Who is embarassing the School now?

It is a grey, February afternoon in 1986. A blast of arctic air has settled across the Midwest that promises to chill the bones for several days to come. In this climate the cozy college town looked rather austere and foreboding. Your author had grown up on a Big-Ten campus, and a bigger campus at that, but where his home-town school has a laid back, Bohemian vibe, this one looks and feels more conservative, more old-world. 

Having gotten lost on the short walk from the Union to the music building, this observer was nearly late for the fateful tour of the School of Music. Not that it would have mattered- when he returned as a student five months later, he was amazed at how misleading many of his initial impressions were. Starting from the office of admissions, the imperious sounding Associate Assistant Dean of Admissions, or whatever his title was, led us in a loop through the main buildings- the “old building” and the “round building.” We then made ready to cross to the “new building” (now, 20 years later the “music practice building”), gathering for the first time in front of the façade at the front of the world’s biggest music school. 

Across the top of the building were a number of names of great composers. Our host was keen to draw our attention to one in particular. “Yes, we’re quite embarrassed about that one. Apparently he was very popular in the 1950’s, when this building was put up. It’s amazing how wrong people can get things! Such horrible, simplistic, naïve, cliché-ridden music!” He chortled in smug satisfaction. 

“We’ve looked into tearing it down, but because of the age of the building there is a concern that if we replaced him with a more legitimate composer, the stone wouldn’t match. Anyway, it really is a huge embarrassment to the whole School of Music that he’s up there.” The composer?Jean Sibelius. 

Hear KW conduct Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony this Saturday, February 23rd in Bute Hall, Glasgow with the musicians of the Kelvin Ensemble. Also on the program is Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi, and Bloch’s Schelomo. And the outcome of the campus tour? 

Lord forgive me…. I went there anyway.   

 

 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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5 comments on “Who is embarassing the School now?”

  1. Erik K

    Wow. Makes me think back to some of those older music books you’d find with “the lives of the great composers” and see guys like Edward McDowell, Amy Beach, et al, but no mention of Mahler or Sibelius. Way to go IU…you may have the better music school, but we have the better basketball team. At least historically. Damn this season.

    BTW, I was unaware that you were opening the program with Rienzi. Way to just invade my personal dream conducting-scape and raid it for 3 of my favorite pieces to perform on one concert, rubbed right in my face from 4,000 miles away. Good luck…record it!

  2. ComposerBastard

    This is a joke, right?? Did this “really” happen, Master Ken? I completed a college course on Sibelius and spent a good field of analysis of his works. It was one of the most enlightening musical learning experiences as a composer I ever had.

  3. Bill Brice

    I’m reminded of the text that was used for some “20th century music” survey course I took as an undergraduate. The book is “Introduction to Contemporary Music” by Joseph Machlis. Machlis ends his section on Sibelius with the following (rather smug) summary:

    “Sibelius had a definite contribution to make in the first quarter of our century, when the public was finding its way to the new music. There was sufficient novely in his work to attract those listeners who liked to think of themselves as advanced. At the same time there was enough of the old to reassure those who were not yet ready for the truly modern in art.”

    “We today see the Finnish master more realistically. His music came out of the last period in European culture that was capable of romantic idealism. It stands in the nineteenth-century tradition. By the same token, it has little relevance to the problems of contemporary musical thought. Withal it bears the imprint of a dedicated musician who in the course of a long, fruitful career won an honorable place for himself in the annals of his art.”

  4. Kenneth Woods

    No, it is no joke!

    Bill and Gert hint at a thread I’ve always wanted to do on this blog, which is a series on great bullshit moments in music text book history. Sadly, I lost all my old textbooks in the fire last year, but I have some fond memories of moments in Grout and Salzmann that were so factually challenged they could have come from the Bush administration press office…..

    Alas- maybe someday I’ll have the research materials, but meanwhile, I’d love to hear some more great clunkers from “authoritative” sources….

    K

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