Two members in particular have killed the BachCantatas discussion forum

A member of the BachCantatas discussion group asked: "I missed Bradley's answer regarding the primary source for the Bach/Couperin connection. Does he really expect others to take the pronouncments of modern scholars on faith?"

The source citation was provided up front, here, before its veracity was attacked by a dilettante. It doesn't require further explication from me. If there's some question about its reliability, take it up with published Couperin experts (go ask them directly; don't draw improper conclusions from absence of material in their books, as such argumentation from omission is a fallacy).

Taking serious scientific research on faith? Yes, I believe we should take seriously the published musicological work of scholars, from reputable publishers (in this case Wilfrid Mellers, published by Faber & Faber). It's their job to be objective and to treat the material both fairly and comprehensively. That work has more credibility than the "findings" by self-guided dilettantes looking up passages in search engines and spinning their own interpretations around them. Especially so if those critical dilettantes are not demonstrably interested in objectivity in the material, primarily, but rather in the destruction of expertise and education (putting themselves somehow above it, since they don't have it).

I noted the dilettante's attempt, recently, to destroy the credibility of the people who reported that there were numerous letters of correspondence between Bach and Couperin. What's the point here? If he can "prove" that any of those people were unreliable, that suddenly somehow proves that Bach and Couperin never wrote to one another after all? HOW?!?!? It's a fallacy, as I have pointed out. His angle there is not objectivity with the material; it's about his attempts to make published scholars look incompetent, by beating them up with citations from different published scholars. The scholarly work is being used as weaponry, in polemic.

The broader issue here is indeed reliability. There has to be trust/faith that real expertise is worth something as to knowing what's true and practical. That's what expertise is, the training and/or experience to know what's going on, more clearly than might be apparent to people who haven't done the work (and who refuse to do the work, but who merely preach about how others should do it). Definitions from Merriam-Webster:

  • "expertise, 1 : expert opinion or commentary; 2 : the skill of an expert".
  • "expert, 1 obsolete : experienced; 2 : having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience."
  • "dilettante, 1 : an admirer or lover of the arts; 2 : a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge : dabbler."
  • "dabbler: : one that dabbles : as a : one not deeply engaged in or concerned with something b : a duck (as a mallard or shoveler) that feeds by dabbling."

Yet, dilettantes are somehow better placed than experts are, to decide what material is important and how it must be interpreted? See the section "The dilettante's pet fallacies" for an outline of a present dilettante's methods, which should make it clearer why those fallacious methods produce nothing but unreliable nonsense. His whole method of proof and disproof is nothing but selective fact-finding strung together with illogical steps.

Expert sources are fine. But one also has to know how to use them, within the broad perspective of practice and experience. One has to use sources within the firm belief that expertise is worth something; otherwise the whole argument is reduced to random speculation or polemic. Dilettantes don't know how to resolve apparent contradictions, except to pick whichever source appears to ratify their own point of view, and then pretend that it's the only source of importance. Dilettantes don't write scientific understanding of the material, they write polemic. They equate their own wishes and preferences, somehow, with "composer's intentions" and "objectivity". And their polemic is then put up in an attempt to discredit expertise and education.

I have the harpsichord-playing treatises by Couperin, Rameau, Corrette, Geminiani, and CPE Bach right here. I have been trained by expert musicologists and performers in their proper use. I don't need to be told what a dilettante guesses they might contain (a dilettante who hasn't looked at them or studied the harpsichord through them), as if such guesses by him would suddenly invalidate my understandings of this material.

Nor do I need to be told what aesthetics and techniques I should glean from those sources, or which parts are most important, by one who has not done that work. I spent nine years studying that material under the guidance of teachers professionally qualified to teach it. Having attained those qualifications as a teacher, I've spent another ten years since then continuing to learn from the material (both in my own reading and practice, and in discussions with similarly qualified colleagues), as there's always more to work on. We don't need to be told how to do our jobs by people who have invested nothing in this beyond listening to a handful of CDs, and beyond buying the reference books that they use against us as weapons, foisting their own interpretations and speculations as if they have an adequate picture of the material.

Back to the question about faith in musicological research and expert performance methods. There simply has to be some trust that experts know what we're talking about. We've invested the years of dedication and effort to acquire such qualifications in understanding the material. Normal people trust that. Why don't preachy and uppity dilettantes trust that, except to assert that they have the only way to know truth, their own untrained and subjective interpretation of the available material?

Let's go to an expert source here, Francois Couperin's treatise of harpsichord teaching, from 1716/17. About having faith in people who are qualified to do their jobs, Couperin wrote some direct advice for parents and other nosy/disruptive caregivers of children, at lessons. Having chosen a good harpsichord teacher, stay out of his face and let him do his job. The teacher, for his part, is not obligated to explain himself or his methods to such people who would contradict him in his appointed task of teaching.

