Musical Prophecies

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”  – Jorge Luis Borges, in “Kafka and his Precursors”

The same is true of musical genres and techniques. For example, Schoenberg colors how we perceive not only the music that came after him, but what came before. We talk about Beethoven’s late string quartets, Liszt’s late orchestral works, Wagner’s late operas, and the Richard Strauss of Elektra as molotov cocktails thrown into the guts of standard tonality. (There’s something about the “late phase” here too that will have to be unpacked at another time.) All of these were precursors to the utter collapse of tonality that came with Schoenberg and the second Viennese school. They were prophetic of the chaos that was to come. However, without the ultimate collapse of tonality as embodied by Schoenberg, these earlier works would be read much differently today. In other words, prophecies are valued only when they come true.

The idea of being “validated by history” is a fascinating one. We’ve dealt a little with the evolutionary model of historiography (the “organic fallacy”) on this blog, but the concept of musical prophesy, while related, has a fundamentally different feature. Yes, we read late Beethoven as a precursor to the breakdown of tonality. However, the late quartets often resist being seen as simply an evolutionary step towards this eventual break. Instead, many historians have pointed to these works as a quasi-mystical revelation of the future. The conventional wisdom has mad, brilliant Beethoven, deaf as a rock, pounding out his existential fury in a way that is far too modern for his age. His genius allowed him to musically prognosticate. (In literature, the same is often said of Kafka, who wrote about paranoia, political fear, totalitarianism, and state brutality long before these historical monsters descended on his native Czechoslovakia.)

Let’s rewind over 400 years now. Machaut was well known is his day as a poet and a composer of secular songs. However, ask any Music History 101 student about Machaut’s major achievement, and he is bound to answer the Messe de Nostre Dame. By all measures, Machaut’s setting of the Ordinary of the Mass was an oddity in his composerly output. It can hardly be called the most representative piece of his creative life, yet it is remembered today over all the motets, virelai, and ballades that he wrote. Why?

The Mass is an amazing piece of music that would surely be remembered even if it were the only Mass Ordinary ever penned. However, we should also take into account that it was the first of its kind: Machaut was the first single author to attempt a full setting of the mass. Moreover, the genre of the Mass Ordinary became, over the next two centuries, the primary genre in Europe. From the perspective of the modern historian, this little fact makes Machaut’s oddity very interesting indeed. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his work would be seen historically as a musical prophesy.

I’ve lately made a habit of closing with Taruskin, and I’ll continue that pattern now: “What might otherwise seem a liturgical anomaly in an otherwise basically secular career has instead loomed disproportionately large both within Machaut’s output and in music historiography itself, because the ‘cyclic Mass Ordinary’ (that is, a setting of the mostly nonconsecutive items of the Ordinary liturgy as a musical unit) became the dominant musical genre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Machaut seems willy-nilly its prophetic harbinger.”   (I, 307)

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