What is the Musical “Middle”?

Tinctoris defined the stylus mediocris, or “middle style,” as music that aimed for the heavens in its expressive intent but did so in a way that was more grounded, humble, and human than the lofty, “high” masses discussed last week. In the 15th century, the middle ground went most notably to the motet genre (remember, motets a century earlier were the “highest” style).

Music, as with many things in our culture, is often understood in terms of dichotomous pairs. Thus, we have major/minor, sacred/secular, vocal/instrumental, etc. We also have the distinction between “high art” and “low art,” and as Taruskin reminds us, this divide is centuries old in the west. Over the course of the OHWM readings so far, Taruskin has taken great care to problematize this strict binary between “high” and “low” music: indeed, sacred music always borrowed from the secular oral practices of the street, and vice versa. However, this is the first time that a middle road has been formulated, and it really wreaks havoc on the old binary of high/low to which anyone from our culture is deeply (if subconsciously) accustomed. It seems to present us with a promising (Utopian?) way out of the pair of opposites so fundamental to western thinking – as Tinctoris writes, the middle is Both/And instead of Either/Or. Or is that what stylus mediocris really means?

It also brings to mind our contemporary concept of “middlebrow.” This term (according to Wiki) has its origins in 1920s England, and was meant to denote the intermediary grounds between highbrow and lowbrow. (Terms which are themselves the ludicrous legacy of phrenology, the “scientific” discipline that sought to explain differences between the races by means of cranial measurements. Spoiler alert: white males have the biggest craniums!) Virginia Woolf and others went on the attack against middlebrow values, claiming that these mediocre folks were “in pursuit of no single object, neither Art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.” Even today, the term has the scent of the petit bourgeoisie attached to it – it connotes tastelessness masquerading itself as Die Kultur. Musically, I hear this term applied most often to musical theater. Musicals aren’t quite popular music, but they aren’t opera either – what should we call them? Middlebrow!

Before blathering further, I’d like to get your take on this: What is the musical “middle”? Was Tinctoris’s stylus mediocris essentially the same thing as today’s “middlebrow”? In a system still thoroughly dominated by the conceptual crux of the high/low dynamic, is there even room for a middle? (Like third parties in American politics.) What might today’s middle look like (besides musicals)?

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