Influence & epochs

In earlier discussions of the idea of masterpiece, and especially the retrospective viewpoint, "influence" was offered as both a means to clarity regarding trends and as an arbiter of stature. Influence does not mean anticipating the future, but rather exerting an influence on those around you, creating something others want to copy or experience. It means making the future. When listing the greatest Western composers, I have insisted that they have this sort of influence, that every musician in the succeeding generation enthusiastically takes up elements of their style. To insist on anything less is to let slip one aspect of greatness. Moreover, this influence must be direct, and it must be tangible. I have let these latter two facets intermingle, but let me separate them now. Using a sonority which would become popular in a later century does not involve tangible influence, but is merely the sort of curiosity which can be popular with recording consumers today. Having no influence for generations, then being rediscovered and endowed with quasi-mythological prowess, does not involve direct influence. Here we have, prototypically, the case of J.S. Bach, one which dominates current views on music history.

My earlier remarks on Bach (despite suggesting that I enjoyed his music more than that of other composers I considered more influential) sparked outrage (more than my more outrageous statements, which are many). I suggested that medieval music did not need Bach, indeed owed him no allegiance at all, that his quasi-mythological prowess was false & irrelevant. I was told in no uncertain terms to rededicate myself to Bach and learn otherwise, in effect that one cannot have a musical specialty which does not include Bach. My main point is underscored. Before I descend into talking about myself, let us get back to the point here. Bach is the case study for indirect influence, a contemporary icon whose stature is a model of historicism. Bach himself had a keen interest in the musical past, to the point of being considered old-fashioned even in his own life. One of his models, Palestrina, was likewise conservative. We therefore have a chain of retrospection, one which meets its summation not in Bach, but in ourselves and the postmodern age. There is no question but that Bach is very influential today. Indeed, so many people have invested so much of themselves into his music that there is no way his stature can ever be diminished. Even if Bach's discovery was pure coincidence, and a thousand other composers could have been substituted, the emotional involvement is there now and every bit as real. A similar phenomenon is occurring with Hildegard von Bingen.

What does any of this matter? It matters little, and only if one is interested in the developments of music history, what has come from what, or in questions of how great artists arise, or how stylistic preferences are conditioned. It is essentially about ordering the landscape of contemporary musical creation, about understanding the myriad threads of sub-traditions and fandoms. As a matter of symmetry, time has one linear order. However, our evaluations of styles and traditions go back fully only to the extent of public memory, to the beginning of the permanent concert repertory, that is to the late eighteenth century. The threads of earlier style we develop today came after the canonization of Mozart and Beethoven — as threads — while the music came before. This is a twist, and one which is not necessarily reconcilable, at least not if one wants to restore the linear order. There is nothing special about the line as a concept, and certainly not as art, but the knots of tradition today leave us without a forward view. Separating fallacies of influence and revisionist stature is a means toward letting new music live today, rather than strangling it with contradictory circular strands of tradition. It is very important to state that medieval music owes nothing to Bach, not only for the sake of medieval music, but for the sake of contemporary music. All of this says nothing about likeability or fandom, which can go on just the same.

An emphasis on influence suggests thoughts of progress, certainly a fallacy for art. There is no progress here, only change, and change buoyed by direct enthusiasm for someone's work. For the indirect, the enthusiasm is at least as much for the re-discoverer, even if our preference for idolatry prevents that realization. But one need not undertake new creation from a position of full clarity; indeed "creative misunderstanding" has been a wonderful force at times. I read the term applied (by Mark Levy) to the Elizabethan consort repertory (regarding its relationship to the embryonic Italian Baroque), and it is a brilliantly succinct assessment. I wrote not only of influence, but of epoch, implying that one can rightfully consider some stylistic changes more important. A composer whose music is at the center of one of those changes becomes epochal. It is, I think, a rather silly idea, yet somehow an idea with widespread acceptance. The stylistic periods of music are widely accepted, as is the notion that composers such as Machaut, Josquin, Monteverdi, Beethoven are inextricably linked to their shifts. Not only can we state the existence of such periods & epochs today, but remarkably many of them were hailed as just that at the time. The labels may be absurd, but they have always existed. Perhaps we can determine when composers' musical objectives themselves changed, and call such a shift epochal. So today, in the era of historicism, realize that such a change has been consummated again, and the epochal composer intertwined with it is none other than J.S. Bach, dead for over two hundred years! If Bach is on the list, he certainly comes after Beethoven.

In the spirit of clarity, it is foolish to deny that such a change has occurred. So, yes, I admit my list should be revised as per the above. I wonder how we can proceed from here, but here we are nonetheless. The idea of epochs or icons of any kind helps to reinforce the static quality generated by historicism, but forgetting them almost becomes a sort of enforced ignorance which is likely happening anyway. The emotional investment in particular composers or ideas also remains, an investment which will always support a monument to greatness, even if stripped of every single underlying factor. Our investment in epochs is similar, albeit less personal. We can speak of two kinds of influence, one contemporary with the actor, and one today. The former never disappears entirely, because it conditions subsequent events, but it can seem very distant next to the latter. Today we seem to crave this sort of revisionism, to actively seek out past figures we can elevate and let influence us today. Perhaps this suggests a staleness to our tradition, so that we must mine it and create riches from earlier ores, serving as new inspiration. It is not a bad idea, of course, but one which can easily interfere with our understanding of what did actually occur.

Administrivia: More vacation. Next column in five weeks.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb