Posts Tagged ‘writing’

A really fine historical argument can be written with as much artfulness as any sonata form movement, and thus is equally as ripe for formal analysis, as any student of rhetoric will tell you. RT’s “The Comic Style” (Ch. 8 of vol. II) is just such a chapter. Here is a rough-and-ready outline of its rhetorical structure:

  • present a problem: Though historians have tried for generations, we can’t get from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn in a single straight line.
  • offer a feint that only draws out the nature of the problem: W.F. Bach seems a predecessor of Mozart and Haydn, but diverges from JS Bach in several mysterious (for the sake of suspense in the argument) reasons
  • make the problem even worse by adding other unexplained evidence: CPE and JC Bach
  • then, when the desire for a resolution has been whipped to a fervor, offer it: The comic style of 18th century opera—especially in its naturalness—was the germ that spread to all late 18th-century style.

I know how paltry this stripped down recounting of the argument must seem. It’s like showing you the skeleton of a peacock and telling you to imagine the true glory of its plumage. You simply have to read it yourself to get the full effect. But it got me thinking about how a structural analysis of the argument of many of Taruskin’s chapters in the OHWM would generously repay the analyst.

Pardon a momentary effusiveness, but allow me to step back and say wow. It is truly remarkable that RT maintains such a high level of writing craft throughout this behemoth work. It’s like Telemann—in all that prolificacy, you would think that there have to be some bad apples, right? At some point, Taruskin must have just stitched together an argument, gotten lazy—and who would fault him for one pedestrian argument anyway, as long as the logic was sound? But if there are seams in the writing, they are hardly noticeable, a fact that not only displays his skill, but sheer diligence. And if I’m getting carried away and exaggerating, it’s only a little bit.

Okay, effusiveness abated. Here’s my question to you all as fellow students and practitioners of writing: what is that one essay that you keep going back to as a model of how to craft an argument? That article that, when a student asks you how to craft an argument you say, “read this.” Musicological writing would be preferred, but interdisciplinary examples are game too. And in a few words, tell us why the writing caught your eye.


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Taruskin is a rhetorician of unsurpassed ability, and logical reasoning (in the classical sense) is always at the forefront of his assessments and critiques. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that he is so adept at pointing out fallacies in the way we think about music history. Below is a list of the fallacies gleaned from the first 500 pages of Vol.I. We will be adding to it as we move forward, I’m sure.

The Fallacy of “Essentialism”: This lapse in thinking occurs when we conceptualize any trait as the essence of something. For example: “Black musicians don’t have the same restrictive mind/body dualism as white musicians” (essentializes black musicians as not adhering to the mind/body split and white musicians as adhering to it. The essentialization here occurs on the grounds of race.); “Medieval music is harmonically simple while Renaissance music is more harmonically complex” (ascribes essential qualities – harmonic simplicity and complexity – to music from different eras which, as we have seen, are arbitrary constructions anyways.) For more, see p.381.

The Pathetic Fallacy: We commit this fallacy when we ascribe agency to music itself, not to the people creating it. Thus: “English descant delights in parallel thirds” (the music doesn’t “delight” in anything; the composers/performers did.); “The leading tone likes to resolve to the tonic” (leading tones don’t “like” to do anything other that what they are instructed to do by composers on a page and by singers in the throat.) See p.221.

The Organic Fallacy: This line of reasoning has been addressed frequently on the blog. The central assumption is that music grows and evolves just like a living creature. There is also the presupposition that music grows more complex with time, which is a misreading of evolutionary theory. For instance: “Beethoven was way ahead of his time when he wrote his Grosse Fuge” (one cannot be “ahead” or “behind” one’s time; one is  simply in one’s time.); “Debussy’s use of non-functional harmony led to a total breakdown in the tonal language that reached its climax in Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique” (Debussy did not develop into Schoenberg; atonality was not the natural byproduct of a process of organic development – it was its own culturally and temporally embedded musical process.) See all over the place, but especially p.142.

The Genetic Fallacy: We stumble into this fallacy when we equate origins with essence. Thus: “A drinking song could never be a national anthem” (a drinking song is a drinking song, thus not a national anthem, goes the argument – of course, any piece of music can be anything.); “Rock ‘n’ Roll is really just a latter-day development of the blues” (while blues may be an ancestor in rock’s family tree, rock came to occupy a different meaning and position in our culture.) See pp.221 and 472.

The Poietic Fallacy: This one mistakes music (and music history) for composition. Thus, the history of music is the history of what composer’s write. For example: “The music of the Trecento is filled with Landini cadences” (of course, only notated, composed music can be said to have this feature; everything that happened in the oral tradition is gone to us.). This one hasn’t come up yet in the OHWM, but I just encountered it in RT’s review of Susan McClary’s Festschrift.

If readers can think of any other Taruskinian fallacies, please submit them in the comments box and I’ll add them to the post. I’m sure I must have missed something..

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On a More Serious Note

Contrary to my slightly facetious post yesterday about the “labor” of reading OHWM, I have to say that the reading so far has been an absolute pleasure. Here we have a magnum opus (if one can have a magnum opus with so much of his career left in front of him) from one of the sharpest minds in the humanities today. It has only been two days, and already I am looking forward to what I’ll read tomorrow. This is going to be fun!

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