The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The poverty of musical historicism? 

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There's a discussion going on over at Crooked Timber inspired by a recent Prospect review (no link, sorry) of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music. Some of the points raised against Taruskin's book are plain daft: completists lament the fact that a book (that rumours suggest came in much, much longer than anyone originally expected) doesn't cover anything outside the Western classical tradition. Chris Brody puts that one down perfectly:
In the academic-music world, "Western music" simply is a euphemism of sorts for "music including and descended from the European classical music tradition." This fact is known to basically everyone. When we all heard a while back that Taruskin was writing a 5000-page musicology survey, nobody thought it would be about anything other than that. If you want a "Western music" survey that literally surveys all musics of the Western hemisphere, fine. But no one is all disappointed that Taruskin's book isn't that. The title may sound pretentious, but it's actually just shorthand for something that everyone who would read the book knows perfectly well.
Secondly, as all good progressive musicologists know - having fully ingested their regulation Foucault and Dahlhaus - drawing a line for the beginning of 20th-century music at 1914 because that's when 20th-century history began is daft. The processes that sculpt musical periods are not the same as those that shape international relations; or even the same that shape art or literature. The musical 20th-century (if you want to define such a thing) begins with something like Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in 1895 (as most people argue), or with the death of Mahler and Schoenberg's first atonal pieces in 1911 (as Schoenberg would argue), or somewhere else entirely. James Stevenson in his comment makes the excellent point that levelling charges of 'conservative, even Hegelian' historicism against Taruskin is, to put it mildly, missing the point of everything he has ever written.

Putting aside the remaining comments (and I'm finding it very difficult to think of Nono's Il canto sospeso, or Berio's Sinfonia as 'spiky'), one charge made against Taruskin's book is it's apparent bias towards the 20th-century. Most of the reasons for this are dealt with sufficiently in the CT comments. As a subset of those arguments, and something that ties in with recent debates elsewhere on the blogs, there are all sorts of reasons for serialism's dominance of 20th century music history. One of these is nothing to do with the music, and precisely to do with the sort of misconceptions about what serialism actually was that can be seen in almost any discussion of 20th-century music. If you open up any review of new concert music published in the 1950s or 60s, the music being discussed will almost certainly be referred to in its relationship to serialism, the bogeyman of audiences and music critics of the time. Yet most of that music actually had little or nothing to do with serialism. The central group of postwar serialists (a small group of individuals who composed a very small number of pure serial works) obviously promoted themselves very vigorously, but they were helped in no small part by institutions and writers who spent very little energy trying to gain a perspective on the music of the time, and a great deal of energy desperately trying to beat out fires that were largely of their own making. If a music history is to take into account the reception of individual works, and the critical horizons into which works fell - which it certainly, eventually must - then it has long been impossible to marginalise serialism. Whether 20th-century composers wrote serially or not was never the issue, even for the first critics of their music; what did matter, obsessively, was that music's congenital relationship to serialism. This is a point that can get lost. Boulez's Structures 1a is a piece of marginalia in many respects - a short movement from a piece of marginalia in fact; the opening of a work that then spends its remainder dismantling the implications of that opening movement. Yet it looms massively above the critical and analytical landscape (Ligeti's analysis of the work, written as a young man beginning to make his way in the West European musical avant garde, looms equally large in both the analytical canon and his own biography). It's a point of complete abjection, that utterly horrifies us, yet is completely compelling. This captures the 20th-century's critical relationship to serialism, and is what has secured its place in the history books for decades to come.

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