Raising the Tone

The Triumph of Music by Tim Blanning

Books History Music

With few worthy exceptions, historians of Western music have treated it as an autonomous art form, developing under the impulse of stylistic innovations for which composers take the principal credit. However, music is a social phenomenon. It brings people together in song and dance; it is a mark of ceremony and religious devotion; and it changes as audiences evolve. Indeed, to speak of “audiences” is already to import a particular social context – that of the concert, in which people sit in silence (or relative silence) while musicians play.

The concert was unknown in the ancient world and, as the word itself implies, was originally a concerted effort among musicians, rather than an assembly formed to listen to them. Many of the most important innovations in Western music came about because people made music together, without an audience and without a thought of one. The madrigal and the brass band, the Lutheran hymn and the parlour song developed in such a way.

Such thoughts form the inspiration for Tim Blanning’s lively and informative social history of Western music. With impressive range and scholarship, Blanning documents the rapid change in status of the musician – from low-grade servant to international superstar. Just when the change occurred is uncertain. Long after Handel had become a rich and sought-after member of London society, Mozart was still a feudal serf of the Archbishop of Salzburg, compelled to eat at the servants’ table, and finally dismissed from his job with a kick up the bum. Within a few decades, however, Beethoven came to be regarded by his aristocratic patrons as their social equal and spiritual overlord. Mozart died in obscure circumstances and was buried without ceremony. Beethoven was accompanied to his grave by a vast crowd from every social rank, and eulogised by Franz Grillparzer in words that, as Blanning points out, made no reference to God, but focused instead on the divine spirit of the man in the coffin.

One cause of this enormous change, Blanning suggests, is the rise of the cult of the “genius”. This cult did not originate among music lovers, but was part of a wider phenomenon, associated with new attitudes to classical antiquity (the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann), to the role of the poet in society (Goethe), to the place of aesthetic education (Rousseau, Kant, Schiller), and to religion. The influence of the Church was already in decline when Mozart received that kick from one of its more arrogant officials. However, human societies cannot exist for long without the sentiment of the sacred and the transfer of this sentiment to art had been fully effected by the time of Grillparzer’s eulogy.

The secularisation of society, therefore, brought about the sacralisation of music. Those intense feelings of communion which in Bach’s Leipzig were directed towards the unseen presence at the altar were, by the mid-19th century, directed by silent, swooning audiences towards Liszt, as he sat God-like above them.

When Wagner created his theatre at Bayreuth, it was with the express purpose of presenting “sacred” works of art such as Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde – works saturated with religious emotion, neither of which mentions any God (other than the one that can be heard in its harmonies).

The evolution of music has, therefore, been profoundly affected by secularisation, and by its immediate consequences, such as nationalism and democracy. Moreover, as Blanning shows in pages as erudite as they are lucid, technology fed into the sacralising process. The demon figure of Paganini, with his technological virtuosity, already sent shudders down the spines of early 19th-century audiences. Then the invention of the piano put the entire classical repertoire for the first time within reach of one pair of hands. The domestic pianist could play arrangements of the symphonies and overtures that her listeners might never hear in the concert hall, and in doing so transform herself into the real presence of the composer, who spoke directly and intimately to the company at home. From Jane Austen to DH Lawrence, novelists have described the seductive power that the piano bestowed, raising the emotional stakes after dinner to a point never recorded in the days of the harpsichord. I would add that the CD player and the iPod are agents of seclusion rather than seduction.

All this and much more is discussed in Blanning’s eloquent pages, which record what he unhesitatingly describes as the “triumph” of music. He refuses to segregate the classical tradition from the rise of jazz and pop, and so can include Mendelssohn and John Coltrane, Schoenberg and Eric Clapton, on equal terms. If you allow that move, then it becomes easy to show that music has risen from a pastime with a few professional applications to a universal background to human life.

But should we run the histories of classical and pop music together in this way? In his somewhat post-modern conclusion Blanning asks “why not?” He distances himself from those who would judge pop unfavourably, implying that the attention directed to Hendrix by his fans is no different from that directed to Bach by his.

I doubt this, because I believe that many lovers of pop fail to distinguish the musical object from the performer who makes use of it. It is only a minority of popular songs (the jazz classics, and after them the Beatles, Clapton, Abba) that can be given a life beyond the grave of their first performers.

Blanning is right that music has been sacralised. But it has been sacralised in two ways, one religious, the other idolatrous, one rising above our everyday condition, the other too often wallowing in the depths of it.