Copland, Gershwin and Jazz

Some have complained that [Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto] had no spiritual value, only animal excitement; but what else has jazz?  — Music critic (1927)

[George Gershwin is] the man who made an honest woman out of jazz. — Publicity statement (1930s)

Why did public and critical reception of the “jazzy” 1920s works of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin differ so profoundly, despite the seeming similarities between the two? Where Copland was excoriated for his appropriations of rhythmic syncopation and bluesy melodies, Gershwin was lionized for doing the same thing. What gives?

This teasing question in reception history provides the underlying structure to Ch.11. In this way – framing a perplexing question then parsing it out one historical argument and musical work at a time – RT writes this moment in American musical history almost in the form of a whodunit. This sort of structure generates its own telos: “sociostylistic” cues accumulate until the mystery busts open and the answer to our question is revealed…

Critics placed Copland and Gershwin on different points in the racially-tinged spectrum of high vs low art. Where Copland was seen to sully the good name of concert music by contaminating it with the lowly, “animalistic” sounds of jazz, Gershwin – in his elegant treatments of Tin Pan Alley forms that never strayed too far from their original – was perceived as the great redeemer of jazz by elevating it to the level of concert music. (A distinction also shared with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned Rhapsody and Blue.) The messy “sociostylistic” problems of Jewish composers appropriating African-American forms for the consumption of predominantly WASP audiences was, indeed, a delicate dance that required extreme finesse to really “sell.” In this respect, Copland seemed to have had two left feet.

Maximalism and Transcendentalism

The question of how to slice and dice the history of western music into a narrative that is stylistically coherent, historiographically intelligible, aesthetically prepossessing, and ideologically “usable” is, of course, a perennial concern to those working in a discipline whose job it is (in part) to define such a narrative. As Mark just pointed out in his last point, the conventional wisdom regarding the flow of music history more often than not centers itself around the technical, particularly how technical means get more and more complex with time. This teleological strain of music historiography has dominated the field for most of its history (for more, see Allen’s singular Philosophy of Music History, particularly the section on “organicism” [in Must-Reads]), giving us the familiar “chunks” that all of us learn in undergraduate history sequences today (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.).

One of the things I’ve found most refreshing about Taruskin’s telling of music history so far is his willingness to confound the standard historical periodization, eschewing the purely chronological and the purely technical in favor of developing parallel, alternative narratives based on a range of considerations that fall outside of the details of the musical texts themselves, including philosophical preoccupations (aesthetics, philosophy of history), political ideologies (nationalism), economics (commodification of music), sociological aspects (sacralization of the arts, etc), and more. This is especially true of Volume IV, where the first half is devoted to developing two new categories of thinking about early twentieth century music that fall outside of the standard account: maximalism and transcendentalism. Since we were running out of steam a couple months ago and didn’t post nearly as much as I had hoped to on the likes of Stravinsky, Ives, Scriabin, and Messiaen, it’s worth taking a moment to return to these central organizing categories now.

Maximalism is an interesting and revealing interpretive window through which to view Mahler, Strauss, early Stravinsky (“aristocratic maximalism”) and the like, for it implies a certain liminal element, a striving for extremes of expression and the outer boundaries of the stylistic code. True, this category fits more comfortably within what we understand as “Romantic,” while at the same time portending its dissolution. Like mannerism, however, maximalism is liminal both in its propensity to embrace the extremes and also, in a more Turnerian sense, in its transitional function. Indeed, the ends of one style very easily blurs into the beginnings of another.

Transcendentalism likewise plays with a certain limit concept, namely the bounds of humans as spiritual beings. And just as maximalism deals with pushing against the thresholds of what the common practice musical code could bear, the transcendental musical mode rubs up against the limits of Being to suggest the supra-temporal, supra-corporeal, and supra-rational.

