Posts Tagged ‘question’

The question of how to slice and dice the history of western music into a narrative that is stylistically coherent, historiographically intelligible, aesthetically prepossessing, and ideologically “usable” is, of course, a perennial concern to those working in a discipline whose job it is (in part) to define such a narrative. As Mark just pointed out in his last point, the conventional wisdom regarding the flow of music history more often than not centers itself around the technical, particularly how technical means get more and more complex with time. This teleological strain of music historiography has dominated the field for most of its history (for more, see Allen’s singular Philosophy of Music History, particularly the section on “organicism” [in Must-Reads]), giving us the familiar “chunks” that all of us learn in undergraduate history sequences today (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.).

One of the things I’ve found most refreshing about Taruskin’s telling of music history so far is his willingness to confound the standard historical periodization, eschewing the purely chronological and the purely technical in favor of developing parallel, alternative narratives based on a range of considerations that fall outside of the details of the musical texts themselves, including philosophical preoccupations (aesthetics, philosophy of history), political ideologies (nationalism), economics (commodification of music), sociological aspects (sacralization of the arts, etc), and more. This is especially true of Volume IV, where the first half is devoted to developing two new categories of thinking about early twentieth century music that fall outside of the standard account: maximalism and transcendentalism. Since we were running out of steam a couple months ago and didn’t post nearly as much as I had hoped to on the likes of Stravinsky, Ives, Scriabin, and Messiaen, it’s worth taking a moment to return to these central organizing categories now.

Maximalism is an interesting and revealing interpretive window through which to view Mahler, Strauss, early Stravinsky (“aristocratic maximalism”) and the like, for it implies a certain liminal element, a striving for extremes of expression and the outer boundaries of the stylistic code. True, this category fits more comfortably within what we understand as “Romantic,” while at the same time portending its dissolution. Like mannerism, however, maximalism is liminal both in its propensity to embrace the extremes and also, in a more Turnerian sense, in its transitional function. Indeed, the ends of one style very easily blurs into the beginnings of another.

Transcendentalism likewise plays with a certain limit concept, namely the bounds of humans as spiritual beings. And just as maximalism deals with pushing against the thresholds of what the common practice musical code could bear, the transcendental musical mode rubs up against the limits of Being to suggest the supra-temporal, supra-corporeal, and supra-rational.

The wonderful thing about a felicitously chosen metaphor, a spot-on musical analysis, or any other successful descriptive strategy for talking about music is its ability to “kindle” new understandings (Lawrence Kramer’s word, not amazon’s). This is true for broad historiographical categories as well. Placing Strauss and Mahler into the same camp makes a lot of intuitive sense; it doesn’t really cut against expectations. But uniting composers as disparate as Scriabin, Ives, Schoenberg, and Messiaen under the “transcendental” label kindles a very new sort of understanding, at least for this reader. It is revealing that both Scriabin and Ives went to their graves with grandly transcendental projects unfinished; the vastness of their ambitions, it seems, was paralyzingly daunting even for these immense talents. In attempting to transcend this ultimate limit through musical sound (and failing), the late-Romantic conceit of Weltanschauungsmusik was punctured. Such a transcendental project was, in the end, circumscribed by its own set of limits, and the “modernism” that began in the 1920s was in some ways an attempt to reimpose, through technical strong-arming, the limits that were breached (or at least threatened) by the Thanatos of Romanticism. In Nietzschian terms, the Dionysian, limit-shattering impulse of maximalism and transcendentalism (itself a form of maximalism), by pointing out the impossibility of such a lofty project, led to an “Apollonian” embrace of limits.

(Messiaen is the great anomaly of this scheme, and perhaps of 20th century music as a whole. Rather than push through any limits of the code, he just invented a new one, doggedly following his own sweetly sublime musical path for some fifty years after Auschwitz made poetry impossible.)

In short, I find a lot to admire in the guiding categories of the first half of the volume. Did you find this organizational schema compelling, or better yet, did it kindle a new understanding that usefully augments what you know (or think you know) about early twentieth century music?


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The Ten Greatest Composers

NYT classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent article and videos have been making the rounds the last couple weeks now, so I’ll keep the description brief: Mr. Tommasini, much to the delight (and ire) of music fans, has ventured to rank the top 10 greatest composers of all time. I was a bit shocked, and dare I say even a little offended, when I stumbled upon the list last month, but Tommasini is just as skeptical of his own project, going to great lengths to remind readers that this is merely an “intellectual exercise,” and not an attempt to establish any sort of absolute hierarchy. The response has been extraordinary (866 comments so far on the article alone).

