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With very little fanfare save for the light breeze made by page turning, Vol. IV came to a close a week ago. That’s four down and one to go—though if you’re like me, you’ve peeked more than once at the final volume.

As is our custom, we’ll take a week or two of wrap-up time to comment on more of the text, as well as to perhaps ask some global questions and discuss the big points of the volume.

And what a volume it was. Prof. Taruskin rocked several boats holding the traditional thinking on twentieth century music. Some of the biggest he salvoed and aimed to sink. He moved the inception of the musical “twentieth century” back by more than a decade, redefined its central characteristics (neoclassicism, ban of pathos, irony), and argued for a repositioning of the era’s most important philosophers (notably a increasing the importance of Ortega y Gasset and decreasing that of T.W. Adorno).

The influence that these changes and challenges might have on the teaching and understanding of music history is well worth discussing, and I’d like to open up a discussion here.

Teachers: how have you used Taruskin’s arguments in your presentation of the narrative of twentieth century music? To what effect?

Students: how have Taruskin’s revisions and emendations affected the way you understand early twentieth century music?

Challenges of your own? Seconding Prof. Taruskin’s arguments? Questions or ruminations? Let’s get this comments section working—pathos and irony allowed.

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I mentioned in a comment not too long ago that an apt subtitle for Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music would be  And How it Got that Way. Taruskin consistently presents not only the history at hand, but also the story behind how the history was constructed. Elijah Wald recently put it succinctly: “Any history is a reflection of at least two periods—when the events happened and when one is writing—and also of the writer’s personal experience.”* And Taruskin’s is no exception. Take for instance his attention to the volatile changes in Josquin scholarship since the inception of modern musicology (the Josquin legend, biography, the minefield of style dating; Vol. I, 547-584). This is something we expect to get extended space in the pages of The Journal of the American Musicological Society, not a general history of music. That he insists on these types of inclusions—and they are frequent—reflects Taruskin’s concern with outing unconscious philosophical blunders and a self-consciousness about the shifty nature of our historical understanding. Further, it reflects the presence of these issues in the larger community of today’s musicologists.

But I don’t want to get into the philosophy of it right now. Instead, I have been thinking about what byproducts this practice of including the “story behind the history” might have on student readers of the OHWM. There are many possibilities, but I would like to ask the readership’s opinion about a specific one: Do you think that this inclusion will create more interest in the discipline of musicology among student readers?

I’m imagining the typical undergraduate music major, who sees learning about ancient music from a bunch of dead composers as barely more fun than the swine flu—or maybe not even that, given the number of absences in class this term. Would it be more intriguing to students if music history was less of a set number of dates and facts, and more of a living, breathing animal that may bite your hand at any moment?

What if, on an undergraduate music history exam, the student had a short answer question on how Lowinsky and Noblitt affected our understanding of the historical importance of “Ave maria…virgo serena”? What if the student had more of a conscious understanding that history is being better understood every day, and that they could be a part of it?

Taruskin’s is not the first history to include the story behind the history, though I might argue that it is the first to do so on such a pervasive, ground level, and on such a grand scale. And I am eager to hear feedback on the effects this might have on potential readers. Will this have any effect on interest in musicology as a discipline?

I need your opinion. Are you a teacher who has included “the story behind the history” in your lectures? Have you noticed any effects on interest in musicology? Are you a student who would appreciate this type of information? Do you think this idea is totally bogus? Click on that comments button and let us know.

* Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7).

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[This post is a reply to Zach’s earlier post, which you can find here.]

What if we historicize the metaphor a bit? History has shaped us to think of high(brow) and low(brow) in terms of social class. We live in a moment in time where the French Revolution of 1789 happened, and marxism, capitalism, and suburbia exist. None of these did by the fifteenth century of course. And therefore the self-consciousness of class did not exist so intensely as it does for us today.

My historical imagination suggests to me that the metaphor may have hung on a more cosmic scale for composers of the fifteenth century. My thoughts stretch all the way back to Boethius’s cosmology of music. If we reconcile his tripartite construction with our present one, then “high” is musica mundana, the harmony of the cosmos, and “low” would be musica instrumentalis, the audible music blown, struck, or vibrated by earthly bodies. So far, it seems we may be on to something. The 14th century motet, as Taruskin argued, disembodied the listener and created a mysterious discordia concors that reflected heavenly things. By these lights, it seems (super)natural that this style would cross over to the genre that “looks up” most directly: the fifteenth-century cyclic mass. Thus we have the beginning of a theory of high (I’m giving up on including the quotes on these terms from here on out) musical style that jibes with existing theories of the time.

On the other hand, Taruskin’s example of low music comes from Loyset Compère’s Ave Maria…virgo serena, in which the tenor shirks its responsibility to hold august musical material, and “is confined to a monotone recitation of the prayer that the sequence quotes, as if mimicking the mumbling of a distracted communicant going through the rosary” (I, 524) Incidentally, Taruskin offers a reading that counts this as flippancy on Compère’s part, “funny, but still pious” (ibid.). An alternate reading might suggest that Compère used the cachet of the tenor line to stress the importance that prayers be intoned. Both readings emphasize humanity, and therefore what might be called a low style, “pitched at the level of its hearers, rather than…way, way over their heads” (I, 526). In other words, it is music that reflects musica instrumentalis over musica mundana.

