Darwinian Music, Part II: Anachronisms

Persistence, [like Oswald’s]*, in old ways is often represented by historians as anachronism – in this case, as a pocket of “the Middle Ages” surviving like a fossil into “the Renaissance,” or as resolute “conservatism,” resistance to change. What is anachronistic, however, is the modern linear view of history that produces such an evaluation, and the implicit isolation of artistic practices or styles from the historical conditions that enabled them. (I, 143)

Oswald_von_Wolkenstein

* [Oswald von Wolkenstein was a minnesinger who was born in 1376, years after the monophonic craft of the trouvéres faded away.]

This is a topic that I feel we’ll be returning to often. A historian who focuses solely on technical innovation and teleological progression could easily consider someone like Oswald to be atavistic and somewhat tragicomic. They just don’t seem to get it. Henry Ford is inventing the Model T and poor old Oswald is just coming out of the garage announcing that he’s discovered the wheel. Poor Oswald! (“Hello? Anyone in there? Think, Oswald, think!,” I hear Biff Tannen saying.) In the little comparative taxonomy set up in the previous post, if chant is the amphibian that wiggles onto shore, then Oswald is the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that mind-bogglingly survived into the present (in very small numbers) with a primitive anatomy.

Oswald isn’t alone in this historical assessment. One of the major complications inherent in the concept of the “eras” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.) is that it codifies certain style characteristics as typical of a specific time, irrespective of the particular cultural milieu. If a composer is writing music that seems to outdo the style associated with his era, he’s considered progressive, vanguard, and innovative (and thus valuable and important). Music history is scattered with such innovating Geniuses who are ahead of their time: for instance, Gesualdo, Moussorgsky, and Ives. However, on the flip side, some composers in the standard canon wrote music that harkens back to earlier eras (a rococo classicist living in the Sturm und Drang era, for example). Since these unfortunate individuals aren’t current and up-to-date with their musical style, they are subjected to the historical judgment of conservatism. Thus, Sergei Rachmaninoff is an anachronism, writing grand, romantic symphonies and piano concertos well into the jaded, spiky 20th century. Mendelssohn is another who is sometimes labeled this way. And poor, misunderstood Oswald also falls into this category.

No good ethnomusicologist would make this judgment, steeped as the discipline is in the cultural embeddedness of all musical phenomenon. It may seem silly that we have to remind ourselves of this, but stylistic developments were not spontaneously adapted throughout Europe as soon as they came about. Nor should they have been. Indeed, innovative systems of music making were born from cultures, and were thus useful and meaningful in some way to the culture that produced them. Outside of that specific culture, however, the same technique could be irrelevant and unnecessary. Music is used, and if one culture has a use for a technique while the principality down the road (complete with a different language, system of social organization, economy, etc.) does not, then we can’t expect the second culture to adapt the new development wholesale simply because it’s technically innovative. This flawed historical perspective, Taruskin argues, is the anachronism, not the cultural practice so judged.

The fact of the matter is that feudalism, the social system that gave rise to the troubadour/trouvére/minnesang styles, persisted in the German lands long after it faded away in the French kingdoms. Oswald was not a holdover from an earlier era, therefore: he was responding to his culture, which just happened to keep up with feudal conditions after France began the shift towards urbanization. He was plenty relevant to his time (indeed, he was quite popular). As Taruskin puts it: “When things become truly anachronistic, they disappear (as did the Meistersinger guild when it officially disbanded in 1774). As long as they thrive, they are ipso facto – by the very fact – relevant to their time, and it is the historian’s job to understand how.” (I, 143)

History is not a straight line. Indeed, it’s the twists and turns and bifurcations that make history so interesting and so complex. We would all do well to remember that.

3 Comments

  1. I have a feeling we’ll be returning to this topic often as well. Last spring I wrote a short paper on the problems of notions of progress and stylistic dating, which addresses these historiographical issues through a case study of Josquin’s 3-voice chansons. I am very glad to see that Prof. Taruskin is addressing the issue so frequently.

    P.S. Great Back to the Future quote. How apt to the topic—don’t you wish you could get into a Delorian, type in 1402, and talk to Ozzy himself?

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