The poverty of musical historicism
In the April edition of Prospect (subscription required), Roderick Swanston has an interesting review of The Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin. Swanston attributes to Taruskin an agenda that
is conservative, even Hegelian, and implies an evolution of music from the 6th century AD to the present. Key works and composers are included that have in some way contributed to music’s progression.
I haven’t read the book, and at 280stg, I’m not likely to, but the raw numbers are pretty convincing. Of five volumes covering the last 1500 years, Taruskin devotes two to the 20th century, and, according to Swanston, his focus is almost exclusively confined to art music derived from the classical tradition.
This allocation of attention states a doctrine of historical progress in music in a way that is so extreme as to be self-refuting. The 20th century was saturated in music, as is the early 21st, but 20th century art music plays a tiny role on any objective criterion, from popularity to durability to impact on our culture as a whole. If you covered the entire field, from ABBA to zydeco, on any of these criteria, contemporary art music would merit an entry comparable in length and reverence to that on progressive rock (another sub-genre inspired by historicism). Speaking personally, I couldn’t name more than a handful of living writers of art music, and even if I stretched it to include people who’d been active during my lifetime, I doubt that I could name ten. No doubt there are readers here who could do better, but we’re still talking about a marginal phenomenon, unless you assume that cultural significance is heritable property, passed on by classical art music to its institutional successors.
Nor could it be said that art music has handed on the baton of progress to other forms of music. The 20th century saw a profusion of musical forms and styles, and these have developed over time, crossed over and intermingled, but not obviously for the better (or, for that matter, for the worse).
If you want a grand-historical theory for music, Giovanni Battista Vico is your only man. The wheel turns.
fn1. As always, the term “20th century” can’t be used in a strictly chronological sense. For most purposes, as Hobsbawm says, the 20th century began in 1914, and composers with an essentially 19th century approach were still writing well after that. On the other hand, the view that progress manifested itself through formal innovation was around much earlier. A reasonable starting point for the 20th century proper would be Schoenberg’s atonalism.