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A Student's Guide to Music History

  • by R. J. Stove


As the early Christian apologist Tertullian might have said, this volume exists because it is impossible. The brief from ISI Books: to supply a student guide to Western classical music’s history, a guide that would avoid both orgiastic one-upmanship and insults to the adult intelligence; moreover, to keep this guide within the word limits of its ISI series companions. The response of almost any sane author to having been offered this brief: pleasure and terror indissolubly combined.

Perhaps only P. J. O’Rourke, with his sublime knack for discarding whole millennia of human history in a sentence or two (“Man developed in Africa. He has not continued to do so there”), could manage such a reductive task to his own liking. Lowlier scribes find that the deeper they go into the project, the sharper their panic grows. By one means alone can they prevent fear from incapacitating them: through seeking to make their inadequacies work in their favor. For any twenty-first-century guide, tourism analogies are relevant. A package tour satisfies to the precise extent that it admits to being a package tour and does not pretend to be a pilgrimage or year-long sabbatical. When such satisfaction occurs, travelers may well find themselves rushed, but they cannot complain of being deceived. (Berkeley-based musicologist Richard Taruskin required six volumes and 4,252 pages for his 2005 Oxford History of Western Music. He still had to economize on various topics, particularly since he devoted two entire volumes to the twentieth century.)

The present book’s resemblances to a package tour—a well-organized one, let us hope—will be obvious. Word limits enforce not simply depth limits, but range limits. What follows is necessarily, and therefore defiantly, Eurocentric. Where it ventures outside Europe at all, it mainly sticks to the United States. The whole phenomenon of artistic postcolonialism has inevitably been side-lined. So, still more unfortunately, has most nonclassical music: for space reasons, rather than through any latter-day desire for high-cultural gate keeping.

Yet why (it might be asked) have a history, however brief, of classical music in the first place? After all, millions of sincere music-lovers derive genuine pleasure from their listening without any historical consciousness whatsoever. Australian discographer John L. Holmes observed in 1982: “A vast number of concert-goers have, I am amazed to find, an extraordinary ignorance . . . even of the common facts of musical history, and are puzzled why Bartók should sound so different from Haydn.” Writing in 1934, a far more overt pessimist, British composer-conductor-critic Constant Lambert, castigated “those to whom musical experience is no more than a mere aural tickling.”

Possibly within Lambert’s pungent phrase lies the best answer to the question of why anyone should bother with music history. “Aural tickling,” by definition, is evanescent in the pleasure it furnishes. A certain historical awareness gives, as it were, a three-dimensional effect to what one hears. It imparts the element of the composer’s individual humanity; it banishes the assumption that the music concerned is a mere exercise in pattern-making. This is not a plea for biographical voyeurism, after the manner of tabloid hacks. It is merely a plea for the life of the whole mind, for an end to the spiritual short-changing that comes from doing without historical knowledge in musical matters: or, worse still, from an active hostility to historical knowledge.

One innate problem afflicts any musical chronicle. No one historian can muster the same affection for every composer whom he describes. Frequently he finds himself endorsing Oscar Wilde’s dictum: “only an auctioneer can equally and impartially admire all schools of art.” Readers of the following will discover that, now and then, the present author’s judgment on a specific recent creator defies today’s consensus. They are merely asked to believe that musical posterity is a bitch-goddess, repeatedly damning even the most honored composers of a particular epoch. A hundred and fifty years ago, such currently obscure figures as Giacomo Meyerbeer and Fromental Halévy stood unchallenged among composition’s supreme immortals. During the same period, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Louis Spohr were widely thought to surpass Beethoven. It is presumptuous to suppose that certain highly touted individuals of more modern times (particularly if their fame rests primarily on agitprop of nonmusical origins) will be any more impervious than were Meyerbeer, Halévy, Hummel, and Spohr to the turns of Fortune’s wheel.

Inspiring genuine regret is the material that must be skimped. A chronological cut-off point has been, reluctantly, imposed. The coverage concentrates on those musicians who achieved at least national fame before1945, with a brief epilogue essaying the futile task of summarizing post-1945 developments. When gripped by remorse over those deserving composers who have had to be slighted—or, too often, omitted altogether—one is tempted to embark on another book, simply to give these individuals adequate room. Meanwhile, the appended bibliography should help in furnishing information kept, perforce, out of the text proper. May it, and the guide itself, lead to a renewed kindling of enthusiasm by readers for the subject: because any writing on music which fails to generate musical enthusiasm is done in vain.

Music is a holy art,
To unite all kinds of courage
Like cherubs around a shining throne.

—Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos
R. J. Stove
Melbourne, Australia
July 2007

  1. P. J. O'Rourke, Republican Party Reptile(London, 1987), 3.
  2. John L. Holmes, Conductors on Record (London, 1982), xii.
  3. Constant Lambert, Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline (London, 1934). 205.
  4. Cf. Norman Lebrecht's "Why Conductors Have Great Sex" (La Scena Musicale, April 17, 2002), "Sex, Drugs. and Symphony Orchestras" (La Scena Musicale, June 22 2005), and the rest of his book and magazine output, passim.
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