Darwinian Music, Part IV

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been abroad the idea that the history of music (like the history of everything else) has a purpose, and that the primary obligation of musicians is not to their audience but to that purpose – namely, the furthering of the “evolutionary” progress of the art, for the sake of which any sacrifice is justified. Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, in other words, the idea that one is morally bound to serve the impersonal aims of history has been one of the most powerful motivating forces, and one of the most exigent criteria of value, in the history of music.   — III, 415

[Commentary here]


  1. Josh McNeill says:

    Great way to put it. It makes me wonder if there’s an argument in there in favor of proceeding in this fashion or against it.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Interesting point, Josh. I think that by exposing the historicism that begins to enter into musicians’ (and historians’) thinking at this point in time, Taruskin is not necessarily arguing pro or con for this philosophy of history per se, but rather attempting to make us aware of this paradigm as it affected music history’s actors. Certainly the uncritical adoption of an “evolutionary” or “organic” approach to historical development in this day and age (at least among academic historians) would be laughably dated (though it does occur all the time, sometimes to surprisingly few laughs), it’s undeniably an important factor in understanding what might have driven musicians from the mid-19th century on. We’ll see how Taruskin juggles this issue into his narrative, but I should say that, to this point in the book, there’s been refreshingly little historicism in his general approach. (Notable exceptions include his treatment of Byrd and Palestrina).

  2. Paul says:

    Like you Zach I identified this passage as extremely significant. I think it is one of the central insights of the book, and provides an explanation for much of the history of music from the late nineteenth century on. Such a view of music history is only possible in a literate tradition, which is another of Taruskin’s informing principles.

  3. Miller Asbil says:

    Coming to the party a little late BUT…gentlemen, your blog and all the conversations found within are BRILLIANT! Thanks for all the care, interest and openness it’s taken to make this possible. I hope you inspire many an undergraduate to ASK QUESTIONS and dig a little deeper!

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