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 Adès), 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: