Wednesday 1 May 2019

A historicist splinter

A small detail lifted from an article in the magazine  'Grammophone' written by a new music pianist:

"The particular type of improvised music I’m involved with as a pianist bustles with brutal busyness; nothing wrong with that, there are historical reasons why it has to be so."

At archeological sites, splinters of pottery, however insignificant for the layman, do tell a lot about how people at the site lived their lives, long ago. Especially the innocent tools as used in everyday life can explain historic periods. The splinter quoted above is one of such splinters, a thoughtless, innocent utterance which reveals so much about a mentality, a remnant from a period when modernist ideology had penetrated musical education and instructed the young about how to look at music and music history. Awareness of history is a good thing in itself if you want to understand the art form, but history never dictates. "Our heritage has been given to us without a testament", as the French poet Réné Chair said. 

History is the total result of deeds, of choices, made by humans, and circumstances, and their interactions. With hindsight patterns may be detected, but they are open to more than one interpretation. And interpretations are also the result of deeds and choices made by humans. Therefore, there is also a history of history writing. In modernist ideology however, music history is quite simple: one central line of development, where the moments of transgression and revolution are the articulation points, leaving the rest in the shadows of irrelevance. For the modernist mind, 'relevance' is a historic relevance first and foremost; any consideration of artistic value is an afterthought because it is supposed to be the result of transgression. Therefore, this narrow-minded interpretation of the concept of 'history' is the standard by which all contemporary music has to be assessed in terms of relevance. 

It should be clear that in music history, transgression of conventional limitations was the result of works of great quality, and not the other way around. C.Ph.E. Bach - the famous son of J.S. - was a radically transgressive composer, but he lacked the qualities which could have earned him a regular performance place in the current repertoire. His father however, did two things: he emulated the musical traditions of his time and transgressed them with his very personal treatment of the highest artistic quality, but leaving traditional language intact - in fact, he was quite oldfashioned in his time in comparison with contemporaries. Mozart has not transgressed any stylistic or traditional limitation of the musical language of his time but brought its various elements to an impressive synthesis, including baroque procedures which were 'old, learned music' in the 2nd half of the 18th century. Wagner wrote the ultra-transgressive 'Tristan' but afterwards the classicizing 'Meistersinger'. Etc. etc....

The destructive influence of such falsifying, quasi-academic  narrative on music life is obvious: audiences don't listen historically but aesthetically and emotionally, players study and practice emotionally and aesthetically, programs are created emotionally and aesthetically. This does not mean that music life is an unthinking affair, but that academia has no place in concert life: its place is the university. Academic research is of great importance for concert life only in sofar as it can contribute to the artistic quality of performance, as the HIP movement has convincingly shown (Historically-Informed Performance). But postwar modernist historicism is politically motivated: when, in the fifties and sixties of the last century, younger composers wanted to break with tradition and explore avenues then unheard, they needed a narrative which would break down the scepsis and resistance on the side of performers and audiences who were confronted with a new music which did away with the psychological dimension whereupon their own musical development, i.e. their education and their practical experience, was built, and which also formed the heart of the entire repertoire upon which music life was built.

This type of historicism has by now eroded almost everywhere, but remnants are still around, as the above-quoted splinter of musical pottery demonstrates. It is a wall, crumbling on all sides but being kept upright as much as possible by people who have a vested interest in the privileges it may offer. This is always happening in times of change.... but one could take courage from the famous words by Voltaire, "écrasez l'infâme".