There’s something so compelling about lists. Perhaps it appeals to our urge to categorize, rank, and compare, even if what we’re comparing is fundamentally uncomparable (how can one call the B Minor Mass “greater” than “The Rite of Spring,” for instance?). In this sense, making a list of the ten greatest is nothing more than a game, but as Tommasini points out, games are only fun when the participants take them seriously. After painful deliberation, evaluating versatility, technical command, reception, influence, and a range of other factors, here’s what he came up with:

(1) Bach (2) Beethoven (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Debussy (6) Stravinsky (7) Brahms (8) Verdi (9) Wagner (10) Bartok

In the spirit of the game, I thought the TC could get in on the action and offer our own lists of the ten greatest. So, without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling; please post your lists (or your criticisms of Tommasini’s project) to the comments. My top-10 is tilted more towards the “influence” part of the equation, and it’s absolutely killing me that I didn’t have room for Messiaen, Schubert, Bartok, Brahms, and Sibelius, but here goes (drumroll, please..):

(1) Beethoven (2) Bach (3) Wagner (4) Schoenberg (5) Mozart (6) Debussy (7) Stravinsky (8) Chopin (9) Cage (10) Monteverdi

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I’ve devoted a fair amount of post space to Wagner lately, despite the fact that he’s now 200 pages behind us in the text. I’ll dislodge my obsession shortly (Wagner skeptics, cheer up!), but before doing so, I wanted to pose a couple questions relating to Wagner’s impact.

The sheer force of Wagner’s music, along with its philosophical back-story, gave the Germanic tradition another big feather in its cap (as if the cap wasn’t be-feathered enough before Wagner came onto the scene). Indeed, the scales had been tilting heavily in Germany’s favor for quite a while before the magician of Bayreuth, at least among critics, music historians, and composers who happened to be German. But Wagner broke the scale (the weight of the Ring cycle had to break something). Not only were Germans the undisputed champions of “absolute” instrumental music; now they had wrestled control of opera from the Italians, and, as Tony Montana would say, the world was theirs. Even Verdi was “spooked.”

This historicist phenomenon – the privileging of musical Germanness – is captured in RT’s mouthful of a coinage, “pan-germanoromantocentrism.” Like Wagner’s music, the primacy of the Germanic tradition was a contentious, tangled, and deeply complex issue as is spread around the Western world. Many non-Germans embraced this aesthetic model openly (the Boston School and the Société Nationale de Musique, for instance [III, 769-778]); others defined themselves by how un-German they were (Debussy perhaps, but that’s an oversimplification), a negative self-identification which only confirms the hegemonic power of pan-germanoromantocentrism. Indeed, in the 19th Century, Deutschland über alles.

But why exactly? There are many ways to answer this question (which I hope readers will help me out with): German music gave primacy to instruments, which made it more romantically transcendent; it had a high degree of technical complexity, long fetishized as a yardstick for musical value; it tended to deal with more “tragic” themes (RT characterizes Wagner’s idiom as “tragic” and Verdi’s as “tragicomic”). There are gobs more. But the three explanations outlined here, as tentative and incomplete as they are, point to something else: German music gained its power and prestige from its “seriousness.”

At the root of pan-germanoromantocentrism is the idea that German music is fundamentally more serious than other models. It deals largely in instruments, vehicles of “pure Will” (Wagner is no exception), and not the shallow, quotidian stuff of language. It traffics in heavy philosophy. It’s encoded with all sorts of technical complexities that take gnomic study to suss out. It’s intellectual and masculine (thus the characterization of its musical others as sentimental and feminized).

Everybody wants to be taken seriously. Indeed, the charge of “unseriousness” can be damning and tricky to disavow; as RT points out, France’s late-century National Music Society was shaped by an “inferiority complex” in an attempt to challenge the (German) stereotype of French music as merely “culinary” (776). The values of “seriousness” and “lofty artistic aspiration” were explicitly written into the group’s manifesto.

The question of pan-germanoromantocentrism is thus not limited to musical aesthetics, but reaches deep into social history. When Verdi toyed with Tristanisms in his late operas, he was clearly intrigued by the harmonic doors this musical language opened; his engagement with Wagner was thus justified by art. However, it could be as well that this “purely musical” choice was conjoined by social factors, namely the desire to appear “serious.” This is speculation, to be sure. I do wonder, however, about the relationship between the “purely musical” and other powerful social dynamics (“seriousness,” intellectualism, masculinity, power, etc) in the spread of Germanic musical thinking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. (Anyone looking for a dissertation idea out there?) Like most questions of historical influence, this one is just as much about social power, distinction, and prestige as it is about the music itself.

