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The Autonomy of Music

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The Autonomy of Music

In the preface to volume 4 of the Oxford History of Western Music Richard Taruskin outlines the way his treatment is going to be different from those of the past:

In common with its companions in this series, this volume resolutely rejects the romantic viewpoint that asserts a fundamental divide between art history and world history. In particular, the fundamental tenet of neo-Hegelian art history--that the arts steadily progress toward a state of ever more perfect autonomy--is discarded as impeding by design the investigation of the actual causes of esthetic and stylistic evolution, which are to be sought within rather than outside the histories of social and political affairs. The narrative thus offers an uncompromising challenge to the viewpoint adhered to by a majority of practicing musicians and composers, even down to the present.

Well, fair enough. But I am an Aristotelian and as such I am wary of extremes. Taruskin's history was published in 2010 and the genesis was undoubtedly over the preceding decade. In a sense I feel he is like a World War I general fighting the last war and not the current one. Searching today's music schools, I doubt if you could find an example today of someone with the viewpoint of Pieter van den Toorn whom Taruskin quotes for his adamant view of the autonomy of modern music. I recall a heated debate at one of the American Musicological Society meetings between him and a few others back in the late 90s. But that controversy is long past, I think. And those arguing for the autonomy of music pretty much lost the debate. And perhaps they should have because the claim that music is an art form that is so remote from ordinary life that it is unaffected by social and political affairs is obviously wrong.

But does that mean that the opposite is true? That everything in art music is the mere byproduct of social and political affairs? It seems that this view is becoming predominant when conductors and singers seem to have to be chosen on the basis of race and gender alone. Taruskin is right in pointing out that music history has focussed on the production of music and almost totally ignored the reception of music. But we seem perilously close to a time in which the only lively discussions about music center around how many sales an artist has made to the exclusion of any examination of the music. In pop music we are already there, of course.

I think it is easily possible to swing from one extreme to another, from a myopic examination of pitch series to an equally myopic focus on the economics or sociology of music.

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