But hold on one Tinctorian minute. Hadn’t a millennium passed since Boethius flourished, and even if he held sway on centuries’-worth of music theory, hadn’t he long since lost his currency by the fifteenth century? Well yes, and that is why these connections can be only suggestions. But that doesn’t take away the value of using them as a heuristic tool to think through alternate understandings of the high-middle-low continuum. For Boethian cosmology was in the DNA of music theory and philosophy in the fifteenth century; marxism was not.

I still haven’t answered the original question “where is the middle?” But I have offered a rationale for its existence that doesn’t take our modern duality and stuff in a third option. It is a reminder that even though our culture defaults to duality, as Zach pointed out, it was not always that way. By all accounts, thinkers within the Roman Catholic cultures up to this historical moment were more likely to map a tripartite structure onto the world, thus giving it the reflection of the Holy Trinity. After all, according to music theorists, triple division was the only one open to musicians until the Ars Nova of the 13th century.

To complete our cosmological reconciliation, we must square the middle style with Boethius’s musica humana, or the “harmony of the human constitution” (I, 70). So what is the musical middle then? Taruskin has it pegged. The middle style of this period concerns itself with the mediator between man and God: the great Intercessor Mary. For Roman Catholics of this time, she stands as the connector between heaven and earth, between God and man, between musica mundana and musica instrumentalis, between high and low.

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One does not have to crack open Taruskin’s OHWM to infer that he does not ascribe to the traditional categorization of eras of musical history. One doesn’t even have to take the volumes off the shelf (or shelves, depending on how big your bookcase is). Just a glance at their spines shows that he has organized his five volumes according to chronology (“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth century,” “…in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” “…in the Nineteenth Century,” etc.) rather than era (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic). I have been waiting, therefore, for the issue to come up in the text, and sure enough it did in last week’s reading.

Before coming to the conclusion of his discussion of the motet, Taruskin makes it a point to draw a stylistic connection between Machaut and Du Fay. The reason that he has to “make it a point,” rather than simply drawing the connection, is that between these two composers lies the traditional barrier between two stylistic eras: Medieval and Renaissance. These are made-up barriers, and yet they can have a profound and formative influence on how we think and act. Here’s Taruskin:

“…major historiographical divisions like that can act as barriers, sealing off from one another figures and works that happen to fall on opposite sides of that fancied line, no matter how significant their similarities. Not only that, but…an appearance of stylistic backwardness or anachronism—inevitable when sweeping categories like “Medieval” and “Renaissance” are too literally believed in—can easily blind us to the value of supreme artistic achievements such as Du Fay’s isorhythmic motets. They are not vestigial survivals or evidence of regressive tendencies, but a zenith.” [I, 281]

The power of socially constructed barriers can be startling. A couple years ago, a designer friend of mine, David Overholt did a project at NYU that explored this very phenomenon, called “Tape in Space.” David went around New York City, placing duct tape in various configurations in public spaces: across a step, in an X on a bench, or stretching waist-high from a wall to a lamppost across a busy sidewalk. David outlines the concept behind his project as follows:

“My tendencies to consider alternative solutions and push/pull ideas to the limits of their rational beginnings had me quickly consider the options in life that we come in contact with that are not walls, but in fact act as walls simply by social understanding or conditioning. Thoughts of cracks in the sidewalk, a speaker blaring music (a wall of sound), or light in a darkened room can instantly bring up a group of the same set of emotions that are evoked when coming face to face with a wall. Isolation, distance, separation, security, etc. are often derived out of ideas, objects, or senses that are, in definition, not considered walls.”

In other words, we see walls where there are none. And we act accordingly. As part of the project, David created this video. It shows how a thin piece of tape can become an infinitely vertical wall capable of literally stopping people in their tracks. It also shows how different people deal with the same situation, some even penetrating the perceived barrier. (This video is also an interesting commentary on perceived authority, something that David achieves with just a hard hat and orange vest.) I recommend watching the entire five minutes of the video, but if you have limited time, begin at about 3 minutes.

Tape in Space from David Steele Overholt [I couldn’t get the video to embed, so please click the link.]

We do the same thing by erecting barriers in music history, only our barriers are even more scant than a piece of tape: they are completely invisible.

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Thank You


Original movie poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Zach and I started this blog with modest ambitions. It was simply an easy way to hold an ongoing discussion between us across distance, and work through our thoughts and reactions as we work through the text of the OHWM. We told some friends and colleagues about it, thinking that maybe—just maybe—a few of them would be interested enough, or have a sliver of time in their busy schedules to drop by the blog and chime in. We were quite surprised with the response.

Since launch day six days ago, the blog has received over 800 hits. Numerous colleagues both known and unknown to us—the wonders of the internet!—have left comments or sent emails expressing excitement in the project, or a wish that they had had such an outlet when they were reading through OHWM. I can only assume that the overwhelming response to the blog is an indication that there is still plenty of room for this type of discussion within the musicological community.

So first we want to say thank you. Thank you for your interest and support. Second, we want to encourage you to continue stopping by when you have the chance, and don’t be afraid to join the conversation. Lively discussion is the life blood of a blog (more on this soon in a post by Zach).

In the meantime, we will press on toward the goal. One week down, only seventy-six more to go!

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