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Wagner’s Influence

Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness – a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-a-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner’s own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.   (III, 567-568)

Wagner’s influence on the national styles of Germany’s neighbors was no doubt profound, but I wonder if this might be overstating the point slightly. Was Wagner (and what he represented) really the “only” reason Italian and French musicians became stylistic nationalists around this point in time? Further, although Wagner’s style was self-conscious to the extreme, could this not also be said of other major innovators (and myth-makers) of the century? It could easily be argued that Beethoven upped the artistic imperative of the self-willed, self-conscious model even more than Wagner, in fact. The superlatives in this passage make me a bit squeamish; they seem to suggest a strict demarcation of “pre-” vs “post-” Wagner, a sort of “BC” and “AD” stylistic chronology with Wagner at the center. His influence was incalculable – this much we can agree on. Perhaps that’s why such pat attempts to calculate his influence fall flat.

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Occasionally throughout the OHWM, but particularly in the “Mid-century” chapter, RT veers away from music history proper in order to offer a history of music history. These sections, I think, yield some of the most rewarding morsels in the book, setting aside the characters and plot for a moment to focus on the structure of the narrative itself and how it got to be that way.

Reviewing the choice clip in the latest “Darwinian Music” post, a couple of words really stand out. As RT points out, musicians in the middle of the nineteenth century, inspired by the historical philosophy of Hegel (and the Young Hegelians), came to see that history had a “purpose,” and that the prime aim of any artist should be to align themselves with that forward-thrusting cause. The “artwork of the future” was a product of evolutionary progression, and those out of line with this ineluctable force were of no historical significance. (The implication here is that such musicians would be lost to history.) From this philosophy emerges a trinity of concepts which together make up the idea of historicism: purpose, progress, and evolution.

This notion is so natural to many of us today that it’s easy to forget just how historically anomalous this notion was. To create music based to a large extent on the perceived dictates of history? Surely as far as creative impulses go, this one is a rarity in the vast world of music. People make music for individual pleasure, for dancing, for socializing, for God, for courtship, for rites of passages, for a deeper relationship with nature… to make music in order to “further the ‘evolutionary’ progress of the art,” as RT puts it, would probably strike most people around the world as completely inexplicable. Yet somehow it stuck.

Purpose, progress, and evolution are directional concepts; they imply a goal towards which their momentum is directed. Inherent in this very idea, then, is a certain level of teleology, or goal-orientation. A purpose-driven, historically “necessary” music evolves towards something, and in doing so implies the end to that very process. There’s something vaguely apocalyptic about this philosophy of history; once this paradigm took root, the great Götterdämmerung of the Western art music tradition was prophesied, the wheels set in motion.

This has to do with the fact that, in the West, purpose, progress, and evolution were interpreted along entirely technical lines. That is to say, “historical” composition was that which pushed the envelope of harmonic innovation and structural daring, challenging conventional (read: ahistorical) norms in pursuit of progress. With the development of compositional technique yoked to an almost messianic devotion to the “impersonal aims of history,” an endgame is implied. What, after all, is left to be done after every conceivable technical wall has been knocked down, every note liberated? Schoenberg understood this well: history demanded the complete abolition of tonality. If he didn’t make the final leap, someone else would have, because this final step was required by the teleological treadmill. The 12-tone system, in this historical paradigm, was inevitable.

This isn’t the first time that an arms race of technical innovation was set into motion (remember the ars subtilior, for instance). However, in early eras, extreme complexity was put to the service not of historical imperatives but of game-playing and clever riddles (and to innovations in notation that allowed such complexity to take place on the page. In this regard, like Schoenberg, composers did it because they could.)

There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to discuss the “endgame” – and ensuing rubble – that this historical process unleashed. The rubble of the 20th century, of course, was not the end of music (though one recent reader cleverly quipped: “I won’t spoil the ending for you: by 2010 there is no music left at all!”) It did, however, represent in certain important ways the end of a particular historical path, one that was formulated and embraced during the mid-19th century.

I’m reminded of philosopher/art critic Arthur Danto’s brilliant book After the End of Art. Like the above, his argument is not, of course, that art “ended” at a particular time; it did, however, become unyoked from the historical trajectory that it had been on for a very long time. Art in the rubble of a collapsed historical purpose is “post-historical”: it exists outside of the driving narrative of the Western tradition, and is thus aesthetically diffuse. (The “Western” element here is imperative: perhaps this accounts in some ways for composers’ embrace of the East, particularly from the 1950s on. With the Western historical narrative at an end, musicians turned to different models of time, history, and creativity.) Today, argues Danto, there is no historical path forward. We are at a conceptual impasse: some of us are eagerly pining for a new, unifying historical model to take hold; others are happily dancing on the grave of history.

