02 May 2008

On Music History and Divisions of Time

Michael Lawrence of The New Liturgical Movement blog posted an article a few days ago called "Re-Thinking Music History." In the article, he outlined why he finds the naming of musical eras like "Baroque" and "Classical" to be unhelpful.
At least musicologist--Michael O'Connor--contributed in the combox. Dr. O'Connor took issue with Mr. Lawrence's assertion that "thinkers" have stuffed very diverse composers into boxes and labeled those boxes with things like, "Baroque period; exemplified by Monteverdi, Lully, and J.S. Bach," thus cheating many other good composers (he gives the example of Buxtehude) of being recognized as anything other than "forerunners" or slightly-inferior-but-similar in relation to the "great" composers, rather than receiving attention for their own achievements. Musicologists don't use these very general labels, but Mr. Lawrence and other commenters note that the labels are often used in teaching high school and college-level music classes, ignoring Dr. O'Connor's assertion that very general categories can be useful if you don't get too attached to them.

Dr. O'Connor, presumably unlike Mr. Lawrence, knows what it's like to try to teach music history to a class full of 19-year-olds who know nothing about the subject when they enter the class except for a general notion that Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner all lived in the 19th Century. You must be able to group composers in some fashion, to label them. No label will ever be sufficient to describe a composer, his works, and the era in which he lived, but in order to remember who they were and learn about them, you start with general labels and move to more specific ones--this is how humans learn about other humans.

Please bear with me for the following thought experiment:
Imagine you are at a party. Your co-worker, John, introduces you to his tall, red-headed wife, Mary. You have a couple of minutes to chat with Mary, during which time you ask the usual sorts of questions, like where she's from and what she does for a living. You find out that Mary is a nurse. She has a slight Southern accent because she grew up in Virginia. Someone else comes into the party, and you move on to talk to him, and soon the evening is over. Reflecting on your new acquaintance, you categorize Mary based on what little you know about her (Southerner; Nurse; Wife of John). When John mentions Mary to you at work, these are the three things that you remember about her, along with maybe a mental picture of how she looks (Tall; Red-headed).
You and Mary meet a second time. On the second meeting, you discover that Mary likes movies and is a convert to Catholicism. She and John met in college. Her favorite color is red, and she's sorry that she thinks she can't wear red because of her red hair. You add these things to your mental file-folder on Mary.
John, Mary, you and your spouse soon begin to be very good friends. You spend a lot of time together. They decide to homeschool their children and join the same homeschooling group you belong to; Mary offers extra science classes for your high-schooler if you will teach her youngest child piano. You have ceased to think of Mary as Southern; Tall; Nurse--now she is just "Mary," in all her Mary-ness.

Isn't this an accurate picture of how we learn about most things? When you first hear of Mozart as a child, you learn that he was a Classical composer and is famous for his symphonies, piano works, and operas. You may also hear of Haydn, and Haydn and Mozart's music sound virtually indistinguishable to you (although your piano teacher seems to think Mozart is better). You label the works of theirs that you play in high school as "Classical Piano Music." You go to college and study Mozart and Haydn in your music history class. You remember playing works by J.C. and C.P.E. Bach in your piano lessons but never really knowing who they were--your music history teacher helps you understand the difference between these two Bachs and Haydn and Mozart. Now you mentally have two categories of Classical Piano Music--the Bach category and the Haydn/Mozart category. You become a professional pianist. You can now distinguish by ear or by sight Haydn's piano style from Mozart's. They have ceased in your head to be "Haydn/Mozart" but are now separate entities, neither greater than the other but each having his own style, although with many similarities.

Does this render the very broad category of "Classical Piano Music" unhelpful? Should the beginning piano student be told not to classify Mozart, Haydn, and C.P.E. Bach in one category and Schubert and Beethoven in another category because he needs to learn to differentiate between Mozart and Haydn? No. The beginner, who does not know who Mozart and Haydn are and can barely connect their names with any specific works, should be allowed to class Haydn and Mozart together because that way he will remember that they lived in the same era and wrote similar kinds of music. There is time for further distinction later in his education once he gets the initial distinction of "Mozart and Haydn wrote similar music; C.P.E. Bach sounds kind of similar to this; J.S. Bach sounds very different."

In a nutshell, I would highly discourage those who are knowledgeable about music from continuing to use labels like "Classical" and "20th Century" as much as possible. But what do I say when a 19-year-old jazz saxophone player asks me who Buxtehude was? "He was a German Baroque organist who influenced J.S. Bach." Do you have a better answer?