Argument from authority

In my first year undergrad music history course – when I was even younger and more stupid than I am now – I wrote a short essay in which I opined that Beethoven’s orchestration grew worse and worse as his deafness progressed.

This was not my own idea, however. I came across this idea while reading some essays by Leonard Bernstein, who is still revered as a musical authority by most musicians, including the prolific music critic for the New Yorker, Alex Ross.

My professor, who had apparently never read the Bernstein essays, took exception to the claim about Beethoven’s orchestration. She asked me on what grounds I made such a claim, and could I point to examples of obviously bad orchestration? I then spent an evening listening to the 9th symphony and marking all the spots on the score that I thought represented less than ideal orchestration.

In retrospect, what I had singled out as defects in Beethoven’s orchestration were really defects in either the performance or the recording.

Bernstein was wrong on two counts. Beethoven’s orchestration was fine. That’s error number one. Error number two goes deeper. Orchestration is a necessarily imprecise art. There is no one arrangement of instruments that works best for any given piece of music. If that were so, transcriptions and arrangements would be impossible. As long as one writes more or less idiomatically for each instrument, and the music itself makes sense – in the abstract – things should work out.

My professor was absolutely right to question my assertion, but I have to wonder if she still would have, had she been aware of the Bernstein essays.

Being successful, as Bernstein was in a big way, does not mean one’s ideas are unimpeachable.


2 Responses to “Argument from authority”

  1. November 8, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    I wish there was a “like” buttton. Then I would “like” this.

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