Purpose, progress, and evolution, when tied to musical technique in the service of historical advancement, led, paradoxically, to the end of history. Paraphrasing RT (in another context): is this “progress”?

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“Amour sacré de la patrie” (“Sacred love of fatherland”), from the grand opera La muette de Portici, by Auber

Detached from its original context, this exhilarating marchlike number could serve as many contradictory purposes as could patriotism itself, teaching government and governed alike that works of art could be freely appropriated, in an age of mass dissemination, for use as political weapons. It became customary for audiences to applaud the revolutionary duet with special show-stopping fervor, turning the occasion into a virtual antigovernment demonstration. What the nineteenth century learned from the grand opéra was that works of art could be dangerous. They were dangerous not necessarily by design but by virtue of their ambiguity – and, consequently, the different ways in which they could be used. In an age of emergent mass politics, music had become a potential rabble-rouser. Opera could now not only mirror but actually make the history of nations. In extreme cases it could even help make the nation.  (III, 212)

Listening to this blandly rousing little number today without knowing its history, it could easily be taken as more quaint than revolutionary. Yet Auber’s 1828 opera was anything but harmless; indeed, with a message of both patriotism and anti-government ardor, La muette de Portici (“The mute girl of Portici”) stirred up all sorts trouble (and made its proprietors all sorts of money in the process).

The opera came to the French stage at a politically tense time, when the fear of another revolution was acute. The very possibility, not to mention the popularity, of this opera, then, pose an interesting question: in an age of extreme government control of the arts, how could an opera about insurrection pass muster with the censors? The fact of the matter is that Portici was a cautionary tale portraying revolutionary activity as an invitation to mob rule and chaos (or at least this is how the government interpreted it). They may be singing about revolution, but in the end we all know what messy business revolution can be. The message, as RT points out, is deeply ambiguous, and French authorities banked on a mass interpretation that would bolster state power. It would be like Glenn Beck doing punk rock.

Of course, any public musical utterance is an interpretive crap shoot. Independent of the composer’s (and the censor’s) design, a work takes on its own meaning as it is used by real people in their historical moment. RT’s last line above may seem like an overstatement, but in 1830, this tune indeed played a major role in the foundation of a modern state, Belgium. It would not be an exaggeration to say, as RT implies, that this music was “weaponized” by the French-speaking Belgians in their uprising against Hapsburg rule. During a performance of the opera (which the nervous government heavily redacted), “Amour sacré de la patrie” served as the cue (or was it a spontaneous reaction?) for mass revolt. Upon hearing this tune, the inflamed audience poured into the streets, storming major Hapsburg strongholds, including the armory, and eventually wrestling power from the overseers. This Brussels performance makes the infamous Rite of Spring debut look like a rave dance party by comparison.

Shifting gears slightly, reading about incidents like this (and any of the other famous riots in music history), I can’t help but wonder about the state of music as a cultural force today. It seems fairly impossible that any piece of music in any genre in contemporary America would have the social power, and the consensus, to inflame the passions so radically. Auber’s opera was a mega-hit: it spread to every corner of society, and although its message was ambiguous, its reach was ubiquitous. Is anything comparable even possible now? The way we listen to music today is too fragmented, too diffuse, for any one cultural product to take hold of the collective imagination the way Portici did. Revolutionary politics is still an active force in music-making, of course, but few would argue that it has the ability to truly shape revolutionary activity. (Try imagining a crowd at a Rage Against the Machine concert spilling out of the auditorium and capturing the White House.) Are we too savvy today to fall pray to musical propaganda? Is the music just not as rabble-rousing as it once was? What do you think?

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One of their [compositional norms] main uses—and purposes—is revealed precisely in departures from them…. In other words, norms are not laws that must be adhered to simply for the sake of coherence or intelligibility, although that is their primary purpose. Absolutely unchallenged “normality” is perhaps the most boring mode of discourse. One rarely finds it in Haydn, or in any imaginative or interesting composer. Rather it is the existence of norms that allows departures to become meaningful—and thereby expressive. In that sense, rules are made to be broken. [Vol. II, 532-533]

And yet our system of analysis is built around the activity of noticing similarities—not deviations—in different works. What would an alternative procedure of analysis look like?

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