Received opinions are the enemy of any informed democracy, and are the enemy of good taste. Whether a received opinion is wrong or right is immaterial. What is material is having enough familiarity with an issue to merit an opinion, or having a reasoned response to some issue.
It may be that we know too little about an issue to have an opinion. It may be that we have no view about an issue and yet many around us advance theirs. Having a perspective is overrated. There is such a thing as withholding judgment or simply having no view on an issue.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of a received opinion as there are many things in modern European history (by this I mean from the Baroque period to roughly the 20th Century). From my recent Spotify subscription I have decided to make really big musical playlists of composers or musical acts that I would like to be more familiar with. I like things like the BBC Sound of 2014 as I have been following those critical lists for a couple of years. I also have a mini tradition (as of about 2009/2010) of going to a 2-3 day festival called the Camden Crawl where almost all of the acts I see are completely unfamiliar to me, and then I have found that a few months later or a year later, some of them end up being on the radio and I can say that hipster thing of ‘I saw them before they were famous’.
Since about 2010 I have made music listening playlists for large collections such as ‘the complete work of Mozart’ or ‘the complete recorded corpus of Glenn Gould’ (part of what inspires me going on ad nauseam about one of my favourite pianist-artists). I have decided to listen to ‘complete works’ lists of other people as well. Last year I listened to Kate Bush, which was interesting – I must admit of my own male biases coming into play in my musical preferences and that I rarely acknowledge the female experience in music both as performers and lyricists. I listened to the complete work of Frank Zappa which required a lot of effort but was very rewarding at points. There was also a significant amount of leitmotif in his work too which would make me chuckle in that pretentious Glenn Gould way (not to say that I think Gould was pretentious – but he parodied it self-consciously).
Two composers have struck me in attempting to listen to their ‘complete work’. One is the composer CPE Bach, who is quite difficult to find big lists for on Spotify. The other was a composer that most people seem to forget these days: Paul Hindemith. CPE Bach I read in an article described as ‘proto-Romantic’ (wikipedia’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ piece), which I find an entirely eccentric claim. I also find it odd how standard intro textbooks refer to Locke and Berkeley as empiricists unequivocally. The problems with overview or received opinions are that they oversimplify and simultaneously under-explain. A received opinion may be a good point of view, but when presented as a received opinion tends to be less rigorous and argued for the more times it is copied by other people.
I have emphasised to people the importance of coming across primary source material on your own terms and reading it yourself. Instead of reading what other people think of them. It takes much more effort to read a Descartes commentary than it does to read Descartes’ meditations. That is more a testament to Descartes’ readability of the Meditations. When I hear opinions about Kant I can sometimes guess where they are parrotting their opinions from. (pre-Manfried Kuehn or post-Kuehn’s biography). The beauty of the information age is that the resources for having an informed opinions are out there. With the exception of paid journals and unpublished papers, there’s a wealth of information from which we can contextualise and recontextualise our history.
Received opinions are subject to contestation. Some received views seem to linger no matter what, like a bad fart. Like the view that Nietzsche was a Proto-Nazi (which someone like Kaufmann in the 1950s’ successfully contested). Received opinions can obscure more interesting contexts. Listening to Paul Hindemith recently was reminiscent of Bernard Herrman film scores or les six composers such as Milhaud. I was reading a bit about Hindemith and he seems to have a strange set of contradictions: influential to the neo-classical movement of the 20th Century, yet in his post 1910s work shows influence from Schoenberg (as far away from neo-classical as you can get). The work of Hindemith seemed to have its own internal logic, its own sense of narrative and it didn’t quite fit with my received views of the 20th century. By one metric he is a musical conservative, and by another he was part of the avant-garde. I would be willing to consider Hindemith as both.
Another example of a received opinion that I’ve also mentioned countless times: when I read ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ I had no sympathy for the character’s suicide. It was not Romantic and it was not noble. It was not tragic, it was stupid. The story boils down to constituent elements: ‘boy likes girl, girl says ‘we should stop hanging out’, boy has breakdown as a result’. I am not saying that this is uninteresting and it is a life predicament that many people live through. However it is my view that there is nothing didactic about his response except perhaps (and this may be a bit oversight on my part), we accept that his actions are rash and aim to orient our behaviour away from what he does as a form of literary moral instruction. I find it dangerous to place such a high aesthetic value on this work and the way in which it seems to be commonly received suggests that we are more willing to follow the views of others than take our own view. Kant’s motto of the enlightenment is as relevant to musical history as it would be to current political situations: Sapere Aude: have the courage to use your own understanding.