"Il seroit bon que les Parens, ou ceux qui ont L'inspection general sur les enfans, eussent mois d'impatience, et plus de confiance en celui qui enseigne (sures d'avoir fait un bon choix en sa personne) et que L'habile Maitre de sone cote, ut moins de condescendance."
Elsewhere in the treatise, Couperin has counseled that children who are beginners at music should not be allowed to practice without the supervision of the teacher, at first, lest they acquire bad habits in several minutes that would undo 45 minutes of careful teaching.
"Il est mieux, pendant les premieres Lecons qu'on donne aux enfans de ne leur point recommander d'etudier en L'absence de la personne qui leur enseigne: Les petites personnes sont trop dissipees pour s'assujetir a tenir leurs mains dans la Scituation qu'on leur a prescrite: pour moy, dans les commencemens des enfans j'emporte par precaution la clef de L'instrument Sur lequel je leur montre, afin qu'en mon absense ils ne puissent pas deranger en un instant ce que j'ay bien Soigneusement pose en trois quarts d'heures."
Let the teacher do his job, so the student will get the material properly. That's what a teacher is for: to present a carefully organized program of study such that the students will understand the material, without being overruled by people who aren't qualified to teach those things. A master of teaching (or, by extension, of any specialized skill) is not required to "condescend" by justifying his methods to those who would try to undo them.

Dilettantes can speculate all they want to, as to the proper way to do expert work; but such speculations are unreliable. They're also insulting, and disrespectful of the material: to arrogate to oneself the only correct interpretation of the material, through such speculations that experts are not worth listening to. The dilettantes know it's insulting and they keep doing it; I suspect that it's a deliberate insult.

Likewise for the question to which I'm responding. The question is about taking expert work with any measure of faith. The question itself looks to me like a deliberate attempt to provoke defensive anger, by insulting the existence of expertise. That questioner already knows (if he was ever paying attention in previous discussions) my views as to taking published material seriously.

To provide appropriate context here: that same questioner has proposed to redefine the word "musicology" to be technical development into synthesizers and the artificial intelligence of musical software (both in playing and in notation); never mind the normal understanding that the word "musicology" refers to scientific research into music history and practices.

  • "musicology : the study of music as a branch of knowledge or field of research as distinct from composition or performance"
  • "research : 1 : careful or diligent search; 2 : studious inquiry or examination; especially : investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws; 3 : the collecting of information about a particular subject"
That posting by him is here. To his anti-expert definition, "musicology" would put expert musicians out of a job (i.e. expertise itself is worth zero) because machines can allegedly do that work. With the question above, "Does he really expect others to take the pronouncments of modern scholars on faith?", I suspect he's merely trying to bludgeon any expert approach over the head, asserting that his own lack of faith in expertise is the only reasonable way to approach the material. Education bad, dilettante guesswork good. Have faith only in dilettantes. What a twist! Redefine the terminology of an established field so it says what a dilettante would have it say, throwing the whole field into the garbage can and replacing it with something else. It's absurd.

Serious discussion of Bach's music is simply not going to happen in the BachCantatas forum, in any reliable way, until and unless the most intractable and preachy dilettantes are permanently expelled from the discussion. They just keep on insulting and belittling the whole point of expertise and education, and trying to reduce the material to their own understanding (as to whatever they can look up in search engines and books, on their own). They have been at this for more than three years, starting fights about expertise, and personally attacking other list members who challenge their presentations asking for evidence. Well-reasoned and published expert work gets replaced with fallacious dilettante speculations; never mind any responsibility to the material. The facts get presented selectively, and twisted, in an attempt to prove that no real education in music or music history is necessary. Aesthetic principles of the 18th and 21st centuries are replaced by only the listening preferences of these dilettantes, as if no other way to judge the material is allowed to exist. Dilettantism in the appreciation of Bach's music is extolled as preferable, above serious research and professional practice by specialists.

The speculations and insults by these several members serve more to waste time and energy, and generate street fights about the ways in which truth can be known, than to illuminate the material. Other members who dare to speak up against the nonsense get their heads personally kicked; the offenders cannot bear to be challenged. The root of the problem is that that dilettante nonsense is put up there to overrule expertise; indeed, some of the other members welcome and encourage it, inviting and rewarding the speculation that would overthrow serious confrontation with the material (Bach's music). The forum will have no reliable value until the sources of that nonsense are removed.

I've analyzed and spoken about this before. An example posting about this, from June 2004, is here. These dilettante critics take Johann Scheibe (Bach's own most outspoken and destructive critic, during his lifetime) as their own role model. They take the same strategy of belittling serious work, casting unreasonable doubt against the people who do it. It's all about the attempt to destroy expert credibility, so it can be replaced with whatever fallacious nonsense they so choose. It kills reasonable discussion of the material.

Continued on part 2...

Brad Lehman