Ralph Locke: The Old and the New, Concurrently

A guest post from Ralph Locke:

I’ve been reading vol. 2 of Taruskin’s Oxford History (for my own purposes and pleasure, in the paperback edition), and visiting your blog occasionally. I recently “caught up” with you–finished W. F. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, and J. C. Bach yesterday and began Pergolesi this morning.

I was therefore startled to see Zach’s essay on ugliness in J. S. Bach, since it discusses the preceding chapter (7) and thus might have been posted earlier.

I found it provocative to be reminded by Zach – now with Enlightenment- and commerce-oriented entertainment in my ears and mind – of Taruskin’s ideas about intentional ugliness in J. S. Bach, especially in the (not at all commercially oriented) sacred vocal music.

And Zach’s audio-clips help make Taruskin’s descriptions of Bach’s music about groaning in worldly slime (etc.) vivid indeed!

In any case, the chronological back-turning turns out to be relatively slight (or non-existent): Pergolesi’s La serva padrona was composed in 1733–less than a decade after most of Bach’s cantatas and while Bach was still continuing to compose music of ineffable . . . ugliness.

The same is true of course about Bach’s sons: they were composing in one or another new manner while Dad was still very much alive and active.

There may be simple, practical reasons why this discussion of J. S. Bach got posted after Mark’s essay on W. F. Bach. Still, the surprising juxtaposition ended up reminding me that (as Taruskin occasionally points out) widely divergent compositional and expressive trends can flourish simultaneously–often in different social and cultural contexts, or practiced by composers of different generations who may have known each other’s music and liked it, or hated it.

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.