The wonderful thing about a felicitously chosen metaphor, a spot-on musical analysis, or any other successful descriptive strategy for talking about music is its ability to “kindle” new understandings (Lawrence Kramer’s word, not amazon’s). This is true for broad historiographical categories as well. Placing Strauss and Mahler into the same camp makes a lot of intuitive sense; it doesn’t really cut against expectations. But uniting composers as disparate as Scriabin, Ives, Schoenberg, and Messiaen under the “transcendental” label kindles a very new sort of understanding, at least for this reader. It is revealing that both Scriabin and Ives went to their graves with grandly transcendental projects unfinished; the vastness of their ambitions, it seems, was paralyzingly daunting even for these immense talents. In attempting to transcend this ultimate limit through musical sound (and failing), the late-Romantic conceit of Weltanschauungsmusik was punctured. Such a transcendental project was, in the end, circumscribed by its own set of limits, and the “modernism” that began in the 1920s was in some ways an attempt to reimpose, through technical strong-arming, the limits that were breached (or at least threatened) by the Thanatos of Romanticism. In Nietzschian terms, the Dionysian, limit-shattering impulse of maximalism and transcendentalism (itself a form of maximalism), by pointing out the impossibility of such a lofty project, led to an “Apollonian” embrace of limits.

(Messiaen is the great anomaly of this scheme, and perhaps of 20th century music as a whole. Rather than push through any limits of the code, he just invented a new one, doggedly following his own sweetly sublime musical path for some fifty years after Auschwitz made poetry impossible.)

In short, I find a lot to admire in the guiding categories of the first half of the volume. Did you find this organizational schema compelling, or better yet, did it kindle a new understanding that usefully augments what you know (or think you know) about early twentieth century music?

Arthur Sullivan

The nineteenth-century tendency toward specialization was much abetted by the widening gulf set in between “high” and “low” genres in the twentieth, which increasingly entailed the segregation of performers and audiences as well as composers, and a rigid hierarchy of taste that reinforced social distinctions. That hierarchy is already evident in the case of operetta, not so much in the way in which the genre was valued by audiences as in the way in which it was valued by its own specialist composers. The three with whom we are acquainted – Offenbach, Strauss, and Sullivan – all eventually aspired to the higher status of the very genre they spoofed.  (III, 657)

There’s something Faustian about this bargain: aspire to the “high” and risk alienating the masses (and their $) in the pursuit of Art; give “the people” what they want (ie. embrace the “low”) and risk forever being branded as an unserious, pandering lightweight. Operettas of the 19th century are a lot like musicals today – big market, little respect from the arbiters of high taste. For an ambitious, highly talented composer like Sullivan, this false dichotomy was an iron cage. When he attempted to make the transition to “serious opera” with Ivanhoe, his adoring public “betrayed him,” and he was mocked by the taste-makers. Embittered and ghettoized to the lighter genres, he soldiered on for the last ten years of his life with both inspiration and popularity flagging, dying at a fairly young age with the “feeling he had been mistreated and unjustly forgotten” (658). Ironically for such a master of comedy, poor Sullivan’s story is more fitting for tragic opera than the operetta form in which he so greatly excelled.

Purpose, Progress, and Evolution

Occasionally throughout the OHWM, but particularly in the “Mid-century” chapter, RT veers away from music history proper in order to offer a history of music history. These sections, I think, yield some of the most rewarding morsels in the book, setting aside the characters and plot for a moment to focus on the structure of the narrative itself and how it got to be that way.

Reviewing the choice clip in the latest “Darwinian Music” post, a couple of words really stand out. As RT points out, musicians in the middle of the nineteenth century, inspired by the historical philosophy of Hegel (and the Young Hegelians), came to see that history had a “purpose,” and that the prime aim of any artist should be to align themselves with that forward-thrusting cause. The “artwork of the future” was a product of evolutionary progression, and those out of line with this ineluctable force were of no historical significance. (The implication here is that such musicians would be lost to history.) From this philosophy emerges a trinity of concepts which together make up the idea of historicism: purpose, progress, and evolution.

This notion is so natural to many of us today that it’s easy to forget just how historically anomalous this notion was. To create music based to a large extent on the perceived dictates of history? Surely as far as creative impulses go, this one is a rarity in the vast world of music. People make music for individual pleasure, for dancing, for socializing, for God, for courtship, for rites of passages, for a deeper relationship with nature… to make music in order to “further the ‘evolutionary’ progress of the art,” as RT puts it, would probably strike most people around the world as completely inexplicable. Yet somehow it stuck.

Purpose, progress, and evolution are directional concepts; they imply a goal towards which their momentum is directed. Inherent in this very idea, then, is a certain level of teleology, or goal-orientation. A purpose-driven, historically “necessary” music evolves towards something, and in doing so implies the end to that very process. There’s something vaguely apocalyptic about this philosophy of history; once this paradigm took root, the great Götterdämmerung of the Western art music tradition was prophesied, the wheels set in motion.

This has to do with the fact that, in the West, purpose, progress, and evolution were interpreted along entirely technical lines. That is to say, “historical” composition was that which pushed the envelope of harmonic innovation and structural daring, challenging conventional (read: ahistorical) norms in pursuit of progress. With the development of compositional technique yoked to an almost messianic devotion to the “impersonal aims of history,” an endgame is implied. What, after all, is left to be done after every conceivable technical wall has been knocked down, every note liberated? Schoenberg understood this well: history demanded the complete abolition of tonality. If he didn’t make the final leap, someone else would have, because this final step was required by the teleological treadmill. The 12-tone system, in this historical paradigm, was inevitable.

This isn’t the first time that an arms race of technical innovation was set into motion (remember the ars subtilior, for instance). However, in early eras, extreme complexity was put to the service not of historical imperatives but of game-playing and clever riddles (and to innovations in notation that allowed such complexity to take place on the page. In this regard, like Schoenberg, composers did it because they could.)

There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to discuss the “endgame” – and ensuing rubble – that this historical process unleashed. The rubble of the 20th century, of course, was not the end of music (though one recent reader cleverly quipped: “I won’t spoil the ending for you: by 2010 there is no music left at all!”) It did, however, represent in certain important ways the end of a particular historical path, one that was formulated and embraced during the mid-19th century.

I’m reminded of philosopher/art critic Arthur Danto’s brilliant book After the End of Art. Like the above, his argument is not, of course, that art “ended” at a particular time; it did, however, become unyoked from the historical trajectory that it had been on for a very long time. Art in the rubble of a collapsed historical purpose is “post-historical”: it exists outside of the driving narrative of the Western tradition, and is thus aesthetically diffuse. (The “Western” element here is imperative: perhaps this accounts in some ways for composers’ embrace of the East, particularly from the 1950s on. With the Western historical narrative at an end, musicians turned to different models of time, history, and creativity.) Today, argues Danto, there is no historical path forward. We are at a conceptual impasse: some of us are eagerly pining for a new, unifying historical model to take hold; others are happily dancing on the grave of history.

Purpose, progress, and evolution, when tied to musical technique in the service of historical advancement, led, paradoxically, to the end of history. Paraphrasing RT (in another context): is this “progress”?

Wellington’s Victory over Volume II

Accompanied by the rousing flourishes of Beethoven’s oft-maligned Wellington’s Victory, it is with great Freude that we announce the commencement of Volume III! We’re starting into the next volume right as the school year ends (coincidence?), so expect another couple posts on Vol. II as we digest the incredibly rich last couple chapters without the distraction of papers to write and assignments to grade.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never actually heard Wellington’s Victory until now. I’ve heard how awful and un-Beethovenian it is, of course, but I’ve never given it a listen. It’s true, the piece has gotten a bad rap over the years. This is perhaps the most universally mocked piece of the Beethoven oeuvre (and of the whole 19th century); even the usually even-handed (with ironic quotes?) RT describes it as “of a calculated popular appeal,” “noisy,” and a “piece of orchestral claptrap” (II, 672). Indeed, Wellington’s Victory (1813) has become the quintessential reminder that genius composers can produce tripe too.

But are we being fair in this assessment? It’s hard to deny the “noisiness” of the piece, as well as the sappiness of the fugal rendition of “God Save the King” (1:46); this sort of thing sounds like a bad medley for high school band. But Beethoven wasn’t writing his “Battle Symphony” for posterity. Rather, it’s the product of a commission, an unabashed appeal to popularity and the burgeoning market principle, an “early fruit of musical capitalism.” Wellington’s Victory is undeniably a piece of “use” music, in other words; it was not written to be silently contemplated, like his more sublime symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. It is calculated to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle, and on that count, the piece is (and was) a success. Compared to the Ninth, of course Wellington’s Victory leaves a lot to be desired as a piece of “autonomous musical art.” But autonomous musical art this was not.

Sacred Secular Music, Part I: Listening

Up until around the year 1550, sacred music makes up the vast majority of what we study as musicologists. (This isn’t, of course, because people were only singing sacred music until then – sacred music just happens to have been notated and passed down more efficiently than its secular counterpart.) All of the beautiful chant, motets, masses, chorales, Lutheran cantatas, etc. that RT has been discussing for the last 1,400 or so pages were “use” music; they were created and performed for specific functions, and context was everything. This, indeed, was why the music registered as sacred: with settings of Scripture and an indispensable role in ritual and worship, sacred music confirmed, embodied, and celebrated the core tenets of the faith.

As we move into the 19th century, however, a new form of sacred music is emerging. Ironically, the ever increasing secularization of music in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a “sacralization” of the arts in the 19th. This cultural process is fascinating and really complex, the dual prerequisites for a bloated, unreadable post. For that reason I’ll be taking a stab at addressing a few of the major points to consider in a series of short posts. This is by no means meant to be comprehensive, so please jump in with thoughts and links to help flesh these ideas out! That said, let’s dive right in…

If sacralization implied inhibition of spontaneous performer behavior, that is nothing compared with the constraints that were imposed on audiences, who were now expected (and are still expected) to behave in concert halls the way they behaved in church.   (II, 651)

Traditionally, musicologists have focused their work on (at the risk of sounding obvious) the music itself, while tending to downplay the social history of listening in which the great works find themselves situated. RT has gestured towards this issue numerous times throughout the text, from descriptions of the carnival atmosphere of opera seria performances to reminders that the great masses of Josquin would have been heard in chunks over the course of the ritual, not in its totality as a “work,” as it is today.* As we’ve seen (and commented upon), prior to the period we’re now moving into, music was “functional” and, as such, served a fundamentally social purpose, binding communities together, enhancing religious ritual, and enlivening parties. During the 19th century, however, listening practices in Europe and America began to gradually shift in ways that, in hindsight, turned out to be quite profound.

Audiences throughout the 19th century and into the 20th were more and more expected to listen in captivated, silent awe, rather than the more social, distracted concert culture of yore. The dark, quiet cocoon of the modern concert hall is, indeed, a result of these shifts. Where once religion served the socially sanctioned role as the site of mystical transcendence and ritual, now this experience came to be associated with high art and the Geniuses who created it. The secular had become the sacred.

Of course, the silencing of the concert hall was a very gradual process that occurred unevenly around the globe. For instance, critic George Templeton Strong, writing in New York in 1858, describes the audience at a Phil concert as “crowded and garrulous, like a square mile of tropical forest with its flock of squalling paroquets [sic] and troops of chattering monkeys.” By the early 20th century, however, the near-total subjugation of noisy concert-going behavior seems to have been more or less complete. Even conductors were in on the policing of noise in the service of creating a reverential, indeed sacred space for performance. Pierre Monteux, for example, rapped on the podium with his baton to silence the audience; Koussevitzky folded his arms and quietly, condescendingly waited. Leopold Stokowski was perhaps the era’s strictest silence enforcer: he would actually stop conducting mid performance to lecture the audience on “unnecessary noise,” which included applause: “Don’t talk, don’t rattle your programs, just listen noiselessly.**

Any classical music lover today knows the drill. And in many ways this is absolutely for the good; some writers tend to wax nostalgic for the chattery old days, but we’ve all sat next to a whispering couple and we know how annoying this can be. Further, many works written in the last 200 years were designed for precisely this sort of a space; a composer in 1700 probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to open an opera with a PPP drone, like Wagner does in Das Rheingold. It probably would have been inaudible.

The sacralization of the performance hall, a process with roots in the 19th century and the Romantic aesthetic, was fundamentally tied to new ways of understanding the individual, a subject I hope to take up in another post. It was less about the public, social experience of music and more about the interiority of listening, the individual, subjective contemplation of sublime works. (Stokowski even had plans for a “Temple of Music,” complete with pitch-black listening chambers for each individual in the audience.) In the age of iPods and noise-canceling headphones, this sort of disembodied, individualized listening might seem completely natural. Most music listening in modern society is indeed solitary. We would do well to remember that this is a wild historical aberration; for most of history, and for many in the world today, music is fundamentally about people, bodies, sociality, sharing. The sacralization of listening elevated the status of music profoundly; it also created a distance between the holy masterworks and the isolated individuals listening to them.

(For more on this, see Alex Ross’s spectacularly interesting post here.)


* A couple of great sources that deal with this question: Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow; James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris; Christopher Small, Musicking.

