Sub Specie Aeternitatis

In response to my “Master Narrative” entry of February 23, Steven Ledbetter sends the following story from his student years in the 1960s, a little long but worth reading to the end. It’s about studying with Gustave Reese, an important scholar who wrote massive standard reference works like Music in the Middle Ages and Music in the Renaissance:

Gustave Reese was my dissertation adviser and, though he was most famous of course for his books on Medieval and Renaissance music, he was always interested in new music as well, and I ran into him more than once at a concert of recent music.

At one point in class, when the discussion came around to recent trends in music (this was about the time of Carter’s Double Concerto, for example), someone asked him where he thought music was heading.

Reese made the point that the history of music, from at least the 14th century on, has consisted of a series of waves of development in which the style reaches a level of complexity beyond which it seems impossible to go (perhaps for reasons of apparent limits in human perception on the listener’s side or of technical ability on the performers’), and that this “crisis” leads to a radical simplification in one or more elements of music, after which the process begins again.

He was referring (for the late 14th century) to the so-called French “mannerist” composers who made music so rhythmically complex that even modern performers found it challenged them enormously. The reaction to that was the more flowing rhythms of the early Renaissance, and a greater emphasis on the sonority of the “contenance angloise.”

Then during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, the interaction of more and more polyphonic lines reached a level of complexity such that textures often sounded indifferentiatedly dense, so that one piece ran the risk of sounding like all the others.

The radical change came about with the development of the basso continuo, which allowed virtually all of the contrapuntal lines to be subsumed in a harmonic context over which one or two (normally) melodic lines could be the primary expressive interest, colored by the bass line and harmony.

Another such re-simplification, in this view, occurs in the middle of the 18th century, and leads to the “high classical period” with its balanced phrase structures and architectonic use of harmonic shape.

So when put to the specific question in class about what would happen next in contemporary music, Reese responded, “I have no idea, but I’m sure that it will involve some dramatic simplification, because we seem to have gone about as far as we can on the current track.”

When I first encounted Terry Riley’s “In C,” for example, I though immediately of Reese’s prediction, and I still think that his version of the Master Narrative makes a lot of sense.

Here, from Gustave Reese no less, comes validation for what I’ve been saying for years, and not only about minimalism being a logical next step in the progress of history. If the only music history you know is that from Haydn through Stockhausen, then the death of the orchestra [assuming it is indeed happening, questionable] looks like the end of everything, a mammoth tragedy, a Götterdammerung. But if you know the history of European music from the 11th century on as Reese did (and medieval music was my secondary area of specialization in grad school as well), then you know that there have been many deaths of classical music, many rises and falls of musical institutions, each death preparing the ground for the rise of a new practice. As Nietzsche said, “What is falling, that one should also push.” I’m pleased to learn from Mr. Ledbetter that the world looked much the same to Gustave Reese as it does to me.

That Reese could see the logical necessity of a drastic simplification of music in the 1960s, while a thousand academic composers and music professors continue to rail against it, shows up how little music history most composers know.

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