The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview

1
The musical work and nineteenth-century
history
JIM SAMSON

Compositional and contextual histories

Even the formula 'compositional and contextual', suggestive of a dual perspective a 'double root'1may not fully embrace the materials and methods of a music history, whose very subject-matter must be open to debate. Texts, sounds, activities: all are primary data objects, facts and events that are variously foregrounded, ordered and interpreted to generate our narratives. One obvious starting-point would be to place musical works centre stage, prioritising the cultural forms in which art music has most often been presented in the West. But that signals an analytical enquiry. If we want to write history we need to fill the spaces between works, to find strategies for connecting them. Two such strategies, conversely related, are prominent in histories of nineteenth-century music. One is intertextuality. We join up the works through similarity, as we might note the resemblances between visual stills. This quickly brings us to composers, to suggestions of influence or mutuality, and eventually to stylistic genealogies. The explanatory focus shifts one may justly say 'reverts', for this is the mode of the past, of the nineteenth century itself from the work to its creator. The present volume is well served by this approach, and there are strong arguments for privileging it, given the historicism of the age. Yet, paradoxically, intertextuality risks undermining 'work character'. If I choose to focus on the work, after all, I presumably value that quality of uniqueness that marks it off as more than the instantiation of a type. I celebrate its individuality, its embodiment of a singular idea.

This invites my second strategy. We might term it individuation, and its concern is to trace the historical process by which the particular (the special) emerges from the general (the generic). This too was privileged in the nineteenth century, an age of individualism no less than historicism. Indeed Harold Bloom suggests that the two are locked together in symbiosis the weight of the past and the quest for a voice, dependency and originality.2 His proposal

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1
The notion of a 'double root', social and stylistic, was developed for art history especially by Heinrich Wölfflin; see his Principles of Art History, trans. M. D. Hottinger (New York, 1950; original edn 1917).
2
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford, 1973).

-3-

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