** See Levine, 180-192.

An aesthetic reversal; or, The birth of Romanticism

… Art founded on pain. Not since J.S. Bach have we encountered any notion that music should be anything but beautiful, and never have we encountered such a notion with reference to secular music. It implies an enormous change in the artist’s attitude toward his audience; and this, too, is a crucial component in any adequate definition of romanticism. The history of music in the nineteenth century – at any rate, of a very significant portion of it – could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful, of the “great” upon the pleasant. (II, 644. Italics mine.)

As we begin to venture into Western music’s most fecund, or at least hallowed, century, we would do well to pause for a moment to remember what came before.

To begin with, recall the long history of vocal music’s dominance over the instrumental. Voices, after all, could declaim texts, and thus give the spectacle of music some sort of concrete meaning. Instrumental music lacked the same depth – how could it decisively mean in the absence of language? What it was good for, however, was play and pleasantry. A symphony made for great background music while the prince schmoozed with the count’s daughter. Instrumental music was pretty, pleasant, and sociable.

The Romantics flipped the story. Over a very brief period of time, the “meaningless” realm of instrumental music, what was labeled in typical Germanic bombast as “Absolute Music,” came to wrestle the philosophical high ground from vocal music. Ineffable, sublime (i.e. vast, terrifying), and infinite, instrumental music (particularly the symphony) was not just merry background music for a party; it was the Truth. Schopenhauer likened music to an embodiment of the universal Will, transcending mere language, code, and representation to strike at the actual thing in itself. The symphony – particularly Beethoven’s – was, in RT’s words, “great” and not simply pleasant; treating it as anything else would be a sort of sacrilege, a subversion of the rightful hierarchy of aesthetic values.

And what was left for vocal music after the revolution? It was certainly a lot harder for voices, with all those pesky, literal words that they like to produce, to reach the same level of sublimity as the symphony. Vocal music was denotative, with specific texts and specific semantic meanings; symphonic music, on the other hand, was connotative, abstract, deeply subjective, the perfect accompaniment to the era’s burgeoning lionization of the lone, autonomous individual.

Rarely in music history do aesthetic shifts take place so abruptly, and so violently. This account, of course, is a simplification; as RT is quick to admit, plenty of contradictory aesthetic cross-currents coexisted with the Romantics. Yet, what happened here was indeed profound; we’re still reeling from it, in fact. Rather than the gradual, processive change that usually informs the historical movement of the arts, this one was more of a reversal, a flip.

It’s a little like a canoe; you can put pressure on it and it will rock back and forth, but it still stays afloat. Then, when the tipping point is reached, it ceases to rock; suddenly, it flips and you’re in the water.  A crude metaphor, perhaps, but oddly apropos. For the next two + volumes of the book, we’ll be swimming in these deep waters.

The Taruskin Style

A really fine historical argument can be written with as much artfulness as any sonata form movement, and thus is equally as ripe for formal analysis, as any student of rhetoric will tell you. RT’s “The Comic Style” (Ch. 8 of vol. II) is just such a chapter. Here is a rough-and-ready outline of its rhetorical structure:

  • present a problem: Though historians have tried for generations, we can’t get from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn in a single straight line.
  • offer a feint that only draws out the nature of the problem: W.F. Bach seems a predecessor of Mozart and Haydn, but diverges from JS Bach in several mysterious (for the sake of suspense in the argument) reasons
  • make the problem even worse by adding other unexplained evidence: CPE and JC Bach
  • then, when the desire for a resolution has been whipped to a fervor, offer it: The comic style of 18th century opera—especially in its naturalness—was the germ that spread to all late 18th-century style.

I know how paltry this stripped down recounting of the argument must seem. It’s like showing you the skeleton of a peacock and telling you to imagine the true glory of its plumage. You simply have to read it yourself to get the full effect. But it got me thinking about how a structural analysis of the argument of many of Taruskin’s chapters in the OHWM would generously repay the analyst.

Pardon a momentary effusiveness, but allow me to step back and say wow. It is truly remarkable that RT maintains such a high level of writing craft throughout this behemoth work. It’s like Telemann—in all that prolificacy, you would think that there have to be some bad apples, right? At some point, Taruskin must have just stitched together an argument, gotten lazy—and who would fault him for one pedestrian argument anyway, as long as the logic was sound? But if there are seams in the writing, they are hardly noticeable, a fact that not only displays his skill, but sheer diligence. And if I’m getting carried away and exaggerating, it’s only a little bit.

