Perfect Sound Forever


Ludwig Van and Del Shannon- two faces of 'oldies'

History: Turning Lead into Golden Oldies
Book excerpt by Dr. Gregg Wager
(February 2021)

ED NOTE: This is an excerpt from the book A The Virtuosic Mouse: Manual for the New World of PC Composers, available through Smashwords

While technology was improving throughout the 20th century, research methods not necessarily depending on technology also improved. Although the great legends of music in the 19th century may never have had such easy access to the works of a Medieval composer such as Guillaume de Machaut, 20th century musicians could now look into history books and get a clearer glimpse of what their profession was like up to a thousand years ago.

Music schools felt obligated to pass the new information on, training students to understand Renaissance composers with almost the same zeal as Bach and Beethoven. The result was a revival of Medieval and Renaissance music in the 20th century and the rise of professional "early music" ensembles. To Post-Modernists, the new influx of an entirely different sounding music into the record bins of their local record store provided yet another style to mix in with rock, jazz and Javanese gamelan music.

No one can really say how much the new and improved appreciation of "early music" really influences today's musicians and new composers. Still, one of the new research conventions to arise in light of resurrecting the old music are categories for the history of Western music divided neatly into eras with not only the names "Medieval" and "Renaissance," but "Baroque," "Classical" and "Romantic" as well.

These rubrics of historical eras have their advantages, once learned by heart. Then again, they also confuse. In the Post-Modern era, where we are supposed to be versed in musical styles as if they were flavors of ice cream, one has to consider the anomaly that vocal music developed primarily during the Medieval and Renaissance eras while instrumental music developed primarily during the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. Vocal and instrumental music, two categories established from the beginning of Western music by theorists such as Boethius, are lost in the musicological shuffle of terms, since the word "Renaissance" traditionally refers to a "man and nature" attitude in the arts such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, not the polyphonic vocal music of Palestrina. Meanwhile, three composers crucial to establishing Western instrumental music, J. S. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, find themselves under different rubrics: Baroque, Classical and Romantic, respectively. Why such a fuss when these three composers were all active within a period of only one hundred years?

(Recognizing here that most musicologists put early Beethoven under the "Classical" rubric and late Beethoven under the "Romantic" rubric.)

On an episode of the television show Bewitched, protagonist Darrin Stephens had a spell cast upon him by his witch mother-in-law--a spell that would make him utterly boring in important social situations. One of the boring misdeeds that the hexed Darrin Stephens perpetrated was to correct his boss when referring to the music of Tchaikovsky as "Classical music"--it is, after all, actually "Romantic music." These distinctions in music somehow elicit more grimaces than thoughtful observations.

In the era of the modern record store, one finds about 90 percent of the classical section devoted to music from the "Baroque," "Classical" and "Romantic" eras of music. The remainder is dedicated mostly to 20th century music, with only a few bins dedicated to "Renaissance" and "Medieval" music (often grouped together in one bin). Do the musicologists who seriously espouse using these Western music categories hope that vinyl junkies will one day have in their collections as many different recordings of Machaut's "Messe de Nostre Dame" as Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6"?

Actually, it's difficult to blame musicologists for the existence of these categories. Like the words "jazz" or "rock," these terms actually did evolve naturally while musical practices themselves were still in vogue. Perhaps that's all the more reason why we ought to be able to change them now, if we want. Today's common usage of the term "classical music," which is supposed to apply to all of the Western music from Medieval times to the Romantic era and specific varieties of 20th century music, reflects perhaps the popularity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven above any other recording artists or concert hall performer. In a way, they are the nucleus of practically all "classical" music in our time, and this tends to rain on the modern musicologist's parade.

Guillaume de Machaut- why is this man smiling...?

As time goes forward, the past is supposed to get further and further away. Historians compensate by somehow compressing the events of history. The nearer the millennium to the present, the more compact it is with events. By the time our timelines go back to the Sumerians, relatively few events are at hand to describe the epic. Nonetheless, inventing a new wide-reaching cultural identity based on the history of the world is perhaps what our new, immortal brain called the Internet will be capable of. Incidentally, during the early days of Napster, recordings of Medieval music were just as available to be downloaded off the Internet as Beatles songs. Machaut could make just as much of a claim to being a "golden oldie" as Del Shannon.

Initially, retaining the names of the traditional eras of Western music might be a good idea, if it meant that we would all eventually respect Machaut as much as Beethoven. Somehow, timelines of historical events thus give us the illusion that history ticks away year after year at the same speed. Under that premise, the tick in history we call "Machaut" should be as important as the tick called "Beethoven." That the "Machaut" tick occurred long before the "Beethoven" tick is irrelevant. In fact, the illusion that recent events are much more influential and important to us than ancient events should not cloud our perception of history, historians claim. Sometimes this makes it easy to forget that figures like Shakespeare, for example, don't pop up in every subsequent era of literature--they occur once in history.

Beethoven's career as a composer was a culmination of many different influences, all uniquely converging and resonating in a way that in its day was unprecedented in history and perhaps, like Shakespeare, will never be repeated. In fact, Machaut's newfound audience in the 20th and 21st centuries relies very heavily on how Beethoven's career brought respect and legendary status to the "great composer." On the other hand, Machaut's career in his day relied heavily on his special status as a scribe to a royal family. The sophisticated way he wrote his scores down to be preserved throughout the ages--only to be rediscovered in a big way during the 20th century by the musicologist Friedrich Ludwig--makes the "Machaut tick" in history much different than the "Beethoven tick." To shrug the significant difference off between these two "great" composers as the imperfect result of a mere apples-and-oranges type of comparison makes for a very weak argument. Machaut enthusiasts might not want to give any ground to our new egalitarian reality in Western music, but in order to substantially appreciate Machaut's "genius" at the deeper level, it deserves to be appreciated at, one has to take away the modern musicologist's quota system and allow the works of these composers to stand on their own.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.

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