A recent discussion with my friend Robert Carl has me pondering the ways we think of epochs in art. As many are quick to point out, there aren’t hard-and-fast beginning dates for various periods – Classical, Romantic, Modern – these are trends that gather steam over time. Armchair musicologists like to play the game of spotting antecedents — compositions that anticipate features that would later become commonplace – sometimes according them a status of prophecy, as though the composer were tuned to a more advanced mode of thinking.
I don’t find that way of looking at history convincing, but there is another issue I’m wondering about now, an issue that I don’t think gets much attention, and that’s the question of how epochs end. Traditionally, we say a period begins around a given time, and there is a tacit assumption that the previous period comes to an end around that same time, or soon thereafter. Helps make the timeline charts a little neater, I suppose. So, Modernism began in the 1910s, and the assumption is that the Romantic period was toast at that point. We do our best to ignore the many outstanding Romantic works written after 1920 – Rachmaninoff, anyone? — as if a tide had turned which made a bad Modernist piece somehow better than a good non-Modern one (unless, of course, one can make the case that the non-Modern one somehow anticipates what came after Modernism).
An even more amusing example is in the 18th century. Supposedly the Rococo period comes after the Baroque, but somehow the most Rococo of composers, Couperin, died in 1733, and many of Handel’s and Bach’s quintessentially Baroque works date from the 1740s.
Maybe we aren’t thinking of these epochs in the right way. Maybe we lose more than we gain by assuming they have to end when a new epoch begins. If we imagine the possibility that musical styles emerge and morph continuously, then interesting lines become apparent: Renaissance-to-present, Impressionist-to-present, etc. I’m not sure what we gain by insisting that every new idea should impose a double bar on the idea that came before.
So Modernism is alive and well, cohabitating with Post-modernism, though neither is in ascendance currently. Cohabitating with everything else we know about, actually: certainly many types of music that stand outside the Western history arc are making waves in our ears and minds as much as ever.