Music: A History of Exceptionalism?

Music history, and history generally, is often presented as a narrative of innovation and exceptionalism. One could, I think, summarize any music history curriculum at the undergraduate level (at least in the United States) as Charlemagne, Perotin, Machaut, Ockeghem, Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, Wagner, Schoenberg, Stravinsky. There will certainly be some other “stuff” in that two to three-semester curriculum, but - let us be honest - no one except for the pedantic musicologists [1] ever remembers the interesting details. It is “the details” – the “little people” [2] – who in many ways make these “exceptions” possible. Who wrote the first symphony? “Who” designed the Baroque fugue? Who wrote the first opera, or came up with the idea in the first place? Or less musically, who invented the light bulb? Who invented the printing press? Who discovered the method of calculus? I will let you know now that the answers to these questions are respectively not – as many often answer – Haydn, Bach, Monteverdi, Edison, Gutenberg, and Newton, though book after book and teacher after teacher (granted, not all books and all teachers) will love to communicate these inaccurate notions – more some notions than others.

It is not that we need eschew exceptionalism and exceptional innovation in a model of music history. Indeed, there are exceptional ideas and people sprinkled throughout the timeline of human toil. Rather than simply not focus on innovation as an act of exceptionalism, we should teach innovation as a dialogue with culture, a dialogue that is often cyclical, more frequently unconsciously than consciously recurrent. Furthermore, innovation only rarely locates itself in one person or a closely related group of people. When this does happen, it should be noted and the factors that helped to locate this innovative insight into one person should be examined. However, we should not attempt, as many seem to have done throughout the 19th and 20th century, to locate most innovation in intellectual messiahs. Rather, we should see an accumulation of ideas, originating from various sources, which come into a multi-body orbit, perhaps with a star at its center, but perhaps with its center of gravity in empty space. Furthermore, we should remember that even a star’s shape, rotation, and orbit are effected by the gravity of its orbiting bodies.

Johann Sebastian Bach did much to culminate the aesthetic of the German Baroque, persistent for nearly 150 years. However, most of his greatest works are derivative, to some extent, of that Baroque aesthetic, tirelessly developed by many composers before him. The fugal style of Bach was not invented by Bach, though he furthered it. The paradigm of his fugal writing, as exemplified in The Well Tempered Clavier, can be traced back to the works of the Southern German Organ School of Johann Pachelbel, Karl Casper Ferdinand Fischer, and Georg Bohm, the first two of whom even wrote their own sets of preludes and fugues in the various modes before Bach’s set in all the tempered keys. While, yes, Bach’s set dwarfs Pachelbel’s and Fischer’s, the Bach fugal style and The Well-Tempered Clavier do not stand as miraculous, spontaneous creations from nothingness. To imply as such removes the colorful dialogue and accumulation of human cultural effort which Bach marvelously represents.

Similar claims can be made for the harmonic innovations of Wagner, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky in the late 19th and early 20th century. Charles Ives' experiments at at the end of the 19th century often go unrecognized in courses addressing the “radical sound” of Debussy in “Afternoon of the Faun” from 1894. Ives' experiments were, in many ways, more radical than even Stravinsky’s wildest dreams in the second decade of the 20th century. While there is much historical relevance in the tidy narrative of Western musical innovation at the dawn of the 20th – “Wagner inspired Debussy, who inspired Schoenberg and Stravinsky” – it is only one thread in a tapestry of musical discourse around the world, a tapestry that, at the beginning of the 20th century, is not irrevocably bending to Germany and France.

Charles Ives’, Henry Cowell’s, and Conlon Nancarrow’s rhythmic insights and innovations – Cowell on the shoulders of Ives, and Nancarrow on the shoulders of Cowell – are significant and should not be necessarily lessened. However, it is important to know that rhythmic complexity – even to the level of these three composers – was not a “new” idea, whether they were aware of it or not. There were composers at the end of the 16th century in Elizabethan England, more than 300 years before Cowell’s New Musical Resources – who were writing music with rhythmic complexity to rival even the most rhythmically complex music of Charles Ives. [3] British composers like John Baldwin and Nathaniel Giles in the 1590’s, as well as continental composers like John Bedyngham, Johannes Mittner, Johannes Tinctoris, and Alexander Agricola from the late 15th and early 16th century were exploring rhythm in ways unmatched until the 20th century – we need not even mention examples from the 14th century Ars Subtilior.

