All these histories of music are unreflective with regard to ideology and music history was taught in just this way. I was in graduate school doing doctoral seminars in musicology when the 'new' musicology was just starting to gain a foothold. I recall one seminar on twentieth century analysis where the professor (who had been teaching the course for probably twenty years) curtly listed the 'important' 20th century composers to make some point or another. One of the other students caught my eye and made a sweeping gesture with her hand in the air indicating a hierarchy: 1, 2, 3. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok. She had become aware of the ideology surrounding the way the history of music was seen and taught.
I said these accounts were unreflective, but some of them, particularly in the case of 20th century music, were actually polemic. The series of books published by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft were particularly so in their tireless self-promotion, attacks on rivals, dogmatic insistence on performing rigor and outright fabrications. Another important book of this kind was René Leibowitz' Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music. I quote the whole title because it is very indicative of the underlying ideology.
And what is this or these ideologies that I have so coyly hinted at? It is the historicist one that believes that music progresses, developing newer and newer technical means and vocabularies for greater and greater precision in expression of... Well, more ideologies, of course, like heroic romantic individualism or existential despair or moral complacency! Or at its most extreme, the technical perfection of a compositional method is its own end and listeners are not even needed any more. Some call this 'patent-office modernism'.
I have had my awareness of these issues hugely expanded by reading the newest (and possibly the last of its kind) general history of music, the Oxford History of Western Music in five hefty volumes by Richard Taruskin, possibly the only musicologist and historian with a profound enough knowledge to be able to write such a book. I just finished the last volume yesterday. Yes, I strongly recommend reading it. It is stuffed full of musical examples in score and does not shy away from detailed analysis. It is not, however, a mere chronicle. Taruskin summarizes his approach in the fascinating introduction titled "The History of What?" in which he discusses his goals and methods. He does not merely survey the history; he examines and investigates causes. He looks at music's social context and mythologies. This is an extraordinary set of books (4000 pages in all) drawing on original documents and the most recent scholarship of the 'new' musicology. Which he is no slave to, by the way. I think it is safe to say that Taruskin does not simply replace one set of ideologies with another!
The ever-recurring theme is that there are and always have been two streams of music--at least since the beginnings of music writing: the literate and the oral. As soon as music notation was developed, it was possible to set down compositions, to 'write' music. Before this, all traditions were oral ones. Music was passed on directly. But from the very early Middle Ages, music became 'literate', though the oral traditions still co-existed. And a fantastic journey it has been. But it seems that now we may be moving into a post-literate age where most people and even many musicians, no longer 'read' music. In the pop and digital worlds, the reading of music no longer seems to be necessary.
The melody of this very old sixth-century chant may predate its written down version:
Nine hundred years later, Josquin wrote a mass based on it:
And five hundred years after Josquin, the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has revived this kind of music:
Yes, that notion of music progress is a rather questionable one, isn't it?