Ralph Locke on “Invisible Barriers”

The following comes to us from Prof. Ralph Locke (Eastman) in response to Mark’s post “Invisible Barriers”:

The question of how to “chunk” music history into periods is one that I raise with my undergrads (music majors) when we move from late Beethoven to Schubert, Berlioz, and other composers born a good generation later than Beethoven. I warn them, among other things, that there is no coherent system of “Romantic harmony” (for example)–intensely chromatic, third relations, enharmonic modulations, etc.–that will be found in all or even most music of the early/mid nineteenth century: there were many different streams of musical style existing simultaneously, and parlor songs or four-hand piano quadrilles (for example) might be as plain-vanilla in harmonic language as something from the ”early Classic” era (e.g., the Stamitz and Sammartini in their anthology–pieces I quite like despite or maybe because of their relatively limited harmonic vocabulary, harmonic progressions, etc.). I also have them sing a French political song with me from the 1820s (unaccompanied, based on a folk tune, and protesting censorship of political songs at the time!). The more we consider non-masterpiece music (including “functional music,” as Dahlhaus conveniently labeled it), I suspect, the less meaningful these simple “period” labels become.

1 Comment

  1. As a thought experiment, it’s interesting to consider how a historical musicologist in 2300 might talk about music in 2009. If it’s anything like the way some music historians today discuss the “Romantic” era (or any period, for that matter), our future musicologist will define 2009 according to common stylistic features and representative composers. And already we run into a problem. What IS the commonality here, and who are the musicians who best represent it? Perhaps the future historian will focus on fresh art music composition, which would mean that a lot of the music in the histories of the future will be works by academic composers. Maybe they will focus on Cage’s philosophical inquiries as driving the music of our age. Similarly, the stylistic features of music today are so heterogeneous as to completely defy easy classification. And this isn’t even addressing all the popular music out there (not to mention all the “High/Low” hybrids like jazz)!

    The point is that if future historians “chunked” the music of 2009 the way we today chunk the music of the Romantic era or the Baroque era, I don’t think too many people would find it representative. Most people would agree that the musical activity of our culture today is amazingly diverse, but diversity was the norm in the past as well. Period terms can serve to whitewash that fact.

    Of course, certain styles emerged during the 19th century that possessed incredible cultural authority well into the 20th century (and arguably still do). To many present-day historians, then, not all musical activities of the 19th century should be treated equally. A term like “Romantic era” is a codification of all the features of the time that possess cultural power, longevity, novelty, complexity, etc. Parlor music, folk tunes and the like, while a major part of musical life in the 19th century, don’t fit the above criteria as well as Beethoven. Thus we talk about “Heroic” and late Beethoven as exemplary of the Romantic aesthetic, while the other stuff is barely mentioned.

    I wonder if there are any musicians and styles of today, or the past 50 years, that will be treated historiographically the same way by our future musicologist that Beethoven is today. Is there any one stylistic vision today that is powerful and compelling enough to define 2009 for future generations?

    Thank you very much for your pedagogical insights, Prof. Locke. I trust that many readers of the TC are eagerly assimilating these thoughts. Please feel welcome to contribute any time in the future!

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