Recently, it has become popular to identify the culmination of monophonic chant composition from the High Middle Ages in Hildegard von Bingen, Sybil of the Rhine (1098 – 1179). Many texts give her music the appellation “most innovative composer of her generation,” writing that her music was longer and more melismatic with larger ranges and more unusual leaps than any of her contemporaries. My own quantitative research on the subject has proven this claim to be utter nonsense. Composers like Arnold von Vohburg of Regensburg (c. 1000 - after 1037), Bern Von Reichenau (c. 978 - 1048), and especially Hermannus Contractus, The Cripple of Reichenau (1013 - 1054) from nearly half a century before Hildegard was born were writing music that did all of these above claims to greater extents in numerous liturgical dramas. While Hildegard is quite exceptional in her status as a female composer from the middle ages, giving her music, abstracted from her sex, recognition based on simply untrue claims rings of the problems akin to “Guttenberg” exceptionalism. To say her “music” (not “her writing music” or her poetry) was “innovative” would be like saying someone in 1925 writing music similar Beethoven, is “innovative.” Hildegard’s story of “visions,” erotic poetry, and feminine independence in the 12th century is certainly a much more interesting and exceptional story than any of the above mentioned men, which certainly makes her music perhaps more “fun” to teach, but to teach it under the premise of lies is not a historically sound practice.

Not only would taking the “exceptionalism model” with healthy skepticism help to rid our historical narratives of blatant falsehood, but it could help us to re-contextualize the “avant-garde” and experimentalism as the a “normal” part of the classical tradition, rather than the “peripheral.” Rather than treat the 1000 years before the 20th century as an inevitable progression to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner, with the 20th century as the the beginning of the end of a tradition, we could show that all of music history has been about breaking with tradition, the rise of the peripheries, their culmination, and the rise of new peripheries. The experiments of the 20th century could be seen not as subversive but a natural part of the tradition of music and essentially “classical” in their own right. In many ways, the development of “classical” music has been the accumulation of many “avant-gardes” through centuries of work. Many of these “avant-gardes” themselves were the result of an accumulation of cultural factors from many spheres of knowledge that eventually, with enough critical mass, coalesced in a paradigm shift.

I will grant Newton his modicum of humility when he said in 1675, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” However, Newton is not the discoverer of calculus, nor is his contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It is now well established that Archimedes, and possibly mathematicians before him, were well aware of the fundamentals of what we now call calculus nearly 2000 years before Newton. I grant Edison only the sickening self-aggrandizement which he has earned from stealing the credit for most of “his” inventions from brilliant “forgotten details” like Nicola Tesla, who are only now, a century post hence, getting a modicum of credit, though the lies of Edison still ring strong in the halls of our public systems of education. [4] The myth of Guttenberg is clearly born from the same absurd Euro-centric myths as Christopher Columbus “discovering the Americas;” the Chinese invented the printing press, albeit slightly differently, long before Guttenberg was born. Here, are but a few examples of perhaps the worst “myths of historical exceptionalism” the West has actively and passively devised.

I cannot fault Guttenberg for taking credit where it might not be solely due; he certainly could not have known of China’s innovations. Neither can I fault Newton or Leibniz. Furthermore, I cannot fault Haydn, Bach, or Monteverdi. There is no evidence that they, themselves, have perpetuated their myths. However, myths, hyperboles, and half-told-truths and perpetuated and embellished regularly, though we now live in a digital age of information where these sad, monochromatic generalizations need not persist. Exceptionalism makes martyrs of the few and sheep of the many. By understanding history – particularly, in our case here, music history – through nexuses of cumulated human effort, which might coincidently – though rarely – focus into one person or a few people at a particular time, rather than through the seemingly magical incarnation of musical messiahs, we engender a sense of communal musical effort wherein all members have the power to be significant contributors to the human effort of musical expression rather than feel like an irrelevant mass of helpless, and perhaps pointless, peons reliant upon the seemingly superhuman forces of a few.

End Notes

[1] Don’t be fooled; I am proud to count myself among the pedants here.

[2] Also a group of which I probably will be.

[3] However, the harmonic and pitch content of this 16th century music was quite different from Ives and his younger contemporaries.

[4] Perhaps the only great invention which Edison should be credited with is the development of the modern research laboratory.

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- Jordan Alexander Key -

Composer, Musicologist, Organist, Bagpiper




Copyright © 2020 by Jordan Alexander Key