Okay, effusiveness abated. Here’s my question to you all as fellow students and practitioners of writing: what is that one essay that you keep going back to as a model of how to craft an argument? That article that, when a student asks you how to craft an argument you say, “read this.” Musicological writing would be preferred, but interdisciplinary examples are game too. And in a few words, tell us why the writing caught your eye.

More on Borrowing

Compare (just the first half a minute or so will suffice):

The first clip comes from Handel’s “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” an erotic “chamber duet”; the second comes from the Messiah (No.12). Clearly, Handel borrowed from himself here, and there’s no disguise to indicate he’s trying to protect himself from charges of wrong-doing. Rather, this is an uncomplicated case of self-borrowing: he simply took a texture and a melody from an earlier work, reorchestrated it, changed the lyrics from Italian love poetry to English Biblical fare, and voila!

This sort of compositional cannibalism was not at all uncommon in Handel’s day. Indeed, as mentioned before, it would have been close to impossible to produce as much music as was required of the typical 18th century composer for the church, the crown, or the theater without digging into the back catalog a bit. This mode of musical production is consonant with the “craftsman” role musicians and composers played in society at that time. Autonomous compositional originality (inventio) was not as important as the ability to produce appropriate music for specific occasions, events, and social contexts; if a melody from an earlier piece ends up regurgitated in a new context, then so be it. It’s doubtful whether many listeners (if any) would have even noticed – this was the day, after all, when music was only available through performance, and thus individual pieces would only have been heard a limited number of times. (Messiah, however, was a standard repertory piece from the very beginning.)

The notion of the composer as a talented craftsman changed profoundly during the 19th century. Genius, which previously had been an adjective only, came to apply to individuals through a gradual change of usage (and a few dictionary definition wars with such notables as Voltaire and Diderot chipping in). A Genius, in the Romantic view of things, was an extremely gifted individual with a sui generis creative mind. In this paradigm, there was little room for unimaginative self-borrowing; to be sure, this seemed to impugn the very idea of Genius. As a result, you don’t tend to see the same level of blatant borrowing in canonic 19th and 20th century music as you in the 18th and before. (There are some very notable exceptions, of course, which I’m dying to write about when we get there.)

Another effect of this ideological shift in the nature of originality can be clearly evinced by the change in sheer creative output. Handel, as we know, wrote dozens of oratorios and operas; if we think back to Vol. I, we’ll remember that Renaissance composers like Lasso wrote hundreds of (extant) pieces. Of course, not all of these works are purely “original” in the 19th century paradigm. Indeed, self-borrowing (and borrowing from others, within limits) was an accepted compositional method; how else would one get through that much music? Once the paradigm shifted, however, composers concentrated their creative energies into fewer and fewer works. Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies compared to his teacher Haydn’s 104; Brahms published 4. And into the 20th century this pattern continued – few symphonists broke the magic number 9 (though for superstitious reasons as well), and opus numbers were applied only when a work was deemed satisfactorily original by the composer (we don’t get Schoenberg’s op. 1, for instance, until the composer was in his mid-twenties). [Interestingly, the same process happened with literature: compare Balzac’s 100+ published novels to James Joyce’s 4.]

When composers were aesthetically required to be 100% original 100% of the time, naturally the bubbling creative effervescence that pushed composers like Handel and Bach to produce (and borrow) music on strict deadlines slowed down, and a more focused, methodical, and calculating approach became common practice. This shift also corresponded with a heightened degree of historical awareness and a recognition that one’s own compositional career fits into a larger historical narrative. One wouldn’t want something musically trifling and un-serious (or cannibalized or plagiarized) to dog one’s historical reputation as a Great Composer, would one?

This will be an issue that pops up again as we progress through the book. It might seem obvious to state it, but the concept of originality is not a universal; rather, it is conditioned by cultural and historical contingencies, like anything else. Before calling Handel a hack, therefore (not that anyone is rushing to do so!), we should remember that borrowing meant something different in his day than it does in ours. (For the younger generation who grew up on hip-hop, mixes, mash-ups, and DJing, however, it might seem a stupidly obvious point that creativity lies in what you do with musical material, not only in what you invent out of the ether.)

Bach’s Extramusical Agenda?

