The End of History
A week or two ago, responding to the wonderful NYTBR essay by the great Jim Holt (yeah, I'm a fan) about memorizing poetry, letter-writer Gene H. Bell-Villada remarked that most composers "can cite at length from the entire classical repertoire, from Bach and Handel to Bartók and Stravinsky." Then today, in a reprise interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Booker T. Jones of MG's fame reminisced about his days in the music library of Indiana University "listening to the old masters — everything from Bach to Stravinsky."
I'm struck by this idea that Stravinsky represents the endpoint of the mainstream classical tradition. I have no objection to it whatever — it's probably the name I would come up with myself in a comparable situation (Booker T. left a long, drawling pause after mentioning Bach, long enough for me to lean into the car radio in anticipation and make a little bet with myself that Stravinsky was coming next). And it certainly tallies with the unavoidable sense that Schoenberg and the tradition he represents haven't made it into the consciousness of the general public as a landmark (not that there's anything wrong with that, aside from the whole "supremacy of German music for the next hundred years" metric).
Still, it does raise some intriguing questions. As for example:
• Where exactly, in Stravinsky's long and varied career, do you suppose the line should be drawn? Surely we can stipulate that everything up through Le sacre is counted among the "entire classical repertoire," while, say, Threni and the Requiem Canticles probably aren't. But what about in between? Does the tradition come to an end before or after Oedipus Rex? How about the Symphony in C? Or The Rake's Progress?
• Who was Stravinsky's predecessor as the terminus ante quem of classical music, and when did he move into that spot? This is actually a factual question, which I bet some canny historian of musical sociology knows the answer to. My money's on Debussy, but that's only a guess.
• Finally, who's going to succeed Stravinsky, and when? Not Carter, obviously. To me, the likeliest candidates would seem to be Reich or Adams, but it's still awfully early for them to take on the old-master mantle to this degree. Is the "Bach-to-Stravinsky" paradigm really going to be with us for decades to come?