Friday, May 01, 2009

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?


At 5/01/2009 9:43 PM, Anonymous Robert Gable said...

Busoni always struck me as the first composer after the crack-up of the classical tradition, but chronologically, that may not actually be the case.

At 5/02/2009 7:42 AM, Blogger Stephen Smoliar said...

I found it appropriate that you invoked "musical sociology." Randall Collins' Sociology of Philosophies is primarily a study of how social networks rise and fall around different schools of thought. At any given time multiple networks may be developing in parallel, sometimes with "boundary members," belong to more than one network. We may wish to approach musical sociology though a similar methodology.

That being the case, there was clearly a robust social network that grew out of Paris in a variety of geographical directions (one of which led to the United States). Key figures in that network included Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Nadia Boulanger (whose influence lasted long enough to attract Philip Glass). Around the same time a similar network grew up around Schoenberg (with influences from Mahler and Zemlinsky). It is interesting that after World War II Stravinsky and Schoenberg lived in the same city; but about the only "boundary member" that tried to bridge their networks was Robert Craft. (Another interesting "boundary member," by the way is Prokofiev, who "migrated" from the Paris network to the Russian network and its frustrations of trying to make music under Stalin.) The point is that, while these networks all share the same time-line, they do not share a common "great chain of being" that runs from Bach to Stravinsky (or any other single origin and destination points).

I confess that my thoughts about these social networks are pretty half-baked. Every now and then I take a stab at refining them on my own blog. (One of my recent efforts grew out of my
with Alex Ross' visit to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco!) However, I plan to stick with this project. For one thing, I think that understanding the network of influence can provide the listener with useful "orientation cues" when approaching a composition for the first time.

At 5/02/2009 7:24 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

You're asking interesting questions, there, Joshua. As far as musical sociology goes, I wonder if there was a decade in the 20th century when the phrase might have been "from Bach to Sibelius." And depending on which threads of music history one follows, what would a Czech or Italian music historian have said in 1965?


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