Putting the “I” Back in H*STORY

Daniel Felsenfeld
Daniel Felsenfeld

A Musical Rain of Frogs
“This is the end, beautiful friend, the end…”—The Doors

Classical music, it seems, is dying; we are nearing the end of a great and beautiful tradition. Those who remain are left to wallow in the detritus of a beautiful departed era. Eleusis deserted; there is nobody left in this lovely garden. Who among us in the field of concert music has not heard these prophecies, this talk of apocalypse that would make Nostradamus blush?

In an era when record companies fold, when major musical institutions like the Metropolitan Opera claim deficits into the millions, those who write about music—the critics—seem bent on foretelling its unstoppable demise. The sky, they tell us, is falling. It’s falling. They and theirs have ridden this great wave to its breaking point, and now we have only the high water mark left with which to reckon.

And of course, it is not remotely true.

A whole article could be devoted to this idea: that what dies is not the art, but the institutions that present it to the largest cross-section. Their existence only truly matters to those who have personal investments therein, which includes the critics. When they say classical music is dying, they also seem to gloat over its desiccated corpse—a murder for which they are all, in part, responsible.

Historians like superstar musicologist Richard Taruskin presages end in order to give the sprawling narrative that is the new six-volume Oxford History of Western Music a proper coda. Taruskin, however, is somewhat innocent, not trying to end things in any other way than the abstract. He’s just reporting (albeit through an oddly built cultural prism) on what he believes he sees. Most dangerously, there seems to be, and to have always been, this problem with the “mainstream.” That what is most available, or unavailable in the most fashionable way, is what is truly worthy of discussion. This homogenization is a problem not just in our music but in our world. We want the familiar, fear the eccentric (or the elite) and criticize those who step above or make their voice heard.

It is dangerous, and does not suit the history of classical music, populated by renegades and rogues who followed their own visions, not pitching out tradition but engaging in the struggle to remap music to their specifications. Critics, true visionary critics, should be no different; they are equally responsible as the artists for the way music plays into the general culture, and should thus be held equally accountable.

A Critic and his Critic
Words move, music moves only in time; but that which is only living can only die.”—T.S. Eliot

Richard Taruskin makes one error in his otherwise masterful summation of Western musical history. In his introduction he says:

The first chapter of this book makes a fairly detailed attempt to assess the specific consequences for music of a literate culture, and that theme remains a constant factor—always implicit, often explicit—in every chapter that follows, right up to (and especially) the concluding ones. For it is the basic claim of this multivolumed book—its number-one postulate—that the literate tradition of Western music is coherent at least insofar as it has a completed shape. Its beginnings are known and explicable, and the end is now foreseeable (and also explicable). And just as the early chapters of this book are dominated by the interplay of literate and preliterate modes of thinking and transmission (and the middle chapters cite enough examples to keep the interplay of literate and nonliterate alive in the reader’s consciousness), so the concluding chapters are dominated by the interplay of literate and postliterate modes, which have been discernable at least since the middle of the twentieth century, and which sent the literate tradition (in the form of a backlash) into its culminating phase.

In other words, he is now able, with the exegetical benefit of perspective—meaning the ability to see a thing for what it was rather than what it is—to see clearly the demise of the literate musical tradition. Yet this is, for an historian addressing the current, a dialectic impossibility. Later, in the same chapter, he says that “…historians’ transgressions often make history,” which leads me to believe that, in fact, the death of this literate tradition is convenient to him; it lends currency to his book as a sort of final, Shoah-like statement on this particular cultural phenomenon. The End is his friend, as it affords his book an air of completion. He is hoping this transgression—and it is a transgression, in the face of overwhelming evidence—will make history, and make his book a singularly valuable (even persuasive) cultural artifact.

Now it pains me to write this because the book is nothing short of spectacular. Other volumes of his (Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions and Defining Russia Musically to name only two) as well as his divisive but well-wrought critical pieces in The New York Times, have been preludes to the Oxford History, displaying a force-of-personality approach which makes him stellar, worthwhile reading. This book will (and should) be read by as many literate people as can handle its length (which is going to be alarmingly few, I fear). If as historian Jacques Barzun writes, “To be a good critic demands more brains and judgment than most men possess” in his essay “What Critics are Good For,” Taruskin is one of the happy and precious few worthy of the title.

