Primary Sources of Music History—A Call for Suggestions

As a part of our interregnum between volumes, we are going to update our musicology must-reads feature. Please feel free to add suggestions of your newest or rediscovered favorites in the comments section of that page.

I especially would like suggestions for a new section of the must-reads list: Primary Sources of Music History. This will be a list of texts not only on the topic of music history/musicology, but that have historical value themselves as influential texts to music history/musicology. They will be generally pre-1950. Some examples are below:

1773. Herder, Johann Gottfried von. Shakespeare.

1776. Burney, Charles. A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Vol. I (1776); Vol. II (1782); Vol. III (1789); Vol IV (1789).

1824. Stendhal, Life of Rossini.

Please include as much bibliographic information as you have, especially year of publication, and perhaps where the resource can be found online (if applicable). I’m hoping that this turns into a useful resource for music historians, including students, professionals, and enthusiasts.

Discussion Thread #2: Adorno and Ortega y Gasset

RT pulls no punches when it comes to the work of T.W. Adorno. Indeed, he makes his opinion clear in the introduction that the Frankfurter is “preposterously overrated.” With his strong views in mind, the lead-up to the 20th century these last three volumes has been filled with taut anticipation. How is Prof. Taruskin going to grapple with the ideas and the legacy of Adorno, this paragon of “new musicology”?

Gingerly, it turns out. If you’re expecting a devastating repudiation, you might be disappointed. RT outlines some of Adorno’s big ideas and major works with a dispassionate approach that belies the stormy rhetoric of “preposterously overratedness.” (For example, see p.189, where he speaks of how “the influential German social philosopher” “felt” about Stravinsky.) It seems that his approach here is to not overtly take a side, giving Adorno his due insofar as his ideas have proved influential, but largely withholding judgment otherwise. His view of Adorno is perhaps most patent, in fact, in what is not said in the text. Frankfurt theory plays a puny role in the volume. By the numbers (according to the index), Adorno comes up on a mere 11 pages (out of 796). By contrast, José Ortega y Gasset, who tends to be relatively neglected in most musicological literature, appears on 27.

This omission is, in itself, significant. Just as Kant and Burke are the accepted aesthetic authorities for 18th century music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for 19th, Adorno has become, over the last 30 or so years, the poster-child philosopher for understanding 20th century music, particularly its social significance and political economy. During this time, “new musicology” has painstakingly deconstructed the canon, but in doing so, has appeared to canonize this fascinating, prickly, frustrating, and endlessly complex thinker. It’s an odd paradox: those Adornian ideas that have had the most currency in the discipline – namely his thoughts on the sociological agency of music, on aesthetics and musical meaning in the age of the “Culture Industry,” on the historical “truth” of music as social critique – are precisely where Adorno can be the most regressive, ethnocentric, and just plain snobby. There seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on in Adorno reception: people accept the liberal political and cultural arguments that come from his work while ignoring his more ignoble claims (his thoughts on jazz are particularly egregious in this regard). Like a well-loved elderly relative who occasionally lets a bigoted comment slip (“oh, grandpa!”), we seem to be able to hold this cognitive dissonance together, admiring his many good qualities while gently admonishing his faults. It is peculiar, though, that the same scholarly movement (if you can call “new musicology” that) that has strove to bring respect and academic currency to the study of popular music also has the tendency to lionize a man who so infamously denigrated popular culture. Indeed, contradictions abound in Adorno’s place in musicology.

By privileging Ortega y Gasset, RT does a few things. Most pragmatically, he stays clear of the hornet’s nest of these contradictions, a debate in which he has, in other venues, vigorously taken part. More significantly, though, he subtly shifts the balance of power in 20th century historiography away from Germany. By signalling the 1920s as an aesthetic turning point (and the beginning of the “real” 20th century), he tilts our attention away from the problematics of Viennese atonality and nods instead to the hyper-rationalism of Stravinsky. Highlighting Ortega (a Spaniard) and neoclassicism (associated with Franco-Russian impulses) over the early-century composers, techniques, and thinkers that usually play the leading role in 20th century histories (read: Schoenberg, atonality/12-tone, and Adorno), RT makes a bold counterclaim to the “germanoromantocentric” biases that inform much of the conventional wisdom regarding this important period.

I think it’s a courageous and elucidating approach, but I anticipate many OHWM readers will feel otherwise. Adorno remains a delicate and invidious matter, in part because his writings are so dense and – let’s face it – often so totally inscrutable that it can be easy to think you know him, only to embrace and promulgate a misreading of his ideas. (I have been guilty of this in the past, alas; I’m a lot more skeptical of Adorno now, though my opinion of him is a lot better than RT’s.) I certainly wouldn’t want to instigate a screaming match here, but I’m curious: what role does Adorno play in your thinking, research, and teaching? How about Ortega y Gasset? And how do you think RT handled the ideas and influence of these two major thinkers?

Discussion Thread #1: Irony

The thread of irony that snakes its way through the volume strikes me as hugely significant and generally under-discussed in most histories of modern music. RT’s century, which begins in the twenties, is marked by this unstable relationship to the Romantic “Truth,” not by specific musical techniques per se. By placing aesthetic distance and cool irony as the true marker of the modernist mentality, RT susses out some of the major questions of music in the last century: what is music’s place in history, what is its relationship to truth, and what role does it play in society? These questions came under radical scrutiny in the twenties.

As a teacher, the issue of irony seems to come up often in discussions with students. Perhaps this is because, for many, irony is essentially the only musical mode they’ve been exposed to in the popular music of their lifetime. (Or at least sincerity that can easily come off as ironic, like Kurt Cobain.) In any case, students are excited to learn that this expressive mode has a history prior to the Sex Pistols. Neoclassicism also helps contextualize the tricky notion that aping the past in the present is more a reflection of today than it is of that imagined, usable past. (This topic links up to contemporary pop all too well.)

To generalize hugely, it seems to me that major epistemological shifts like this count more in the narrative of music history than progressive steps on the teleological scale of technical development. If tonality (and its disillusion) is the primary bellwether for music historiography, who’s to keep us from beginning the “20th century” with Liszt in the mid-19th century, or Wagner, or Mussorgsky? Schoenberg’s early atonal works or Debussy’s non-functional harmonies seem just as arbitrary a demarcation line for musical “modernism.” In fact, tonality is a highly unstable and short-lived value system to begin with; it seems that just as it comes to maturity, composers begin picking at its seams. What RT points out in the “Pathos is Banned” chapter, however, is a wholesale rethinking of what music can and should do (musical ends), not just an examination of structural/technical poiesis (musical means). (I imagine that Cage and the 1950s will be framed as similarly decisive as a point of historical rupture.) This shift, as Mark trenchantly observed, is still active today.