How to Think About Music History ~ The Imaginative Conservative

The important thing to remember, if you are sorting through the rich world of classical music, is that style periods are much less real than the music they describe. The job of labels should be to give us some orientation in our listening, but ultimately the music must stand on its own.

When I think about classical music, as I often do, I find myself thinking in particular about the way we conceive of periods in musical history. The familiar “style periods” that we learn in music appreciation class coincide in some respects with those in other arts. We have a Medieval and a Renaissance and a Baroque period, just as in the history of visual art. Then where the history of painting recognizes a neoclassical period, during the later 18th century—imitating the forms and spirit of Greco-Roman antiquity—music recognizes a “Classical” one. Music, painting, and literature all agree that the 19th century was the age of Romanticism. The 20th century has not earned a distinctive moniker but remains simply “the 20th century” or “modernism.”

But to what extent are these labels real or useful, to what extent to they help us in appreciating the music?

One thing we must recognize is that stylistic labels were in most cases applied after the fact by historians and critics; they did not form part of the self-conception of the given period. (There is a big exception to this which we will get to later.) From the vantage of hindsight, style periods are created to point out certain aesthetic qualities and technical features shared by music of a particular period. But real artistic creation is always messy and cannot be contained within a tidy label. What’s more, stylistic judgments are not always impartial and may originate in something akin to prejudice.

A case in point is the Baroque period, a favorite of mine as a listener and player. Occasionally, very occasionally, Wikipedia brings forth an elegant sentence or judgment, something you’d want to quote. I can hardly improve upon this one: “The Baroque period used contrast, movement, exuberant detail, deep color, grandeur, and surprise to achieve a sense of awe.” I have no quarrel with that sentence. Movement, indeed, strikes me as the essence of Baroque art and Baroque music, whether the turbulence of a Bach oratorio, the restless patterns in a Vivaldi concerto, or the bodily contortions of Caravaggio’s biblical scenes.

The origin of the term “Baroque” is disputed. Most music appreciation texts will tell you that it comes from a Portuguese word for an irregular or misshapen pearl. This explanation now seems doubtful, or at least incomplete. It would appear that “Baroque” actually comes from a term making light of medieval Scholasticism. (Yes, you read that right.) When Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined “baroque” music in his Encyclopedie, he stated that it derived from baroco, a term in Aristotelian logic denoting a type of syllogism and eventually used to denote something hopelessly complicated. (A scholar, Robert Hudson Vincent, explains this etymology of Baroque in depth in a recent article for Modern Language Quarterly. I, for one, am convinced.)

The point is that “Baroque,” like many terms in artistic history, originated as a term of reproach applied by later generations. A similar case is Gothic, used by writers of the Renaissance and later to refer to supposedly “barbarous” medieval art and architecture. For some reason, aesthetes are always trying to put past styles down in order to exalt present ones.

We should understand that style-period labels are mostly artificial contrivances, devised by music historians as a convenient way to make some sense of history. As such they are useful to a degree, but they have limitations and one should always take them with a grain of salt. While “Baroque” is serviceable enough to describe the music created between about 1600 and 1750—and I do think that span of time stands as a coherent style period—why do we then encounter a “Classical” period? This has puzzled me for a long time. If “classical” denotes something standard, normative, and that has stood the test of time, then surely the music of the High Baroque—Bach and Handel, for instance—also qualifies as classical.

To make this doubly confusing, “classical” (lower-case “c”) is also used to refer to “serious” or “artistic” music in general, as contrasted with “popular” music.

We have, then, a large entity called Western classical music. Within this body of repertoire, we also have a Classical (upper-case “c”) period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, typified by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. This period was considered “classic” by the subsequent Romantic generation, and it is further distinguished from the 17th and early 18th centuries, which has been dubbed “Baroque” from a pejorative term applied to Scholastic thought. None of this is terribly coherent to me, yet this is the scheme we all live with in talking about music history.

It’s safe to say that Bach never applied the term “Baroque” to himself and probably had never heard of it. Likewise, Mozart and Haydn did not think of themselves as Classical, a label that was applied to them retrospectively by the Romantics.

As I work through my thoughts on this topic, I begin more and more to see the justice of the division Baroque—Classical—Romantic. What gives me pause is that the terms themselves seem to reflect a classicist perspective, which sees Baroque art as “too busy and complicated.” (To draw a parallel from literature, recall how a rugged and Baroque artist, William Shakespeare, was treated by classicist critics, who faulted him for failing to observe classical rules and decorum.) Moreover, why must we think of symmetrical Greek columns when hearing Haydn and Mozart, as the term “Classical” seems to force us to do?

And where does Beethoven fit in? As my violin teacher once said, Beethoven is so difficult to pigeonhole that he should occupy a style period unto himself.

With Romanticism we are on firmer ground. Everybody accepts that the Romantic movement in literature, art, and music, swept Europe starting in the late 18th century and continued unabated throughout the 19th—although a period of “realism” is also discernible in literature and art during that century. (A great book to read to get a handle on all of this is Classic, Romantic, and Modern by Jacques Barzun.) And unlike earlier stylistic labels, “Romanticism” was used by the Romantic artists themselves to describe their work.

However, this must be qualified inasmuch as the aesthetics of classicism remained highly durable in music. The work of Mendelssohn or Brahms, for example, remains highly classical in character, so that they might be called “Classicist Romantics.” In fact, some writers on music insist that the entire period from Haydn and Mozart through Mahler and Strauss should be called the “Classical-Romantic” period, since many of the genres and forms of expression are similar throughout.

This is especially true when you consider that many 19th-century composers (like Mendelssohn or Brahms) were conservative classicists who did not go in for extreme Romanticism as did, say, Wagner or Liszt. There were plenty composers in this era for which the echt-Romantic genres—program music, tone poems, epic operas—had no appeal.

Regarding Romanticism in general, I am always amazed at how it endured over such a long period. When you compare a work like Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique from 1830 to the gigantic, autobiographical symphonies of Gustav Mahler from around 1900, you don’t see an enormous difference in aesthetic or technique. Romanticism became very popular with audiences, and it remained so into the 20th century, as we can see from the movie scores of Hollywood and the sheer persistence of 19th-century music in the concert hall and opera stage.

The more you study the history of music, you realize that composers were not marching in lockstep in the interest of fulfilling a linear narrative prescribed by music historians. Styles overlap, and many composers eclectically combine several styles. Some composers are “ahead of the times,” others “behind the times” (and sometimes proud of it). Rarely does a composer set out deliberately to write music in a particular style; composers instead follow their impulses, creating their own personal synthesis from the influences around them. It is left for historians and commentators to sort through this later and apply stylistic labels—labels that may or may not help us listeners understand the music better.

The important thing to remember, if you are sorting through the rich world of classical music, is that style periods are much less real than the music they describe. The job of labels should be to give us some orientation in our listening, but ultimately the music must stand on its own. An understanding of stylistic difference should make us appreciate the entire range of musical history with all its diversity of sound and expression and realize that, as the new saying goes, “It’s all good.”

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The featured image is a montage of classical music composers. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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