Letters: Musical Constructions of Nationalism
Given how pertinent the issue of nationalism is for all who are interested in Irish cultural life, a lively discussion in these pages on the subject would have been welcome in the wake of my recent review of Musical Constructions of Nationalism.
Unfortunately the only letter, that from Axel Klein in the last issue, was both surprising and disappointing, not least on account of its tone, but also because Klein avoids engaging with my criticisms in even the most superficial way. Perhaps such a letter is best ignored, but I feel that a response is in order, if for no other reason than the fact that Klein gives the impression I seized the opportunity, under the pretext of reviewing this book, to make what he describes as a ‘vicious’ attack on Harry White’s work on Irish music, alleging that I have not only overstepped the bounds of good manners but have also failed to discharge adequately my responsibilities as a reviewer. For all his putative concern with fairness, however, Klein presents such a distorted account of my review that I have cause to wonder how closely he has in fact read it.
For a start, only about a quarter of my ten thousand word review deals with White’s contribution to this collection. Anyone reading Klein’s letter would imagine the whole of my review was taken up with it. Klein – inexplicably – takes exception to the fact that I referred to White’s other publications on Irish music, evoking some norm for a book review which he seems to have in mind. I am not sure what form he imagines it is most appropriate for a book review to take – if there is in fact any universally appropriate form – but I would have thought it obvious that my references to White’s other writings were made solely in the interests of clarity and were an attempt on my part to do his arguments justice by presenting them in the wider context of his work as a whole. I would have imagined that this point had been made clearly enough for Klein to have noticed it. Quite simply, the editor of the JMI and I both felt that the issues raised by the Irish contributors to Musical Constructions of Nationalism were of sufficient interest to justify an extended discussion, particularly given the absence of any other forum in which this volume could be reviewed in depth. It is regrettable that Klein has construed my motivation in writing such a long review to be solely that of indulging in an attack on Harry White and it is extraordinary that he could have discerned such an attack in what I wrote.
In my review, I have voiced my doubts about the validity of White’s portrayal of the history of music in Ireland. Surely the expression of such doubts is perfectly legitimate. Scholars place work in the public domain knowing that it will be subjected to close scrutiny in order to estimate its reliability and trustworthiness. Critical debate, provided it is responsible and informed, is welcomed by any good scholar in the interests of accuracy. It is in this spirit that I engaged with the work of Harry White and the other contributors to this volume. They may not have liked what I wrote, of course. That is another matter. But they could not complain that I did not engage with their ideas seriously.
Finally, few would agree, I think, with Klein’s unqualified assertion that everyone is entitled to his opinion in historical matters. Responsible scholarship is more than just a matter of opinion. Klein would also seem to imagine that scholars with an international reputation should for some reason be granted immunity from all criticism. I doubt if many would be prepared to accept the disturbing implication that scholarly work should not be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, but rather according to the degree of eminence of the writer.
Published on 1 September 2002