met through the blog. So I was getting feedback on various other people’s expertise, and growing more from that than I was from my dissertation process. And I think that’s a great thing.
ROBIN: Are you thinking much about what your legacy will be?
SHAVER-GLEASON: It’s hard not to. The really hard thing recently is that I made the decision to go off chemo a couple weeks ago, and I thought it would be, just, blissfully drifting off. And it hasn’t been. I’ve held on a bit. That gives me time, and then I agree to do projects, and now I have a lot of projects, and now I have to finish those.
I have a six-year-old son, and people always ask, “What instruments does he play, is he musical like you?” And, honestly, he’s not like me, and that’s completely fine with me. He’s on the autism spectrum. Right now, he’s just having fun with life, and I’m cool with that. He identifies music, he likes music, and that was really my one goal—all I care about is, does he like music, is music a good thing in his life? And it really has been. I’m really touched by the fact that he connects classical music with me. He’ll hear it on the radio, because I like to listen, and he’ll say, “This is mommy’s music.”
I’m a musicologist, I’m a mother, I’m a musician, and, right now, I’m a cancer patient. I put that up on Twitter a couple years ago, and that’s always been my pinned post. This is who I am.
William Robin is a musicologist and assistant professor at the University of Maryland, writes regularly for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and maintains a lively presence on Twitter (@seatedovation). He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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