Monday, April 28, 2008

Re-Thinking Music History

Every culture has paradigms, prominent ways of thinking that are taken for granted and rarely examined for their usefulness or for their ability to get to the truth of various problems that emerge. Few people have the courage to question such paradigms. Friedrich August von Hayek, in his book _The Counter-Revolution of Science_, does just this. While Hayek was an economist, much of what he says relates to our general way of life, and therefore many of his observations apply to liturgy and music.

In this book, Hayek postulates that in modern times, we have over-extended what is known as the scientific method and tried to apply it not just to the physical sciences (physics, biology, etc. --the fields which we commonly refer to today as "science.") but also to other sciences, such as the social sciences (e.g., economics) or the moral sciences (e.g., theology). This approach Hayek calls "Scientism," with a capital S for purposes of distinguishing it from other more general meanings.

Hayek focuses on three aspects of the Scientistic approach: Objectivism, Collectivism, and Historicism. For purposes of this essay, we will focus on the latter two.

Much of the Collectivist mindset which dominates modern thinking is the result of the work of Auguste Comte, the inventor of sociology. Comte's thinking conceives of wholes--abstract groups which pay no attention to the individual characteristics of the elements which make up the wholes. This kind of attitude even groups people into collectives based on race and nationality, as well as many other categories. This way of thinking holds that more can be learned by viewing things from afar (the "telescopic" view) and by ignoring what inside knowledge we might have. To use one of Hayek's examples, one would pretend to be an alien from Mars when observing human behavior, and take no heed of one's own humanity in formulating explanations. A community, for instance, is treated as an object as such, rather than an amalgamation of various individuals.

These collectives, however, are not given wholes, such as a man, for instance, who is a physical reality capable of being directly observed. They are constructed by abstract human thinking, and thus the individual components or properties which make up these abstract wholes are given short-shrift, since whatever individual properties are addressed are, in general, required to harmonize with the wholes that we have built up for ourselves. To be sure, it is sometimes useful to look at abstract wholes, but to insist at looking only or even mostly at the whole will make us blind to the individual things which go into the construction of those wholes. Wholes are made of individual parts, not the other way around; similarly, wholes are understood by examining their individual parts. Abstract wholes cannot be directly observed; only the individual parts can.

Closely related to Collectivism is one particular aspect of Historicism which Hayek discusses: the tendency to carve out defined eras of history or complexes of events as though they are "given to us in the same manner as the natural units in which biological specimens or planets present themselves." (see p. 122) In other words, we treat these constructs as objects as such, when clearly they are not.

In reading Hayek, it is hard not to see how his observations apply to the study of music history. We speak of various eras of musical style--Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and so on. These eras are not objects in reality; they are rather products of retrospective abstract thinking. While an understanding of different eras of musical creativity does in fact have some purpose, it seems to this writer that there is a great temptation to allow these abstract constructs to do too much of the work in our thinking. This can lead us to conclusions that do little to help us understand and appreciate the work of individual composers. For the purposes of our conversation, let's call this "musical collectivism."

The most fundamental problem with musical collectivism is the telescopic view of history which it creates by subsuming diverse composers under the title of an era, such as "Baroque" or "Classical." Everything looks the same from afar; the planet Saturn can look like a star in the sky. Does that mean that Saturn is a star? It would seem easy to assume that Bach and Haendel, being Baroque composers, are similar artists. On closer examination, however, this assumption breaks down in a big way. Counterpoint, harmony, genre, and the amalgamation of various national styles are all points on which Bach and Haendel differ quite distinctively. These differences can be lost when we succumb to thinking in generalities. It can cause us to assume that two or more composers have more in common than they really do. Take the exact contemporaries Jean Langlais and Olivier Messiaen as another example. Their music is very different; will future generations cheat these men out of their uniqueness by calling them "Modern" or "20th century" composers?

There is a further problem with the telescopic view of musical collectivism which begs the question: What are the essential unifying characteristics of music of a given era? What do Bach and Monteverdi have in common that place them both within the brackets of the Baroque era? It does not seem that there would be widespread agreement on this problem, and the proposed solutions, in order to justify the telescopic view, will inevitably leave out important details about individual composers.

This can often lead to some humorous episodes when too much is assumed about a particular era or composer. For example, it is thought by many that J.S. Bach is the inventor of the part-writing rules which are followed in music theory classes in conservatories all over the world. Short of that, Bach is at least considered the paragon of four part harmonic virtue. To that end, many years ago (N.B.: long before this writer was alive), a conservatory professor assigned his class to write eight measures of a four part chorale in the style of J.S. Bach. This meant, of course, following all the usual rules--no parallel octaves, fourths or fifths, etc. One procrastinating student decided to plagiarize eight measures of an obscure Bach harmonization, and this plagiarized work was chosen by the professor as the example that would be used in front of the whole class. The professor, oblivious to the fact that he was evaluating the work of Bach, carried on with his red pen, marking one theoretical rule violation after another--all in the name of writing in the style of Bach and the Baroque! This sort of instance occurs because we assign rules to styles that are all but a complete fiction.

Besides the blurring of diversity amongst contemporary composers, musical collectivism also brings about the opposite affect as well: the failure to see points of similarity between composers of different eras, e.g. Mahler and Schoenberg, or the well-noted connection between present-day composer Steve Reich and the Medievals Leonin and Perotin. The attributes which these diverse composers share can only be seen by studying them individually, and not by studying them as a disciple of a particular musical era.

A more troublesome aspect of musical collectivism, however, manifests itself as the tendency to uphold certain composers as the primary achiever of perfection in a given musical style. One might say, for instance, that Bach represents the pinnacle of the Baroque era, or that Palestrina represents the apex of Renaissance polyphony. But where does this leave geniuses such as Dietrich Buxtehude or Guillame de Machaut? Often they are reduced to the status of "forerunner." When one reads, for example, that Buxtehude was a precursor to Bach, it seems like a polite enough statement. Such ideas, however, cause us to miss what makes Buxtehude's music great in its own right. It might be easy to look at a Buxtehude fugue and think that, since it is smaller than a Bach fugue, that it is somehow inferior and that it is somehow a prototype of Bach's later work. Consider, however, the multi-part forms which Buxtehude often used and which, by the way, mirrored ancient rhetorical technique. In this context, smaller fugues are quite appropriate. With this knowledge one ceases to view Buxtehude through the Bach paradigm and begins to see that, rather than being a lesser Baroque prototype, Buxtehude represented the height of Buxtehudian music, as it were.

Finally, the practice of looking at music history in the collectivist or telescopic way cheats much great music of its timelessness. To look at a work of art as "Medieval" or "Baroque" is to lay the groundwork for the thinking that sees, for example, Gregorian chant as appropriate for people who suffered from scabies and the Black Death, but not fitting for advanced modern man. This view renders music--and, to an extent, its hearers--zeitbedingt, i.e. time-bound.

The problems brought about by musical collectivism should call us to reconsider how we study music. It seems to this writer that we should be paying more attention to the individual attributes of the composers and less attention to the categories into which thinkers have placed them. We should be looking at music from the inside out, not from the outside in as is done in the telescopic view. More careful study of this sort will help us to avoid musical generalizations--including generalizations about what constitutes "sacred" music. Finally, our observation of composers as individuals will allow the voices of these composers to be heard, and perhaps, divorced from the theoretical baggage which we have heaped upon them, they will say things we've never heard before.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: