My Work and Worries in Music History – Rome, 15.11.2012 Forum


Reinhard Strohm

2012 Balzan Prize for Musicology

For his extensive research on the history of European music within the cultural and socio-historical context from the late Middle Ages to the present, and for his detailed descriptions of vocal music, especially early sacred music in Flanders, and of the works of Vivaldi, Handel, and Wagner.

Forum Interdisciplinare dei Premiati Balzan 2012
Roma, 15 novembre 2012 – Accademia dei Lincei

My Work and Worries in Music History

Reinhard Strohm

My profession is that of a music historian, and it is in this capacity that the Balzan Foundation has honoured me with this prestigious prize. The least I can do to express my gratitude, is to demonstrate here why the history of music seems a worthwhile pursuit to me, and what I have tried to achieve in it. But there are some massive doubts in my mind. Is it actually the case that music can have a history? What have I done to prove its validity?

Audiences today experience music from the past in classical concerts, for example. These are strange events. Imagine that a visitor from a remote culture, like the characters of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, attends such a concert and writes home about it. The fact alone that there are performances of music composed centuries ago surprises our visitor. He wonders why many people in the audience accept the music as something coming from the past, although it is actually “made” in the present. They even use programme notes which comment on the historical composers. Admittedly, a few listeners seem unconcerned about the provenance of the music, but simply enjoy it as a present. Even they, however, have heard it before. The visitor can empathise with the latter attitude, which accepts the musical experience as provided only by tradition or convention, not by history. The other attitude remains strange to him.

To accept music as provided by history is a peculiar practice not only when seen from outside our culture. In our own industrialised environment of today, the non-historical attitude is far more common. It concerns many types of music, performed on various transmitters such as CDs, television, radio, computers and film. Despite the time-lag between recording and listening in electronic media, music lives in the present, as performance and as aural experience. When we ask how it comes to us here and now, a logical answer is that music, like most other cultural goods, is provided by our own technology and markets. All cultural products seem equally available in today’s world, while the sources from which each of them comes appear secondary: they can be made up. The dividing line between the mechanical reproduction of the art-work, assessed by Walter Benjamin in 1936,[1] and a mechanical production of it, is disappearing. Even “medieval music” is being composed today, in order to be sold in digitised form. In a reconstitution of the cultural hierarchies, the aura and the authority of the past in music – Benjamin also used the term “authenticity” for it – are being replaced by the aura and authority of the label, the service industry. Listener’s attitudes to the “historicity” of music, if I may use the term, have changed within our lifetimes. I remember concerts and radio broadcasts of the 1960s when the upsetting amount of dissonance in a new work by Stockhausen or Nono was felt to be a function of its novelty. “Modern” was an evaluative term. Aesthetic appreciation was associated with historical depth, for some people in inverse relation. But post-modern audiences no longer seem to make such connections.

Other arts are similarly being stripped of their historical depth today, or as some may put it, they are freed from their eurocentric shackles. The two processes are connected insofar as the historicity of art is a typically European discourse, which has itself created most of the art in question. But the grand narrative of art as a historical phenomenon, aesthetically determined by ancestry, aura, imitation and emulation of the past, has come or is coming to an end in our lifetimes. The title of Hans Belting’s monograph Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte (1983) refers in the first instance to the crisis of an academic discipline only, but its main thesis is also about the cultural significance of art in everyday life and thus concerns the situation of the performing arts, too. Instead of the question, where a work of art comes from, and who originated it, scholars ask with what sort of images, what sort of sounds we are surrounding ourselves. The conceptual transformation of Western “art” into a segment of universal affordances in the global industrialised civilisation started around 1950, when André Malraux first brought together his appreciation of non-Western art and his idea of a “museum without walls”.[2] The eurocentric bit in Malraux’s conception was that a museum, not a historical narrative, was required to incorporate non-Western art into our consciousness.


Half a millennium before, Renaissance humanists had recognised that the Roman temples and palaces were not just a museum without walls, but an ancient form of tradition, a benchmark for imitation and emulation: they harboured a grand narrative. This idea could not have arisen without the paradigmatic status of literature. Greek and Roman literary works, transmitted in written codices, already formed a canon that challenged contemporaries. Petrarch’s recognition of this trans-epochal relationship soon inspired the visual arts, for example of Leon Battista Alberti. Humanist authors wrote about the lives of artists (as did Giorgio Vasari in 1550), or about the invention and reception of music (as did Johannes Tinctoris ca. 1480); artists began to emulate the ancients and each other – in the latter case including composers of music – and they all believed they had to achieve progress. The benchmark character of art enabled its historicity; the stepping-stones between earlier and later art were competing masterworks. The concept of the masterwork in music, as I concluded after having published my book on fifteenth-century music, was triggered by the revival of antiquity, the rinascita: in fact the works of a Dunstaple, Du Fay, Ockeghem or Josquin were then measured against the yardstick of Cicero, Horace and Virgil. That a “modern system of the arts”[3] could finally arise out of a blending of the quadrivium with the artes mechanicae of the Middle Ages, implied the discourse of art as a series of historical artefacts. The quadrivial arts had been sciences, whose lasting validity rested on the standards of scientific truth; the artes mechanicae created artefacts but without theory and thus without history. Renaissance authors – and musicians – introduced the concept of the artes poeticae. These “work-creating” disciplines had a history because the objectivation of creative activity in “works” made historical hindsight possible.

The habit of early modern composers to use old melodies, so-called cantus firmi, over and over, to build their ever more advanced musical structures around them, was not just traditionality. The procedure created a yardstick against which progress of the art could be measured. It enabled innovation, precisely as each work following the procedure demonstrated the one solution that could not be tried again. The normative function of past artefacts – which is common to all cultures – becomes a historical narrative at the point where there is a deliberate deviation for the model. Mozart wrote in a letter to his father that he was excited to find out whether he could set the words of the aria, „Ah, non lasciarmi, nò” in a very different way to Baldassare Galuppi.[4] Once Mozart’s aria was composed, the two settings were not equivalent affordances of a culture but distinct steps on a ladder; the second presupposing the first. In the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg justified the dodecaphonic method out of the logic of musical history itself. He thought of new music teleologically as a conclusion of the classics, a synthesis of the dialectic premisses of history. When supporters of the de-historicisation of music today tell us that it is absurd to “listen to music more than 90 years old”, they are falling prey to exactly that teleology of musical progress which they claim to despise.

Historicism is the active recognition of the modifying nature of history upon the objects of our life-world. And, according to Reinhart Koselleck and the “Constance School” of literary theory, history is a function of the present and the histories of literature and art serve to modulate the artefacts of the past to today’s expectations. I suggest that in music, too, the possibility of separating out transmittable works of the past from the general aural resource not only produced the idea of a classical, mainstream Western musical tradition: it has produced or at least legitimised the respective music itself.[5] Composers operate with history in mind. Schoenberg, Wagner, Verdi, Mozart and already Handel and Bach consciously composed for posterity; about Jean Ockeghem it was said in his own time that he left written works which posterity still admired.[6] In my studies of the musical work-concept I found that the grand narrative of the historical development of the arts is a product of Renaissance humanism – and it is coming to an end in our days. The end of the Middle Ages, a construct of Renaissance humanist thought, is now paralleled by the end of Modernity, like the opening and closing of a loop in cultural history.[7] In the same way as humanists rejected the culture of the preceding centuries as a “dark age”,[8] being more attracted by the remote culture of antiquity, the post-modern ideology rejects modernity and the humanist-inspired Western culture. This “divided retrospection”, as I call it, has anthropological implications which we should learn about.[9] But if we have rejected modernity and the centuries of Western culture that led up to it, where is the rinascita of our time?


Thus my first doubt about music history concerned its contingency, its anomalousness from a wider historical perspective. While music has this in common with other branches of Western art and history, it may also be argued that music is by its own nature incapable of being historicised. It is an art that vanishes as it is produced; since it cannot be written down it will not last, as Isidore of Seville believed. Where music writing exists (not only in Western cultures), the written sign in music seems much farther away from the performance than it does in language, for example. Memory plays a larger role in producing and receiving music than in the practices of literature or painting. A word by itself is meaningful, a musical note is not; any significance of musical expression is achieved through relationships, not self-contained symbols. Historians of music always endeavour to establish musical hermeneutics, and to read compositions as metaphors of their times or social groups: perhaps these are misguided imitations of what the historians of literature legitimately do.[10] On the other hand, memory is important in many arts, not only the performing ones: there is a fascinating stability of oral transmission within many types of communities, and music seems essential to the most widespread and important social actions. Sacred song and ritual music have interested me since my childhood, although I have only very recently dared to write about them.[11] When such practices remain stable over centuries, it may be not because oral memory is more reliable than written transmission here, but because remembered music seems so powerful in the minds of individuals and collectives. Perhaps the reason is exactly that music does not carry the burden of a specific meaning as an a priori intention, but only of that meaning that is given to it by the receiving ear and soul. However, from memory alone, even from trans-generational, collective memory, alone no history may be constructed, as I learnt from Paul Ricoeur.[12] Thucydides and Polybius should have acknowledged this, although the highlights of their narratives concern events they have personally witnessed. The incessant border-skirmishes about the respective importance of oral and written traditions, in which as a musical medievalist I participated, seem to be missing the point. The two practices encapsulate each other: in the Middle Ages, writing did not take anything away from memory and orality. Orality was the ocean, writing was a ship. Generally speaking, the medium is not the message (unless you wish to sell it). From all these points of view, the writing of Western music history is not fundamentally different from the writing of any other history; it can be tolerated. History is a young child walking at the hand of big sister Memory, whose liaison with the highest god has given us the arts and sciences.

In my student years I was intrigued by music writing, symbols, cryptic codes, palaeography, number games and figures. I loved music transcribing and editing, which seemed to me the next best thing to singing and playing. The homo ludens was alive around music. In my first semester I dabbled with medieval music fragments in the Munich library; in my dissertation I devoted an entire chapter to a structuralist presentation of all the possible rhythmic relations between words and notes in Italian opera arias.[13] Only by chance did I avoid the error of believing that historical music varies according to functional criteria reconstructible from the respective cultural context. But this has remained a widespread fallacy, especially where the underlying Hegelian assumption of the Zeitgeist as the largest common denominator of cultural products is not checked. In the 1980s I read in a New England concert announcement: “Bach’s music is written in the Baroque style, a very expressive and dramatic idiom.” So, Bach had that one on his shelf, too! The style of his four-part chorales, for that matter, has been reproduced, badly enough, with computer programs. Notwithstanding this naïve underbelly of the great structuralist narrative, I do confess my ongoing admiration for musical analysis, even in its strictest a-historical forms, as long as their practitioners do not tyrannise us music historians, which we had reason to fear in the 1970s. In 1990 – when the analytical wave was already declining – I advocated the compromise of historical analysis: this approach did not set out prove how music works (as the radical analysts do), it did not even prove how a particular piece of music works (as the moderate analysts do), it only showed how a piece of music did work at the time it was made.[14] The eminent Leo Treitler created a much more elegant formula for the synthesis of musical analysis and history, which would occupy me for years: “that the history of music can only be written by showing the history within the musical works themselves”.[15] The idea, also adumbrated by Peter Bürger for art in general, comes from the Frankfurt School and is ultimately, I believe, Hegelian in its clever direction to turn the enquiring eye inward rather than outward. Above all, Treitler’s formula allowed me as a musician to cling to the music while being a historian – for a while. The wave of the cultural turns had just about reached musicology by the 1990s. With the help of well-informed friends such as Michael Fend and Laurence Dreyfus I discovered post-modern historiography, interlaced with bits of hermeneutics, action theory and phenomenology. Nevertheless, it was difficult to hold on to that powerful wheel of scholarly fortunes that the cultural turns had set in motion, and sometimes historians like myself did not really know where they stood or were hanging. The moment of truth came for me through the Festschrift given me at age 65: the editors, Melania Bucciarelli and Berta Joncus, had entitled it Music as Social and Cultural Practice. Although the phrase was rather similar to the title of someone else’s book, it had at least the redeeming qualities of lacking a present participle and of not using the word “context”. The question it raised was whether I could recognise myself in it, whether my work so far had emphasised social practice and human actions rather than music itself. The editors were probably right: I had in fact published essays advocating the concept of music as action, to which the categories of creation, reception and interpretation should be subordinated.[16] Adopting action theory and phenomenology for music still seems a viable path to me. But there are still the old questions and doubts about the relationship between people, who make history, and music, who makes the present. Are we actually writing music history when describing the musical practices of a medieval city, or the opera productions of Vivaldi? Or are we just amateur general historians? Are we writing music history when working out the numerical structures of a motet by Du Fay? Or are we less-than-amateur mathematicians? These doubts seem far more momentous than the two previous ones, i.e. the one about the historical contingency of music history-writing, and the one about the ontological nature of music as a mnemonic sign-system.

My feeling is that we should not reduce music to a social and cultural practice, at least as long as we feel ourselves that this would be a reduction. I was fortunate enough to find words for this feeling at another conference, in 1999. In a slightly tense atmosphere, ethnomusicologists started moaning about my paper on post-modern challenges of music historiography.[17] I heard the spontaneous objection: “How can you say that about history? You weren’t there!”. I explained that, as a historian, I was bound to talk occasionally of things outside my first-hand experience. No matter, near the end of the discussion a friendlier member of the audience thought she had to give me another chance to please them, and asked: “Mr Strohm, what do you think music is?”. (Gretchenfrage.) I replied: “Music is social and cultural practice.” Loud, demonstrative applause; peace was re-established. Then I said: “And, one can also say that music is in the mind.” A few hesitant claps. Then I said: “And, some people have also thought that music is in the stars.” You cannot imagine that silence; it was as if the harmony of the spheres would next be heard. Of course, this was not the silence of peace.


It is very strange that my example of the harmony of the spheres left ethnomusicologists speechless, because this musical imagination was shared by the ancient Greeks and the ancient Chinese. Thus while I asserted that there is more to music than social cultural practice, more indeed than an “ethnographic present”, which can only be researched “being there”, my example also appealed to the testimony of a remote culture. A view from outside onto the Western cultural paradigm has proven beneficial to my argument. My attitude towards this outside has always been egotistic, exploitative, as you may say. It was so easy to learn more about our own culture by considering the alternatives. In the early 1990s, my students and I had immense fun in a semester when we transcribed gamelan music by ear into Western notation; of course we learned much more about the latter than about the former. At the Faculty of Music in Oxford I campaigned for years for the establishment of an ethnomusicological lectureship – which we finally got; my simple motivation was that we needed that heterocentric viewpoint. In the course of those years I also came to believe that alterity values reside both without and within our own traditions and practices. The Romantic medievalism which had attracted me to the civilisation of late-medieval Bruges, the interest in number games and sign-systems, the fascination with structural analysis, were the longings of a European student who could not accept that everything in art was supposed to be intention, meaning, social action, authority and history. In my book of 1993, I described the process of coming together of different intra-European musical traditions under the title “Diversity and participation”.[18] Later, besides being on the lookout for the special historicity of medieval hymns such as “In dulci jubilo” – an alterity at home – I discovered utopia and read dozens of utopian novels that mention music. The idea was that the European geographic utopia of the early modern era, which had been triggered by the discoveries of other world regions, rivalled with the pastoral in representing an alternative way of making music in society.[19] Ultimately, of course, pastoral and utopia have similar goals, although the former appeals to aristocratic hedonism, whereas the latter often adopts a protestant rigour. Both depict socio-cultural practices of music that are far from us, far in the past or far across the oceans. More recent utopias look far into the future. All of these narratives shed some light back on us. Of course modern Western musicians cannot accept their paradigms: pastoral and utopian societies have in common, for example, that usually nobody is paid for music-making. But it is the mental motion of these stories that deserves our attention. The continuous attempts of European authors to map self-critical imagination onto information from real non-European societies may seem redundant, fairy-tale – but they demonstrate an engagement with difference. And, whatever is being imagined about the social structures and practices, the music is always different from ours.

I do not know how many writers on Renaissance humanism have observed that the revival of antiquity was actually a longing for difference. European like to count classical antiquity as their own culture, but the differences remain enormous. In music, the distance is so considerable that only a handful of ancient Greek tunes have been recovered today. In 1724, the Jesuit Father Lafitau published a four-volume work about the rituals and music of the North American Indians, which he compared to those of classical Greece.[20] This was not an example of the colonialist lie that all savages are the same, but an effort to historicise difference, in the wake of many debates, especially in France and England, about the respective legitimacy of ancient and modern or diverse national cultures. I have been inspired by Lafitau and similar writers, as well as by medievalists and the French Annales School, to explore diverse kinds of historicity in music. My Balzan Project “Music History Beyond Europe” is intended to explore musical interactions between Western civilisations and those of other world regions in history. It occurs to me that the validity of our traditional music historiography might be tested on the wider level of a global music history. If we investigate the cultures of other world regions or indeed to our own oral and non-learned traditions, we also wish to know what musicians from those traditions, when they visit, write home about us. Can we ever put all the “Persian” letters together to make a history? The outreach of music history towards a global discourse would be comparable in scope to what Renaissance humanists were attempting with classical antiquity; so this could be a rinascita of music.

[1] Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1935), French first edition 1936, German edition Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1963.
[2] André Malraux, Les voix du silence, Paris , 1951, with the essay ‚Le musée imaginaire’ of 1947 as its first part.
[3] Paul O. Kristeller, ‘The modern system of the arts’, in idem, Renaissance Thought: Papers on Humanism and the Arts, I-II, New York: Harper, 1965, 163-227.
[4] Wolfgang Plath, Mozart und Galuppi. Bemerkungen zur Szene „Ah, non lasciarmi, no“ KV 295a, in: Festschrift Walter Senn zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by Tiroler Landesmuseum, Erich Egg and Ewald Fässler, München-Salzburg: Katzbichler, 1975, 174-178.
[5] ‚Werk – Performanz – Konsum: Der musikalische Werk-Diskurs’, public lecture held at Vienna University on 28 March 2012, forthcoming.
[6] ‘”Opus”: an aspect of the early history of the musical work-concept’, in Complexus effectuum musicologiae. Studia Miroslavo Perz septuagenario dedicata, ed. Tomasz Jez, Kraków: Rabid, 2003, 309-19; revised repr. in: Musik des Mittelalters und der Renaissance: Festschrift für Klaus-Jürgen Sachs zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. Raner Kleinertz, Christoph Flamm and Wolf Frobenius, Hildesheim: Olms, 2010, 205-17.
[7] ‘Zmierzch srednowiecza a zmierzch nowozytnosci’ (The End of the Middle Ages and the End of Modernity), Przeglad Muzykologiczny 2, no. 2 (2002), 153-172.
[8] Theodore Mommsen, “Petrarch’s conception of the ‘Dark Ages’”, Speculum 17/2 (1942), 226–42.
[9] ‘The Legitimacy of “Early European Music”’, in Cambridge Handbook of Medieval Music, ed. Marc Everist, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming).
[10] ‘Eighteenth-Century Music as a Socio-Political Metaphor?’, The Century of Bach and Mozart: Perspectives on Historiography, Composition, Theory and Performance in Honor of Christoph Wolff, ed. Sean Gallagher and Thomas Forrest Kelly, Cambridge/MA: Harvard University Press, 2008 (Harvard Publications in Music, 22), 279-296.
[11] ‘Late-medieval sacred songs: tradition, memory and history’ (2006 Gordon Athol Anderson Memorial Lecture), in Identity and Locality in Early European Music, 1028-1740, ed. Jason Stoessel, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, 129-48; some of this was influenced by Jan Assmann.
[12] Paul Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, Paris: Seuil, c.2000.
[13] Italienische Opernarien des frühen Settecento (1720-1730), 2 vols, Cologne: Gerig, 1976 (Analecta musicologica 13).
[14] ‘Musical analysis as part of musical history’, Tendenze e metodi nella ricerca musicologica. Atti del convegno internazionale (Latina 27-29 settembre 1990), ed. Raffaele Pozzi, Florence: Olschki, 1995, 61-81[15] Leo Treitler, What Kind of Story is History?, in: Leo Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, 157–175 at 173.
[16] ‘Darstellung, Aktion und Interesse in der höfischen Opernkunst’, in Musik und Theater als Medien höfischer Repräsentation (Conference report), Händel-Jahrbuch 49 (2003), 13-26.
[17] ‘Postmodern Thought and the History of Music: Some Intersections’, Revista Portuguesa de Musicologia 9 (1999), 7-24.
[18] The Rise of European Music (1380-1500), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (xv, 720 pp.).[19] ‘Les Sauvages, music in utopia, and the decline of the courtly pastoral’, Il Saggiatore musicale 11 (2004), n. 1, 21-49.
[20] Joseph-François de Lafitau, S.J., Moeurs des sauvages américains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps, 4 vols, Paris, 1724.

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