12 June 2013

Labelling Music History

Some years ago I found myself caught up in a discussion about re-aligning the perameters of the periods of musical history.  We were all taught that music fell into four neat historical eras – Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern/20th Century (in my youth we rather regarded anything before Baroque as Primitive, but now we are more generous and call it Renaissance) – and that those eras were defined by certain key musical events.  The Baroque began with the first operas around 1600 and died with Bach in 1650 and the Romantic began with Weber’s Freischütz in 1821.  The bit in the middle was called Classical (it contained just two composers, apparently, Haydn and Mozart) and everything after has been called Modern or 20th Century.  Even as a boy in the 1950s it seemed odd to describe Debussy as “Modern” (as my teachers told me he was) and I find it appalling that students are still being told that he is a “Modern” (or – worse still – a Contemporary) composer.  Yet nobody has come up with a handy label to stick on music written since 1900, the random date given for the end of the Romantic era largely by those who were born at a time when the 20th century still seemed to an age of disturbingly challenging ideas.  So, even to this day, anything after Romantic is Modern.

For those who have missed out on this peculiarly English approach to music education, the need to label and compartmentalise everything is seen as a basic tool in the instruction of history; hence the rote learning of the dates of the Kings and Queens of England (note the word “England” rather than “Britain”) in the history lessons of my youth.  Fortunately British schools adopt a much more enlightened approach to history teaching nowadays; sadly, music teachers do not, and it is still asked of most students; “What period does this composer belong to?” and, “What are the features of Baroque music?”.  Our old friend Wikipedia even provides us with a graphical representation of this on one of its myriad pointless pages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dates_of_classical_music_eras).  (You will note the wonderful idea that the 20th century runs well beyond the year 2000, as if heading towards infinity.)


So our discussion was primarily concerned with deciding when the Romantic era really ended and what to call what came next.  The death of Mahler (1911) was a preferred choice, and as Schoenberg devised his 12-note system around the 1920s, there was a strong vote in favour of 1920 as being the end of the Romantic era.  That Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss carried on writing Romantic music well into the 1940s cut no ice with those who regarded these, in any case, as insignificant composers in the course of musical history.  
Feeling that the whole thing was an utterly pointless exercise, I came up with the suggestion that we call everything after 1920 “Dysfunctional”; which got the derision it so fully deserved and, not long afterwards, my interest in the discussion waned and I headed off to more fruitful pursuits in the bar.

My former University tutor, Arnold Whittall (who was, for me, the most inspirational man in my educational history, although I did not appreciate it at the time – thanks, Arnold, if you’re reading this) preferred to define musical periods in terms of social upheavals, particular war, and while his seminal book on 20th century music puts it in a nutshell, Music Since the First World War, I was also greatly taken by his definition of the Romantic era as being that period between the French and the Russian Revolutions.  Indeed if, as we must believe, music reflects the society in which it is created, surely wars have to be a defining moment in every musical era.  With the First World War catastrophically changing everything about society, it is little wonder that it had a similarly catastrophic effect on music.  I myself have written that the First World War “dropped a bombshell in the trenches of classical music which scattered fragments so far and wide, they have still not been collected back together into a semblance of cohesion”.  The problem we have in defining music after the Romantic era, irrespective of whether that finished in 1900, 1911, 1914 or 1920, is that there has been no stylistic unity.  The similarities for an audience between Stockhausen and Arvo Pärt are so extreme as to render any attempt to link them stylistically as irrelevant, while even the works of Stravinsky encompass such a vast stylistic range that they define single-label categorisation.
But then wasn’t it ever thus?  What possible link is there stylistically between the keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti and those of his exact contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach?  Yet we glibly categorise them both as “Baroque” composers and search, in vain, for stylistic connections.  T

True, there were social connections - both men worked under royal patronage – and the Europe of their lifetime had certain artistic standards to which both men adhered by default rather than design.  But try and interpret Scarlatti as you would Bach, and you miss the essential character of their music.  I have heard teachers explain ornamentation in “Baroque” music as if every composer - Bach, Scarlatti, Purcell, Byrd, Lully, Rameau – needs to be approached the same way, and I have more than once came across students asking whether it is right or wrong to use notes inégales in “Baroque” music, as if there is a one-answer-fits-all solution.
I can see why teachers like to use these terms to help their students get to grips with the vast panoply of musical history, but I’ve long ago given them up, preferring the more arbitrary (but, ironically, more relevant) use of centuries to divide up musical history.  I find it easier to trace the development of music through the 18th century, say, than through the “Classical” era; that certainly helps put Bach in his true place, not as the final voice of the Baroque but as the siren call of the Classical.    Understanding society and the changes in it are much more helpful to understanding music and its development than a random sequence of labelled periods which create a wholly false impression of music written within them as being stylistically related.

And it’s not mere semantics.  A huge, huge problem music examiners face when hearing recital diplomas is the completely erroneous belief that to achieve a “balanced” programme one has to draw on different stylistic periods.  So we might have a programme of Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Debussy which, from a listener’s point of view, is utterly unbalanced, but which looks good in that it covers different stylistic periods;  on the other hand, a programme of Debussy, Grieg and Rachmaninov, while perfectly balanced in the ears of the listener, is dismissed merely because all three composer lived in the same era.  Only the other day I sat through a performance of Debussy, Brahms and Percy Grainger.  When I commented to a teacher on how satisfying it had sounded, she shook her head in dismay – “But it was so unbalanced”, she told me, “All three works were written within 20 years of each other”. 
The trouble with labels is that they block our ears.  How much easier it is to see balance when it has nice clear letters and numbers than when it has that elusive and indefinable element we call music.

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