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[1] 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.

8 thoughts on “The poverty of musical historicism

  1. I’m not sure what your point is here, John, except to rant against contemporary art music. So you don’t know much about it, and therefore, I conclude, you probably don’t like it, but so what?! I’d be surprised if most people could name ten 20th-century pure mathematicians, and so the doing of pure mathematics could also be called a “marginal phenomenon”. Certainly direct practical benefits outside mathematics of, say, category theory, which has been around now for 60 years, have yet to be seen. Does that make pure math also worthy of an emotional diatribe? It is not as if contemporary composers are forcing anyone to listen to their work.

    Knowing something about the subject, I would not argue that contemporary art music is marginal. Nearly all of us in the West regularly hear atonal music without realizing it, since it became common in the soundtracks of movies (from the 1930s onwards). And it is not science fiction movies where it is mainly used — for some reason, sci-fi films typically use romantic expressionism of the sort found in composers of the late-19th century (Wagner, Bruckner, etc).

    I agree that notions of progress in western art music are problematic, but not for the reasons you seem to be giving. The problem is that most trends can be found to have precedents long before and echoes long afterwards. Minimalist ideas, for example, of the type found in the music of Philip Glass or John Adams from the 1960s, can also be found in the music of Bach.

    For what it’s worth, one reason Taruskin devotes 2 out of 5 volumes to 20th-century music is because there is so much more written and recorded material extant on music in this period than on earlier periods. There also was greater eclecticism in composer’s styles and methods, and, therefore, much more for a music historian to write about.

  2. Peter, for the reasons you cite, I have doubts about the merit of category theory. If it turns out ex post to have had no direct or indirect significance outside itself [this allows for signficance in less abstract areas of mathematics] then it will have been a waste of time. I don’t know enough to be sure in this case, but I can point to plenty of examples like this in economics (the game-theoretic literature on refinements of equilibrium, for example). This stuff is academic in the pejorative sense.

    My point is that, as far as I can see, the art music of the last 50 to 100 years falls in this category. It doesn’t appear to have any external justification for its claims to our attention, direct or indirect.

    You’re right about movie soundtracks, and I probably should have mentioned this – it’s a point that’s often struck me when listening both to movie soundtracks and to contemporary art music. But it seems kind of ludicrous to advance a historical theory that explains music history in terms of evolution from plainchant, through Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to B-grade movies.

    I’m probably biased on this point, since I dislike obtrusive soundtracks in movies and think the whole idea of soundtracks is a bit weird.

  3. I’m perhaps the sole reader of Prof Quiggin’s blog who’s old enough and obsessive enough to have been reading Taruskin’s writings from the mid-1980s (when he called himself “Tarushkin”) onwards. Even back then I formed the impression of great surface cleverness, trying vainly to conceal as remorselessly historicist and teleological an aesthetic world-view as has ever disgraced an adult mind.

    Reading the Prospect quote on Taruskin reminds me of my bad old undergraduate days in the early 1980s, at a necessarily nameless institution, where Two-Legs Tonality Bad and Four-Legs Atonality Good. (Not surprisingly, almost every student dropped out after first year.) To admit to any fondness for, say, Puccini or Richard Strauss was to be a latter-day musicological Ishmael. I was hoping this combination of Hegelianism and sheer artistic Manicheanism had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, but clearly not.

  4. “My point is that, as far as I can see, the art music of the last 50 to 100 years falls in this category. It doesn’t appear to have any external justification for its claims to our attention, direct or indirect.” If this is the criterion, what claim does the music of Bach, Beethoven or anyone else have to our attention? I really don’t see that listening to ‘art music’ needs any external justification. That’s certainly not what I am looking for when I listen!

  5. Simon, listeners are indeed the obvious justification. The problem is that compared to B&B, or to, say, zydeco, contemporary art music doesn’t have very many, and is never likely to, which undermines a claim that this particular genre is a central part of our culture.

    I don’t deny that there’s plenty of activity in contemporary art music and that plenty of people find value in what’s being done. But exactly the same can be said of dozens of other musical genres. My problem is with a historicist account that picks out this one piece of the musical scene and represents it as the culmination of 1500 years of cultural activity, privileged above all others to be referred to as “Western music� .

  6. the total number of people who listened to or liked pieces by bach, beethoven or brahms during their lifetimes is almost certainly a tiny fraction of those who listen to and appreciate say phillip glass, steve reich or gavin bryars today. even adjusted for population growth and expressed as a % of world population I suspect that the audiences for minority avant garde germanic composers of the pre C20 was tiny. by comparison popular tunes of the day had far greater audiences. the point is that the lasting impact of the leading edge music of any time is hard to judge at the time it is being produced – only after the passage of some decades or centuries can it be assessed properly. this is not to deny the problem with a western-centric view of music as a historical progression: there are other traditions equally rich (eg Indian ragas) where that view does not hold. but there is not much we can say about the lasting value and influence (or otherwise) of current music, because we are too close to it to actually tell.

  7. 1.
    It seems to me that there is an analogy between art music and modernist poetry: both are by design difficult and unpopular.

    There is undoubtedly an element of snobbery in the kind of judgments that you are criticizing.

    But there is also a distinction between mere snobbery and judgments based on educated observation. Popularity, based on taste, says nothing about quality, which can be fairly assessed by someone with the required expertise and experience.

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