Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Anachronistic Vertical Musical World View

I find this paragraph from Richard Taruskin's "A Sturdy Musical Bridge to the Twenty-first Century" interesting food for thought:
To composers imbued with a nineteenth-century worldview, artistic traditions are transmitted "vertically." Nineteenth-century music historiography is an epic narrative of text arranged in single file. It assumes that artists are primarily concerned--whether to emulate or to rebel--with the texts of their immediate precursors. These assumptions have led to an obsession with lines of stylistic influence, with stylistic pedigree, ultimately (and destructively) with stylistic purity or worse, progress. This is the altogether anachronistic view most classical composers still imbibe in college or conservatory.
[From a chapter about Steve Reich in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, published by University of California Press in 2009.]



It is interesting food for thought, as always with RT. My question would be, "how much good and wonderful stuff came out of these altogether anachronistic views?" (Yes, my view of what's wonderful will be colored by such views, but still...the vertical orientation has made some cool stuff possible.)

Elaine Fine said...

But the "anachronistic" view is what we teach our students. We teach them about influence that we detect, and, for the sake of simplicity, we give them a "timeline" of music through history, and we imply, by the sheer function of our courses, that music has progressed through time.

We do it with visual art as well.

A friend of mine used to say, "Music is evolutionary, not revolutionary," but we like to think of progress as revolutionary. The next big thing. The cutting edge.

What we neglect to explore (and even those of us who do not teach music appreciation or music history) is the idea that every composer had a complicated life filled with all sorts of "horizontal" influences. The only real evidence is in the music itself: pre-Mozart Haydn is different from post-Mozart Haydn (and he lived well into Beethoven's "middle period").

We like to see Schubert as "coming after" Beethoven, but Schubert and Beethoven both wrote their final string quartets at around the same time and in the same city. We don't know very much about the relationship they had. They could have been very close. Who knows?

I heard a recording on the radio of a symphony by the 15-year-old Saint-Saens. It sounded like it was modeled on Beethoven, but it had some of Saint-Saens' "voice" in the way he used winds. Sometimes we neglect to take "personality" and "voice" into account when we pigeonhole music to fit into a teachable academic "style."