I’ve been anticipating the difficulties of blogging Bach ever since this humble project began, and sure enough, the master is upon us and the perfect approach to presenting his music is proving illusive. (It also doesn’t help that the last three weeks have been punishingly busy for Mark and me.) Where does one start when dealing with one of the two or three most transformational figures in western music? RT begins his discussion circumspectly, introducing Bach along with his exact contemporary Handel (they were both born in 1685) and demonstrating the vastly different careers both men enjoyed. Handel was a musical cosmopolitan extraordinaire, traveling from Germany to Italy to England; Bach, on the other hand, never once left Germany. Handel primarily composed secular music, particularly opera seria, although he is remembered today more for his sacred music (go to any large church in the western world around Christmas and you’ll witness the work that has won Handel a spot in the collective memory); Bach, who specialized in sacred music, is perhaps more revered today for his secular instrumental music (or rather, it is through his instrumental music that most people first encounter him). The question of how this group of gifted composers who share a birth year (including D. Scarlatti) came to influence our musical tradition is a monstrous, woolly one indeed, and Taruskin spends about a third of the volume sorting it out.

Tackling Bach is mighty intimidating. I’m just going to jump right in with one tiny question related to this giant. Check out the clip below (Brandenburg Concert 5, mvt. I) for a quick primer:

Something very peculiar is going on here, although it might not be immediately apparent (and no, I’m not talking about the darling duckling image that accompanies the clip). All the Brandenburgs are equally kooky in their own right, and instrumentation plays a major role in historians’ head scratching and brow furling. The concertos are all scored for different ensembles, some of them quite unorthodox, then as now. However, this one performs perhaps the most radical flip in instrumentation; listen to the harpsichord here, and compare it to the role of the harpsichord in all previous music. Got it? Indeed, this instrument has always served an accompanimental role as a continuo voice, but here, the harpsichordist goes off the tracks. You can first hear it at around 0:22, and all hell breaks loose at 6:20. All of these lighting quick flourishes are strictly notated, moreover; this isn’t simply a ground bass that the player is realizing on the fly. Bach is putting a continuo instrument right into the middle of the concerto as the featured voice. In the view of one musicologist (McClary), the humble harpsichord “hijacks” the ensemble.

In Bach’s time, the orchestra was seen as a “social microcosm, a compact mirror of society. The orchestra, like society itself, was assumed to be an inherently hierarchical entity.” (II, 290) It is no surprise, then, that historians have pondered Bach’s odd harpsichord-centric structure. There are other instruments in this ensemble that would have made a lot more intuitive sense to feature, but just when one expects the violin or the flute to step forward and take the hierarchical reigns of the piece, they drop out and the harpsichord goes wild in pure virtuoso fashion. This would be like featuring the bass guitar in a rock band (well, Primus did it..).

So why did Bach do this? What does it signify? Clearly any compositional choice this bold must have been made for some reason. Historians have concluded that perhaps in this transgressive musical gambit we can see a strain of social subversion. It’s purely speculative, as Bach left behind no musings on political philosophy, but nonetheless it’s an argument that can’t be ignored. According to Susan McClary, the harpsichord in this concerto is a musical “storming of the Bastille”; it expresses “the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.” (302) (It should be recalled at this point that Bach himself had a somewhat frustrated career, consistently trying for more prestigious gigs and getting turned down. In fact, the Brandenburgs were a gift to a powerful local elite in the hopes of patronage. They were shelved, apparently never having been performed, until after the elite’s death.)

Michael Marissen, however, posits that the elevation of the harpsichord to such a position of prominence in Con. 5 reflects more his religious thinking than his political leanings. Bach accepted the notion that musical hierarchy reflects God’s will on this earth; however, Marissen argues, he held the Lutheran idea that the present world is of little significance compared to the kingdom of God. Transgressions like these might simply be reminding listeners that the order of this world is ephemeral.

There are of course other explanations as well. Maybe Bach had a transgressive sense of humor. Perhaps he simply got tired of his beloved instrument always playing second fiddle (figuratively) to the violin and other solo instruments. We will probably never know for sure. Nonetheless, this little case study poses a fascinating question for music lovers and historians: when composers or performers subvert a well-established musical code, how should we approach it in the absence of documentation? Should we plumb for speculative conclusions based on what makes the most sense in today’s world, or in theirs? Should we throw up our hands and let the matter rest? Just what do you make of Bach’s subversive harpsichord anyway?