The Cultural Context of Medieval Music

By Nancy Van Deusen | Go to book overview

8
Music at the Forefront of
Science: The Usefulness
of Medieval Music

Historical musicology as a historical discipline as it emerged near the beginning of the 20th century has written a narrative indicative of the major historiographical models of the 20th century. One can trace, in the textbooks produced by this new discipline, the major historiographical models as they have appeared first in some cases in art history and architecture (“form” applied to music in the 1920s, the priority of “style”);1 evolutionary biological metaphors (organic, genetic “evolution” as an explanation for music composition); the notion of “schools,” introduced by, and more appropriate to history of art, but taken up then as an historiographical model by the university study of history.2 Nineteenth-century conceptualizations of “genius” resulting in a view of the composer as “inspired” to “create” great, autonomous works has also clearly influenced a 20th-century view of the development of music history presented both within undergraduate textbooks (which have had remarkable staying power—and outstanding commercial advantage) as well as more specialized articles within the emerging field of musicology.3 On the other hand, a concept of folklore—and the originating potential of ordinary people particularly from remote places as capable of extraordinary creative activity largely through improvisation (i.e., happenstance)—has also influenced a narrative explanation for the relatively sudden emergence of both cantus and the means to present it in music notation figurae.4

All of these models that emerged during the course of the 20th century have been greeted with both enthusiasm as well as critical distance. They have all appeared to be worthy of acceptance, achieving persuasive force as an explanatory vehicle during the course of the 20th century. However, “form,” “schools,” “folk culture,” a free-wheeling, ill-defined concept of “improvisation” that corresponded to late 19th and 20th-century notions of “freedom”—all these concepts have

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