Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Whig History of Music

One of the non-musical electives I took as an undergraduate was the Philosophy of History, which has proved to be a surprisingly useful field of knowledge. I once greatly surprised a later music history professor with whom I was taking a course in Renaissance Music by mentioning that yes, of course I had read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. Hasn't everyone? Turns out, no, they haven't. I mention this just because it occurs to me that lurking behind a lot of the ideologies of the day is the Whig idea of history. Let's let Wikipedia summarize that for us:
Whig history (or Whig historiography) is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment. The term is also used extensively in the history of science for historiography which focuses on the successful chain of theories and experiments that led to present-day science, while ignoring failed theories and dead ends. It is claimed that Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist–Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires.
It is astonishing to me how wedded the aesthetics of modernism are to a Whig theory of history. I once read a comment made by a professor of composition at a leading university to the effect that he condemned such and such a new composition because, harmonically, "it was no better than Brahms!" I wonder what he thinks of Philip Glass?

A lot of the ideology of music composition since, well, since the French Revolution, has loosely resembled Whig historiography. This is not surprising because ideology itself was a by-product of the French Revolution. Untangling the ideology of music composition is pretty complicated so not entirely suitable for a blog post. But we might notice a few fundamentals. A lot of the idea of progress in music is associated with technical improvements. Some of the most obvious of the last couple of hundred years are the mechanical improvements in wind instruments that led to their greater consistency in matters of tuning and timbre. This went on throughout the 19th century. A similar series of mechanical improvements were applied to the piano from Mozart's time into the 20th century when the range was augmented, the action was improved and the volume increased by the addition of a steel frame. Similar improvements were made to the guitar, beginning with Torres design in the late 19th century and extending right to the present day when builders like Greg Smallman in Australia are revolutionizing the interior design of the instrument for greater volume and sustain.

As we were talking about yesterday, other kinds of technical improvements included the replacement of older temperaments with the modern equal temperament, though here we start to run into difficulties because in some people's view, equal temperament is not an unalloyed improvement. Indeed, since roughly the early 1970s a kind of counter-reformation movement in music has gained strength and momentum by pushing back against the whole idea of progress in music, even in technical matters. This movement, known variously as the Early Music movement or the Historically-Informed Performance movement, has gained an enormous amount of popularity to the point that some of the more prominent members such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt or John Eliot Gardiner or Philippe Herreweghe have become some of the most well-known conductors of recordings of the earlier core repertoire by Bach, Mozart and even Beethoven and Schubert. There are entire divisions of record labels, such as Sony's Vivarte, that specialize in these kinds of performances of music.

The most prominent thinker to push back against this movement has been Richard Taruskin who in essays such as those found in Text and Act made some telling points against both proponents and opponents of the Early Music movement. I think he goes too far in assimilating the whole Early Music movement to the 20th century tastes of people like Stravinsky. But I have talked about that before in posts such as this one.

At the present moment in music history, with scads of performances and recordings of repertoire on original instruments with claims to follow historically-informed modes of performance, it seems harder than ever to accept a Whig historiography of music. Mind you, the ideology of composition still seems invested in it to some degree. A new significant piece for orchestra seemingly must exhibit some striking new technical innovation such as extreme numbers of percussion instruments (Thomas Ad├Ęs), extreme technical difficulty to perform (Esa-Pekka Salonen), adherence to environmental fashion (John Luther Adams) or political fashion (John Adams) or some other new, unique and improved aspect.

I can see the point of that, of course, because every composer has to make a mark somehow and doing so aesthetically just seems, well, off the horizon somehow.

Let's end with an Early Music performance that even Richard Taruskin reviewed with approval. This is the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.18 in B flat major, K. 456 by Mozart performed by Malcolm Bilson on fortepiano (after Mozart's concerto instrument) with The English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:


Marc Puckett said...

This is all fascinating, although I am pretty ignorant about all of it. My first acquaintance with the 'period authentic' style was Handel, in Messiah and Solomon. For which thanks are due to John Eliot Gardiner. (But am finding his Bach book hard going. If I could skip the passages of the Atheist's Wonderment or the Psychologist's Analysis I would but he has managed to weave them into the entire fabric of the text, ha.)

Oregon Bach Festival was given 7+ million dollars to begin, this past season, an 'historically informed performance' program. []

Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent will be here in April to sing![]

Bryan Townsend said...

At some point you should look up the essay "The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past" in Text and Act, a collection of essays by Richard Taruskin. In it he thoroughly dismantles the claims to "authenticity" of the early music movement.

Oddly, I don't seem to have the faintest desire to read Gardiner's book on Bach. The last book on Bach I read was the one by Christoff Wolfe, which was pretty good. But I don't feel the need of another one right away. Especially if it has passages of psychological analysis! I think we are all better off simply listening to the music.