The MET Orchestra
The New York Collegium
Other Venues
Mozart: Divertimento, K. 563
Guides to Music
Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now
Record Craze

The Triumph of Music

by Tim Blanning (Harvard/Belknap, 2008)

The title of Tim Blanning's The Triumph of Music is perhaps a trifle overenthusiastic. Triumph over what? The progress of music in the West, both as a complex art form and as an everyday presence, has faced very little opposition and a great deal of encouragement. And this progress — triumph if you must — is a decidedly Western affair. Whether it was the move away from melody, toward harmony and counterpoint; or whether it was the cultivation of courtly dancing by courtiers themselves . . . but Mr Blanning is not concerned by the developments that made music in the West different from music anywhere else on Earth by about 1400. His subtitle, The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art assumes the existence of music more or less as we know it. It's probably just as well that he does not explore the reasons why the varieties of music have flourished so profusely in Europe and America. Avoiding the history of music allows him a freer hand to address the history about music, which is not only enormously interesting but of genuinely general interest. The point cannot be overstressed: this is no music-theory book. It is a social history that might very well interest a reader both deaf and incapable of reading music.

In the most easygoing way, The Triumph of Music is what has come to be called a "reception" history. As our awareness of the development of art forms has deepened, our belief that they are the products of godlike geniuses appearing to act in unsullied isolation has staled and crumbled. It is not necessary to adopt the depressing postmodern idea that power and oppression explain everything in order to register the relation between artists and the people who make it possible for artists to pay their bills (or to ignore them). The pianist who never plays in public, like the artist whose paintings are too good to be exhibited, is a tree falling in a deserted forest — he makes no sound at all. Mr Blanning's book, then, is not about the music that great composers wrote as much as it's about the response of patrons, performers, and an ever-expanding public.

In the first chapter, "Status," Mr Blanning traces the emergence of the composer/musician from the ranks of household servants and into the limelight of celebrity. Among the many steps along the way, this one stands out rather handily:

While Haydn or Mozart had admirers, Beethoven had fans — and significantly, the word derives from "fanatic." The sonic gulf that separates even the final symphonies of Mozart and Haydn from the Eroica is mirrored in visual representations. Beethoven's fans wanted to know what their hero looked like, and the publishing houses of Vienna were only too happy to oblige. Across Europe, music lovers could see that Beethoven's appearance matched his compositions — passionate, indomitable, exciting, untamed, above all original.

(Mr Blanning goes on to remark on sculptural images of Beethoven, but by his own account these were no innovation; a plinth-topping statue of Handel was commissioned for the Vauxhall pleasure-grounds in 1738, more than seventy years before Franz Klein took a life mask of Beethoven.) In subsequent chapters, the sacralization of music is shown from two perspectives, through the increasingly serious claims made for music's power and in the transformation of the palace theatre to the stadium as concert hall.

Certainly the most arresting moment for any experienced reader of books about music occurs on page 114, with the launch of a discussion headed "Jazz and Romanticism." Following hard upon sections devoted to Wagner and to another Western innovation — the preservation of music from the past, alongside new music, in the teeth, as it were, of fashion; what we now call classical music— Mr Blanning takes up John Coltrane's recording of A Love Supreme, which marks the transformation of jazz from a kind of entertainment to a vehicle for the expression of eternal verities — a change that occurred in classical music when ecclesiastical patronage ceased to be very important. "Every Romantic artist," Mr Blanning writes, "no matter what the medium, would have had sympathy with Coltrane's account of his aspirations"; and he quotes Coltrane:

My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being. ... When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups. I think music can make the world better and, if I'm qualified, I want to do it. I'd like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.

The point here is not so much Coltrane's motivation as his acceptance, by "serious" listeners anyway. Behind that point is a point for the reader who may have wondered what talk about jazz was doing in a book that begins with Monteverdi's patronage problems. Except that The Triumph of Music actually begins with a the snapshot of Queen Elizabeth's jubilee in 2002, which climaxed with Brian May's performance of "God Save the Queen" atop the roof of Buckingham Palace. The Triumph of Music isn't so much as book about serious music as it is a book that takes music seriously — all of it. Here is the beginning of Mr Blanning's Conclusion:

For good or ill, music has been transformed in the modern world — and has helped to transform that world. But as I have discovered when inviting comments and questions from the audience after giving public lectures on this topic, many people believe that the history of music during the past century has been anything but a triumphal progress. On the contrary, they assert, music in the classical tradition has disappeared into a stratospheric world of plinks and plonks accessible only by other musicians, while popular music has plumbed ever more subterranean depths of offensive vulgarity. Although I have much sympathy for this alternative scenario, I find that its definition is both too elitist and too subjective. In any case, in this book my topic has not been the triumph of serious music, classical music, or even good music (however defined) but the triumph of music per se. That much of the music pumped out around the clock through every imaginable medium is found by many to be vacuous, offensive, worthless — and every other pejorative adjective to be found in a thesaurus — is neither her not there, for my purposes.

This, perhaps, explains the absence of one aspect of reception history that's missing from The Triumph of Music: the history of criticism. Mr Blanning does not overlook critics altogether, but he cites them as witnesses and commentators, not as arbiters. There is an agreeable but deceptive lack of gatekeeping in Mr Blanning's pages. Music is written and enjoyed — by more and more people. The role of stern, reproving critics is ignored. Tellingly, Mr Blanning mentions the composer Anton Bruckner in connection with Wagner, but he does not tell the best Bruckner story (possibly apocryphal, but not matter), even though it throws an extremely interesting light on the relation between music and power in the Nineteenth Century. Bruckner was caught in the crossfire between Wagner, whom he passionately admired, and Eduard Hanslick, the most powerful critic in Vienna, Bruckner's home town. When the Kaiser, at the summit of Bruckner's career, asked him if there was anything that he could do for the composer, Bruckner said that he'd be very happy if Hanslick could be made to moderate the cruelty of his reviews. That this was a favor that the Kaiser could not grant tells us a great deal about the autonomy of the arts in general and of music in particular not two centuries after the autocracy of Louis XIV

Mr Blanning is right to overlook the forces that have tried, from time to time, to discipline music and its public, just as he is to be praised for highlighting the rather uncomfortable relation between music and nationalism in the two centuries after 1750. The chapter in which this is covered is entitled "Liberation," an ironic commentary on the anxieties behind the cultural force that, regardless of the sovereignty that it disrupted, has invariably trumpeted the need to throw off alien influences. Mr Blanning diverts his attention toward the modern and postmodern liberation of teenagers and homosexuals, but had his focus not been so rigorously Western, he might have reminded us that we're living what one must hope is a late, concluding phase of nationalistic preoccupation with music, as anyone who recalls the Taliban's particular interest in destroying cassette tapes can attest.

The technical history of music is not the only history of music. Today's listener ought no more to be expected to understand sharps, flats, and the rule against parallel motion than to analyze the flash memory that fills his earbuds with music. It's time for art history, and especially for music history, to catch up with changing views of how art works in society, and Mr Blanning's fluent and engagingly informative book achieves that objective in one stroke. (February 2008)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me