The Anxiety of Influence

Assessing the earliest stirring of the English style can be a perilous endeavor. It is true that a set of distinct features – parallel thirds, voice-exchange, a repeated pattern in the low voice, or pes – came to play a prominent role in English composition in the years following the Notre Dame School. These techniques eventually went on to exert a demonstrable influence on continental musical styles – they were not simply isolated in England. However, beyond these simple facts, our understanding of how this style developed and spread can be quite elusive.

First of all, England was hardly as isolated as we might like to believe. (Taruskin speaks of this interpretation of the English sound as the equivalent of “insular fauna – musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses.”) The Norman conquest, which began in 1066, established French culture, courts, and language on the island; a couple of hundred years later, the English returned the favor, invading and occupying much of northern France. With all these invasions and counter-invasions came whole armies of noblemen and clergy, each with their own traveling retinue of musicians. The English and the French – often at the point of a knife – shared a good deal of music between each other during these hundreds of years of strife.

Evidence of the French-English musical connection are abundant. While not primarily associated with the French in musicological circles, the English sound (thirds, voice-exchange, etc.) can be found both in French music and in music by “English” composers with suspiciously French-sounding names (Pycard, for instance). Our English sound, it turns out, is not as easily catergorizable as we might have originally thought.

A major historiographical problem that arises from this confluence has to do with the idea of influence. Music historians spend a lot of time searching for continuity between traditions, composers, and techniques; indeed, the paradigm of “slow, continuous change” is a major conceptual vantage point from which musicologists conduct their research. Although the discipline is so fractured now that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce any single scholarly perspective to be axiomatic, musicology traditionally approaches its subjects diachronically (concerned with how something changes through time). The concept of influence, then, is often a critical tool in establishing lineages. Thus the standard narrative: Composer (or group) A came up with innovation B, which then spread to country C and influenced the musical language of composers D, E, and F. Influence in popular music studies is just as pronounced: ragtimers influenced the development of jazz, which then influenced the development of soul, which went on to influence disco, then hip-hop, etc. It is easy to view historical processes through the lens of influence, where isolated developments are picked up, virus-like, by musicians and carried far and wide.

In this particular case, there are a number of theories accounting for the English sound. Some claim that the English exerted an influence over French university musicians, who happily picked up the sweet new style. Others contend that certain French techniques appealed to English musicians because of their resemblance to oral practices up on the island – when they returned home after university training, they brought these French styles with them. And as Taruskin wryly observes: “Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans.)” This touches on the issue of nationalism, which will undoubtedly come up again, but it also exemplifies a problem with the concept of influence itself. As a tool for establishing links between separate phenomenon, the notion of influence has the disadvantage of being decidedly linear. It doesn’t really account for the contentious, complex, messy situation that often accompanies the transmission and cross-fertilization of musical styles. It essentializes. (I’m engaging another text right now that does a superb job of addressing the perils of the influence concept, Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll. The black/white racial dynamic in the story of American pop music parallels this English/French dilemma in fascinating ways.) Influence is fundamentally a one-way stream, with the “influencer” on one side and the “influencee” on the other. Clinging too dogmatically to this concept when viewing historical processes can blind one to the myriad other ways developments can spread. Perhaps the English sound is a mash-up of two traditions, a sonic portrait of cultural enmeshment? Perhaps these little stylistic tricks were – dare I say it – developed independently on the island and the continent. This sort of synchronic reading is possible to put forth as well, but to what end? Ultimately, the problem with pure influence is that it fails to truly elucidate. There’s a futility to trying to determine linear relationships between social phenomenon, music or otherwise. Once again, I’ll close with RT (I decided not to employ scare quotes around my usages of the word “influence”):

Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?

That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. (I, 399)


  1. When we see the jumbled mess that influence is never capable of addressing, I think that is where the more vague (yet all-encompassing) ideas of intertextuality can become really useful.

    Obviously, we can’t take some of the ideas of intertext (the fact that our hearing of Bach is influenced by our listening of Chopin), but others allow for a more nebulous view of influence than in possible in a purely diachronic model. What are your thoughts in this?

    1. Robert — Thanks for your thoughts on this. I agree that intertextuality can be a powerful tool for analyzing relationships. It has the capacity to emphasize the network aspect of spreading ideas, as opposed to the straight, linear path presupposed by the influence model.

      I’m hazy on a couple concepts, though (need to brush up on my Kristeva!). Does intertextuality describe the relationship between multiple texts ONLY, or does it also take into account the creators’ referential intentions? Quotation (and sampling) is about as pure an example of intertext as I can think of, because the effect relies on the listener’s familiarity with the quoted material. However, can intertext be applied to compositional circumstances that aren’t so cut and dry? Chopin might certainly have understood that certain gestures in his music would be heard in relation to Bach; however, the opposite case obviously couldn’t be true, as you point out.

      I’m curious how the theory of intertext addresses the time relationships between the various nodes in a network. I’m also wondering if a link can be counted as truly intertextual if it’s not perceived as such by the composer/listener. Is there a passive element to intertextuality or does it have to be intentional? Please share your thoughts – this is really a fascinating theory and one that I’ve always thought bears a close relationship to music.

      1. I’m just getting into intertext, actually. We’ve been doing a fair amount of reading about it in a history of pop music seminar I am taking. But from what I can understand, composer intent is not necessary for an intertextual link to exist. In a way, that makes some sense; you are influenced by everything you’ve ever experienced, but you may not explicity exert one influence or another in any of your actions.

        And if a link isn’t perceived as intertextual by the listener/composer, how is it ever being called intertextual? I guess it boils down to one of the big problems of intertext as far as I see it: anything can be intertextual.

        But it does open up some less limiting ideas of discussing influence. We don’t have to prove that Chopin was listening to Bach (would he have been at that time, even?). Instead, we can say “When you hear these two musics, there is a definite connection.” Even if Chopin wasn’t listening to Bach, he was probably listening to music by composers who had listened to Bach (or however many links we need), and thus Bach influenced the music.

        I think the most interesting use of intertext would be cross-media. How was Schumann impacted by the writings of Goethe? Did William Byrd read Shakespeare, and was that ever heard in his music? It could be really fascinating, but it could also just be an endless stream-of-consciousness waste of time.

  2. Very interesting ideas – please let us know how you end up applying the concept of intertext to your work, maybe on the term paper for this seminar. Curious minds would like to know!

    Also, if you’d like to write up a little piece on intertext (especially how it might relate to early music) we’d be happy to post it on this blog.

      1. Great, Robert — Good luck on your comps and feel free to shoot me a text whenever you have time to write something up.

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