Taruskin: History of Western Music II

January 23, 2011

The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.II
Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Richard Taruskin (Oxford, 2005)
828 p.

The first volume of Richard Taruskin’s massive Oxford History of Western Music had ended in Venice with the operas of Monteverdi. This second volume resumes the tale and carries it through to the life and work of Beethoven, which is an enormous swath of music and history. This was the period in which the idea of a musical canon took shape for the first time, and the composers who first assumed their places in that canon are, to a large extent, the ones who still dominate it today: Bach, Mozart, and especially Beethoven. All three composers are discussed in this volume, which therefore, in a meaningful sense, can be said to address itself to the heart of our musical tradition.

By the middle of this volume it was clear that Taruskin had settled into a rhythm: a running narration of the major developments in society and art that affected music, enlivened by brief biographies of the leading composers, and punctuated by focused analyses of important compositions. These last are sometimes quite technical (they should be read “with score in hand”, says Taruskin), and I, being untutored in such matters, was left in the dust. But more often than not the historical material returned after a few pages and I was welcomed aboard again. Taruskin is mostly interested in the influence of culture, politics, and even economics on the development of music.

The major developments during this period were numerous. Chief among them were the replacement of the modal system by the tonal (if I may state the matter in such a naive way); the expansion of the expressive potential, and the popularity, of purely instrumental music; the rise of opera; the creation of a musical canon; the decline of improvisation; the birth of Romanticism; and the transformation of the person of the composer from an admirable craftsman into a heroic figure.

Opera seria, represented especially by Alessandro Scarlatti and the Neapolitan composers, made a distinctive contribution to our music in the form of the da capo aria. Today these arie, with their distinctive ABA structure, are something of a Baroque cliché, and a sometimes tiring one at that, but at the time they were an innovation, for their music was constructed around principles of harmonic contrast and closure. These principles, which are almost entirely absent from polyphonic music of earlier times, were to dominate music for centuries, and certainly throughout the period covered by the present volume. It was an idea ripe with possibility.

Incidentally, it is good to remember how immensely popular opera seria was in its day. Strange as it may sound, the genre is dominated not by a composer but by a librettist: Metastasio. He was considered the opera librettist par excellence, his libretti having been set over eight hundred times by over three hundred different composers! Anyone who had that kind of popularity was bound to wield influence, of course, and opera lovers are indebted to him for formalizing the difference between recitative and aria which has dominated the art ever since, but the really astounding thing is to contemplate the fact that his immense authority, extended over hundreds of years, has now utterly vanished and, I must admit, appears profoundly perplexing. A wise man would draw a lesson from such a tale.

The rise of tonal instrumental music is one of the great achievements of our tradition. It was tonal structure and tension, harmonic departure and return, that opened the way to large scale works that could be dramatic and intelligible without the use of words. Taruskin traces the birth of tonality-driven instrumental forms to Italian concertos of the late seventeenth century, and in particular (if we need an exemplar) to Archangelo Corelli. Over the next century these techniques developed in expressive potential and structural strength until, in the music of Haydn, there were well-understood norms for thematic statement, development, and harmonic resolution. Such norms not only made music of ever greater scale and ambition intelligible to audiences (indeed, the unintelligibility of classical music to large swathes of the population today can be largely attributed, I believe, to ignorance of those norms), but it also made possible even greater dramatic statements based on violations of those norms. This purely musical logic and system of meaning — what Taruskin rather laboriously calls ‘introversive semiotics’ — was the hallmark of what we now call the ‘classical’ period, but in one form or another it was the hearty fare on which music fed right up until the modernism of the twentieth-century.

Romanticism transformed our view of art, and therefore of music, and therefore of composers, and in the process it changed the music too. The Romantics reserved a special place of honour for music, for in their judgement it was the only truly spiritual art, not mired in physicality like sculpture and painting, and therefore best fit to express the ineffable. According to E.T.A. Hoffmann, “its sole subject is the infinite”. For the same reason, Romantics expressed a distinct preference for instrumental music over vocal; words, after all, with their awkward specificity, only intruded into the pure, musical experience.

For the leading Romantics, art was supposed to replace religion. The sublime, rather than the sacred, was to be the means to transcendence. As such, romantic music began to take on qualities previously reserved to the sacred. Concert halls, for instance, began to be places where one would behave as though in church, sitting quietly and attentively. A sacred tradition, in the form of canonical and revered works, took shape. Even performance practice was affected, with emphasis shifting from improvisation and personal interpretation to faithful and precise reproduction of the score. In some cases — with Mozart’s piano concertos, for instance — this resulted in ‘authentic’ performances that actually differed from their originals, for in Mozart’s day the written cadenza was rarely played. Once Mozart entered the canon, however, what Mozart had written acquired authority and became the norm. Such are the ironies of authenticity.

The Romantic ideal found its embodiment in the person of Ludwig van Beethoven. He was everything they were looking for, and more. Even his deafness, which in earlier times might have turned a composer into a farcical figure, was turned to advantage, for the Romantic artist achieved greatness through suffering, and Beethoven suffered, and prevailed. His music, and his person, loomed long and large over the whole of the nineteenth century — which is the subject of Volume III. Onward!


Related reading: Jacques Barzun – The Use and Abuse of Art

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