So why is the sky falling, according to Taruskin, whose motives are no doubt higher than to simply lend his work cultural resonance? To him, it is an “ashes to ashes” sort of scenario, one that he describes without passing judgment. Simply put, it is electronic music, which needs no scribblers but rather “ear players” to compose, coupled with the advent of the recent phenomenon of “sound artists” which signals that this tradition is not so much headed for a dustbin, but destined to shake off the shackles of notation, free at last to simply be music. “For the defining feature of that history,” he writes, “as emphasized on page one, has been its reliance on written transmission; and what the digital revolution of the 1980s presaged above all was liberation from the literate tradition to which [composer Pierre] Boulez remained so unbendingly attached, and its probably eventual demise.”


From page one, he insists on the presence of a concomitant non-literate tradition—this term is not a judgment: it simply means something not dependent on a document for transmission—that has “never been fully supplanted in Western classical music or anywhere else.” This is of course true, but though he openly declares his detestation of an historical metanarrative, he seems, in these final pages, to be drawing down the curtain by invoking the lurking, peaceful nonliterate tradition as a means to The End, perhaps even a victim of the temporary, market-driven construct of literacy. “No musical repertoire,” he writes, “not even the Beethoven symphonies, is wholly fixed and transmitted by its text; there are always unwritten performing conventions that must be learned by listening and reproduced (and that, like spoken languages, change over time).” No surprises here—performance practice, a sort of preservationist society (true for all available repertoire, from chant to the avant-garde), is needed to fuel the written text. Though there were some in the recently passed century who thought music ought to be seen and not heard (Boulez for one, who gets swiped by Taruskin as retrogressive for thinking this way), to Taruskin it is the oral tradition which serves to “…surround and attack the literate tradition like pincers” that will, in the end, win the day.

To back him up, he cites Meredith Monk (“In Western Culture, paper has sometimes taken over the function of what music always was”), Nigel Osborne (“…the demise of the composer-scribe”), Paul Lansky (“[We're] simplifying the pitch landscape to allow you to pay attention to something else”), Tod Machover (“the sampler frees the composer from the habits inculcated by Western notation”), Kyle Gann (sampling has “…led music away from atomism toward a more holistic approach”), and Anthony Tommasini (who, in reference to a sound installation, says: “So composers as we have known them may disappear someday. Yet, perhaps the concert, or at least a new kind of collective listening experience, will continue”). This is not exactly the sky-is- falling rhetoric of the futureshocker critics, but it does smack, especially in the fashion in which it is presented, of the old part-of-the-solution-or-part-of-the-problem mentality of the high modernists. Throughout the book there is a disturbing undercurrent of distaste for notation: he seems to think of it as a parasite venture to the parallel non-literate tradition, invented in the days of the printing press to fill the purses of greedy publishers—though he does not revel in the demise, nor beat his breast.

In his defense, his final sweep does not intimate that his is the last word on the topic. He says:

And so we must take our leave of it without resolution. We have observed at least three coexisting if not contending strands of literate musical composition at the end of the twentieth century. There is a thinning faction of traditional modernists, mostly aging but not without new recruits, who maintain the literate tradition at its most essentially and exigently literate. There is a vastly overpopulated stratum of composers, as yet virtually without a nonprofessional audience, who avail themselves of new technologies that presage the dilution and eventual demise of the literate tradition. And there is a small elite of commercially successful caterers to the needs of a newly ascendant class of patrons who currently control the fortunes of the mainstream performance and dissemination media, insofar as these remain open to elite art. All three are energetically active, productive, endowed with genuine talent. Which will prevail in the long run?

He goes on to say:

In the long run, it has been wisely observed, we are all dead. That long run is of no concern to the historian. At present, things remain in motion. That is all we can ask for. The future is anybody’s guess. Our story ends, as it must, in the middle of things. [italics added]

The scope and arc of his book is similar to that of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence, which is itself a prediction of the end of a major historical period, the current era. Barzun attempts to sum up this period, drawing from such a panoply of sources that it dazzles even the most sophisticated reader. What they have in common, apart from both being extremely worthwhile reading—both should be required for anyone with an interest in how our culture got to be the way it is—is that, when it comes to the most recent developments, they both fall into the historians’ trap of leaving out critical details in order to make a point. Neither of them lie, but they both indulge the contravention of omission, choosing to focus on the worst aspects of the cultures they vivisect (for Barzun, the abhorrent decadence of our world; for Taruskin, the notion of the infirm necessity of the printed score). Barzun’s book reads a little like a history of Elizabethan England focused largely on bearbaitings and prostitution and omitting Shakespeare or Marlowe, so as to prove how dreary the culture is. Taruskin is less culpable because his argument is less extreme, but he focuses on composers he considers to be post-literate in the final chapters of his book, and while he does not omit those who work contra his thesis, there seems to still be an air of historical inevitability to the end. His consistent postulate throughout the book’s 4,500 pages is that ideas don’t exist without people to make them (“Motets don’t revel” he says, when citing someone who explains that a certain piece seems to enjoy itself), a stance undercut by his hazarding prognostications. He is not Barzun or Giambattista Vico, who believe that mankind is sinking into barbarism. Taruskin seldom makes qualitative judgments, but he still maintains something which has more participants than ever is fading, and that belies the obvious—yet somehow easily overlooked—truth.

