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Monday, December 13, 2010


The Triumph of Music:
The Rise of Composers and Their Art
by Tim Blanning
p. 2008
Belknap/Harvard University Press

    I don't like to start book reviews by quoting a paragraph from the introduction, but I think it's the best move here:

    Status, purpose, places and spaces, technology, and liberation- these are the five categories I will explore to explain music's march to cultural supremacy.  What follows is an exercise in social, cultural and political history, not musicology- no technical knowledge of music is required.

      Often when I read a good book, I'm unsure whether I find the thesis convincing because I already agreed before I read the specific book (the book just reinforced pre existing belief) or whether the argument was just objectively convincing.  In this case, i can firmly declare that both are true- first- I totally agreed with the above stated thesis before I picked up this book AND that Blanning- the Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University- writes in such an objectively pleasing fashion that is hard not to get swept up in his five stage analysis of "the triumph of music."

   When this book begins, musicians are servants and slaves.  The examples selected are the German composers of the 18th century.  At the beginning of Chapter one, musicians like Handel, Haydn and Mozart are writing their masterpieces at the bequest of various German princes, and for them alone.  Over the course of the 18th century and into the 19th century, this model of musicianship is overwhelmed by the now familiar idea of musicians as cultural celebrity.  A recent still-relevant example is Liszt- whose "demonic" piano playing inspired the kind of swoons a modern associates with the Beatles.  This initial transformation from musician/composer from court servant to celebrity is  embodied by Wagner.  Wagner's triumph in German culture remains largely unequalled, at it is to Wagner that all subsequent musicians must look for a benchmark of "how far you can go."

   The role of the purpose of music in the march towards triumph is the focus of the second chapter.  Here, the point is embodied by a sub chapter heading "The Secularization of Society, the Sacralization of Music."  Blanning described- in matter of fact fashion how music moved from being an Assertion of Power on behalf of a specific monarch, to an instrument used in worship, to it's more or less present state as a good to be consumed by the public in the form of concert.  Along the way, music audiences were convinced to take music very seriously, a process referred to by Blanning as "Sacralization"(i.e. making something sacred) at the same time, the movement of music appreciation out of the court and into the bourgeois and working classed meant that the audience for music exploded.

   Then he is on to the role of physical space (an interesting summary of work about how places to hear music became more 'church like' and how the number of places to hear music expanded to included venues for the middle and lower classes (specifically pleasure gardens and music halls in the late 18th century and 19th century.)

  Finally, Blanning handles the role of technology- a subject I've written about so often here that I found his writing duplicative of books I've already read and a final, weak, chapter on the liberating power of music for disempowered minorities.  On the whole, it's an excellent, recent summary of the ways in which music is a social project composed of composers, performers and audiences.  Blanning assumes that music does not actually exist without all three individuals- music is a social experience, no matter what romanticists and their followers may claim.  I recommend this book for anyone looking for a cogent  thesis about the role of music in modern society.

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