The criticism inveighed against Taruskin, particularly by Tim Page in the Washington Post, is indicative of another dangerous line of thinking—the idea that there can, in fact, be objective observation. He says:

Richard Taruskin’s vast new book—though erudite, engaging and suffused throughout with a mixture of brilliance and delirium—does not quite live up to its title. Instead of The Oxford History of Western Music ($500), which implies a certain Olympian objectivity, these five volumes (complete with a book-length addendum with chronology, bibliography and master index) might better have been called ‘Richard Taruskin’s Greatest Hits,’ for it is the Berkeley-based musicologist, rather than his subjects, who holds center stage. What we have, then, is a highly personal (and often delightfully prickly) take on musical history from an original and eccentric mind—a mind to which anybody interested in the art of music should be exposed. But I would no more treat the results as mainstream authority than I would a chronicle written by a team of mavericks such as, say, Glenn Gould, John Cage and Spike Jones.” [Italics added]

“The results are just too strange,” he goes on to say, “in a way that history should not be strange. Take, for example, the case of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who is mentioned a grand total of five times in Taruskin’s 4,560 pages, and then only in passing, first as an influence on the American composer Roy Harris and later as a (seemingly baleful) model for the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Sibelius! This is a little like writing a history of the motion picture and mentioning Ingmar Bergman only for his effect on Woody Allen.” [Italics added]

History should not be strange!?

Page asserts that the very title, the Oxford History of Western Music, insists an “Olympian objectivity,” which, were the volumes not emblazoned with a single name, that of Richard Taruskin, might be the case. This also raises another point (which ought to be addressed in another article): the objectivity of history, or, glossing on Page’s words, if history can be told from atop Olympus. Is such a thing ever possible? Has such a thing ever been done? The best historians (read: critics), like artists, are mavericks, as history itself is fugitive, untellable, and as victim to personality as anything. The very facts of music history alone are consistently told through the lens of the Catholic Church, itself hardly objective: we swallow wholesale the notion that Pope Gregory, no musician, received chant from a whispering bird as readily as the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

History is not objective, and one need only to look to the most famous tellers of it, names like Gibbon, Howard Zinn, Shelby Foote, Herodotus, Johnson, Boswell, Goethe, Lytton Strachey, Tacitus, Spengler, Carlyle, Bacon or a thousand others to find evidence of that. The only reason Taruskin’s book is thusly named is the simple fact that it is published by Oxford University Press. Even their most famous work, the Oxford English Dictionary, though authoritative and inclusive, is by no means the final statement on the language—and it, too, was rendered by mavericks of greater eccentricity than Taruskin. And lofty as this title is, it is the intentions of the book—beautifully laid out in its first pages—and not the heavy expectation, the awed hush, which immediately follows the name of the world’s most famous university, by which the work should be judged.

You cannot, as the old caveat would have it, judge a book by its cover (or its name, or its price). I understand why Tim Page was disappointed to find the book to be more subjective than his taste preferred: objectivity, were it not a mythological precept, would be nice; it is clean and easy. But, alas, it simply does not exist—anywhere.

I write this too with a heavy heart, because I enjoy reading (and agree with, largely) Page’s take on musical matters, so I bear his general critical stance no ill will. But I cannot let this go unchecked, not only because I feel it to be an unjust swipe where a thorough analysis would have been more appropriate, but mostly because I feel it is emblematic of a much larger problem—a problem not only in our music criticism, but in our culture. What is the issue with telling history from an angle that denotes a personal perspective, particularly that of an extreme mind? Analysis, be it theoretical, sociological, musical, or cultural (and Taruskin freely ranges between all of these in his book), is as much a product of a creative mind as any art, and sometimes it becomes difficult to tell the two apart. The very idea that someone should stick close to the “middle,” that there somewhere exists a safe, opinion-free mainstream, is a dangerous one that, in these oddly dark times, has sprouted wings. Who among us did not watch the floundering President-Designate George Bush at the debates some months ago, failing to address issues yet receiving cheers for saying, apropos of nothing, that there was a “mainstream in American politics” and that John Kerry was far to the left of it. It was Kerry’s alleged “elitism,” his attempt—usually through lengthy explanations of topics on which volumes could be written—to think on a greater, more intellectual level that lost him the election. On our global stage as well as in our writing and thinking about (and composing of) music, if there ever was a time for thought that catered elsewhere than to the middle of the proverbial (and always elusive) road, it is now. Partisan has become a dirty word, but partisanship is one of the most important aspects of our lives. It is one of the few things that can promote change.

Please do not misread me: I am not saying Mr. Page is anywhere near the demon that Mr. Bush has proved himself to be, but his invocation of the mainstream gives me frightened pause, as does his writing off of brilliant minds like John Cage or Glenn Gould because of their eccentricity. Would not Mr. Gould, if so inclined to spend thirteen years collaborating with Cage and Spike Jones, be capable of writing a worthwhile history of Western Music? Being of singular minds, each with a deeply personal and idiosyncratic musical tact, their opus would not only be admitted, but relished—one of the many takes we could consult on the vast panoply of our musical history. It would no doubt be as enlightened as anything, not in spite of its quirks, but because of them. And they do not work against the idea of Western music. It is not an idea which goes on its own; rather, they are Western music, or at least a portion of it. Were there to exist a mainstream, they would be it.

Since when has classical music ever been a mainstream pursuit!? For ages, composers were bohemians, and many of our great personalities were not only total lunatics (think Wagner and Berlioz), but their work excited passions too difficult to describe. At one point, there needed to be a Reformation of musical practices in the Catholic Church because what the composers were doing turned people on too much. Wagner gave genteel, “Gilded Age” ladies orgasms; Berg, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg all excited riots; Verdi‘s music aided revolutions; Mozart‘s storminess was too much for many listeners during the Age of Enlightenment to fathom. This list could continue for hundreds of pages. It is only in the last half-century that this tradition became the province of the dull, the nerdy; before that was a golden time, which lasted for around 900 years, when classical music could potentially be downright decadent. Mainstream? It is this homogenization, this push to “middle” everyone, that has created our cultural cynicism, our musical blandness, and our overall ungalvanized this-is-dying-whether-we-like-it-or-not approach.

Today our daily critics keep reminding us that classical music is dying due to its lack of cultural presence, its absence from the mainstream (where, throughout the ages, it has never really been, even among the intelligentsia, with the odd exception of the post-Victorian “Cult of Wagnerism“). We lament our work being trapped in a foursquare cultural museum, yet when someone like Taruskin comes along and presents us with a cogent explanation of our own history—by no means flawless, incidentally, but certainly expertly researched and plotted—he is roundly slapped for being left of center. This calls into question the very role of a critic: are they to simply report, allowing us to draw our own opinions based on a slew of “facts?” Or are they personalities, laying out what they—presumably a very educated, erudite, experienced “they”—think? Is a personal voice a luxury, an eccentricity, or extremely valuable? They do not exist outside, but are as inside a player and as responsible for the “death” of classical music as a composer, performer, record label, or unenlightened audience member. Perhaps even more so, since, in their role of tastemakers, they aim to tell us what to love. To explain history, or even last night’s concert, as a series of interconnected facts, an unbroken line, is one of the greatest missteps that the tellers of these (fascinating, extreme) tales can make, yet it is through this fallacious process that most of us learn about the past.

The party line in music is that chant gives way to polyphony, which births sonata form, opera, romanticism, twelve-tone, serialism, experimentalism, and so forth, leading, according to many, to crisis. Easy-to-follow facts reported in linear fashion, most often in short, uncomplicated sentences (or, sometimes, in haughty, jargon-riddled pages). This is a good German approach, “right” for hundreds of years, and no doubt the “un-strange” history that Page expected from something called the Oxford History of Western Music.

The book is not by any means written to the uninitiated; no Idiot’s Guide here, quite the opposite. The sheer complexity of the musical analyses alone is indicative of the skill needed to read this book properly: concise explanations of difficult musical notions, as instructive and thorough as any theorist or composer could manage. He presupposes a great deal of knowledge which many, even those inclined to dedicate themselves to reading this expansive book, might not possess, and clearly assumes that the person reading is not experiencing this material for the first time.

Taruskin shies from this faux-”progressive” approach, creating a narrative that is unafraid to leap around temporally, and which devotes whole essays to composers whose work he finds to be emblematic. He rejects the straight-line theory (which often excludes “conservatives” like Benjamin Britten who did not help music’s progress), and is not obligated to include everyone. And for every Sibelius or Sondheim or Elgar who does not find their way into the explanation (not to mention Barber, Menotti, or Coltrane, or any number of others), he invokes some often overlooked presences (like Gilbert & Sullivan, or Felicien David) and allows them their due. Mostly he deals with “important” figures, explaining what earns them their place—something which many histories actually fail to do.

Consequently, some composers (especially those who stray from Taruskin’s very clear line of thinking) fall by the wayside. One simply cannot cover everything, not in six volumes, not in a hundred. To criticize the author for his (admittedly frequent) omissions is to miss the forest for the few misplaced trees. Taruskin’s work is hardly a final statement; it ends, as he says, in the middle.

So What is Dying?
The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” —Randall Jarrell

If Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Alice Tully and Avery Fisher Halls, the New York City Opera, and every record company that offers classical music were to shut down on the same day, our New York critics would find themselves out of work. And as reports regarding the state of these various concerns are seldom positive, job security is threatened and a lack of security causes fear. But these institutions, golden and feted as they are, are not music; they are conduits through which music is transmitted. If they go, classical music will continue, because other concerns will rise up in their stead. When we read about the end, that is the end about which we read. To confuse these institutions with the music is like worrying about the state of cinema because the Loews theater chain is in crisis. This will go on, it does go on, and will continue long after all of us have quit the mortal plane. This should be taken as a comfort.

When Taruskin addresses all of this motion “under the radar,” he separates it into strands—practitioners which lack a “nonprofessional audience,” others who are in bed with the elite (which seems to be, by his implication, the only way their work is performed; he does not name names, but it is not difficult to guess), and then there are those who embrace technology and are therefore, in his argument, on the proverbial, ephemeral cutting edge. This “medium-is-the-message” approach overlooks the complexity of the issues, a complexity which is heightened by a lack of perspective because it is happening today. His “end” is not the same one proscribed by the seemingly endless articles, yet he is still postulating that a tradition is coming to an end when clearly it is not—even though there are thousands of composers deeply immured in the literate tradition, many of whom conveniently escape the narrative of his final chapters. Read his book, I urge you, even beg you, because it is the most important work of its kind in existence, but be mindful of its flaws: history offers little perspective on the current, and you do not have to look further than our current socio-political situation for excellent, bone-chilling examples.

I, for one, am rather tired of the same old saw, this doom-saying which belies the truth: this discipline, though changing, is by no means on its last legs. Look around: there are more of us than ever before, and if you tap the life that teems beneath the veneer of the most visible—most mainstream—organizations, you will find thousands of tireless, dedicated souls, all working essentially in secret. One way to look at it: rats on a slag heap, foraging for the last morsels in the detritus of a dying art; another: many working without the strictures of an academy, any reigning dogma or sacred cows, freedom being, after all, just another word for nothing left to lose. Call me optimistic, but the latter seems more true.

It is a well-fashioned law of physics that observing something changes its very nature. There is no objectivity, no divorce from human contribution to phenomena, no matter how ephemeral. Of artistic or aesthetic strains of thought, all entirely manmade, observation becomes as much a part of the action as creation, so much so that a critic or historian can change the course of things, for good or ill.

Of course, like many, I look around and do not always like what I see: the absence of classical music of any kind from the cultural dialogue, especially new music, gets my personal hackles up. More than the musical culture, but the entire culture at large, its consumer-based, money-driven mentality, grooming all of us to be perfect members of the “mainstream” with oft-observed Orwellian overtones is genuinely frightening. Even in classical music, it seems that the catering to the dull (read: the lack of taking risks for fear of financial failure) has gotten us all a little jumpy. Some just sulk; others defy; many just cow to middleness, too often synonymous with mediocrity. Some critics, like many artists, leap to this or that bandwagon, hanging on for dear life, trying to maintain their lack of cultural importance by going with what is “hip.”

But I am here to tell you, forecasts aside, this is not a dying entity. Music—Western, literate music—will never die as long as there are people around who do it, people like you, like me, and like the thousands of others all over the world. We may go underground, but we won’t disappear.