If History Is Written by the Victors

By: Sara Haefeli (Ithaca College) //

At the very beginning of the music history survey, right before diving into the music of the early Christian church, I play examples of chant from all over the world: a Ramayana Monkey Chant from Bali, a Muslim devotional chant from Ethiopia, and a Native American Pow Wow Grand Entry. It is remarkably easy to find samples from every continent, and a similar type of musical practice exists in almost every faith community. After this brief overview, I attempt to explain why, from this point forward, we will focus exclusively on Western music. Students often have difficulty grasping this concept because for many of them the assumption is completely invisible, so I pose the question directly: Why do we choose to study only one of these musical practices and the music that follows?


Who Are the Winners of Music History?

Winston Churchill claimed that “history is written by the victors.” If this is true of our history of music, then who won? What does “winning” mean? Why is it that musicologists have historically chosen to focus on what we generically call “classical” music (or “art” music, or—even worse—“serious” music) and not on all the other musical practices around us? 

Music history courses begin with a study of music as an important part of a general education since the time of the ancient Greeks. Yet even beginning the study of music history here limits the discussion to the Western tradition and to the “winning” narrative. But music scholarship as a unique discipline—on equal footing with other academic disciplines—was not really established until the late nineteenth century. And where was our modern discipline born? In German-speaking countries, home to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and many other “genius” composers. Guido Adler, a founding father of musicology, sought to describe the new discipline in “The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology,” an article published in the first issue of the first musicological journal in 1885.

The emerging field was heavily influenced by the music scene in Vienna at the time. The most important ensembles and venues were the opera and the opera house (especially the Staatsoper), and the symphony and the famous Musikverein. The Staatsoper and the Musikverein were more than just concert venues; they were monuments to the art of music. One critic even said of the famous Golden Hall in the Musikverein: “Should it be possible to think of Mozart’s great ‘Jupiter’ Symphony constructed in solid, visible forms, then this new concert hall in the Musikverein building would provide a suitable picture.”

These architectural spaces are temples to music. Busts of the great composers line the upper walls of the Musikverein, just below paintings of Apollo and the Muses, reminding us whom we have come to venerate. Sure, Vienna around the turn of the century was full of other types of music, but what other genres had such temples in which to worship? The central place that the symphony and the opera held in the cultural life of the city undoubtedly shaped the emerging study of musicology. These genres were the “winners,” and the musicological research that followed was shaped by the value placed on these genres and their creators.

The Germanic National Zeitgeist

German nationalism was equally important in the formation of our musicological canon. (Although Vienna is in Austria, as German speakers, Austrians generally considered themselves German—at least culturally if not politically.) German nationalism in the first half of the nineteenth century was seen as a liberal movement with the goal of establishing a parliamentary democracy. The nationalistic movements after about 1880 sought to define German national identity, especially in light of Germany and Austria’s relative diversity. As home to Jews, Danes, Poles, French, Hungarians, Roma, and others, what did it mean to be German? Or Austrian, for that matter?

German and German-speaking musicologists took part in this formation of the German Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, and some were more overtly nationalistic than others. German composers were front and center: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and others. We have critical editions of Vivaldi’s instrumental music, but not his vocal music because musicologists knew that in order to understand works like Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti we had to understand the concerti of Vivaldi. (Bach copied Vivaldi compositions as part of a self-directed study.) But Vivaldi wrote a massive amount of vocal music (both sacred genres and operas), the vast majority of which is completely unknown. Cecilia Bartoli’s 1999 The Vivaldi Album brought some of his most inventive opera arias to light and was only possible because of her own archival research. This is one example of how choices made by early musicologists shaped not only the field of study, but also our larger performance repertoire. It’s not just the symphony and the opera that won; it is also the music of German composers.

Adler’s Heritage

The musical attributes of these “winning” genres set the standard for how we study music and the qualities we expect to hear (and see!) in music today. This is a problem because much of the music that even the most serious music students and professors love is largely left out of the history of western music. Here are three of the great expectations created by our musical winners that wreak havoc on other musical styles:

    1. Notation

The styles most valued at the turn of the century were by necessity notated. Without later tools of dissemination, especially the ability to record and play back music, this literature relied on publication for distribution. Furthermore, musicians in this tradition are trained to study music that is notated. It is difficult for musicians like myself with a notation-based music background to analyze music that isn’t notated. As scholars and musicians like myself study this notated music, we reify notation’s priority to the detriment of other musical styles and practices.

    2. Musical language

Our German, symphonic repertoire sets up specific tonal, harmonic, voice-leading, and formal expectations. We actually have a fairly poor vocabulary for rhythm and pitch gradation, and timbre designations are almost completely absent. We struggle to describe exactly what makes the delicious bends in blues melodies so heart-wrenching (which is largely an issue of pitch), and we can’t easily describe the difference in tone between a clarinet and a mandolin (which is an issue of timbre). Pop music, jazz, and much of non-Western music may be fairly simple melodically, harmonically, and formally, but it may be quite complex rhythmically and timbrally.

     3. The concept of The Work

Symphonies and operas are works that exist in our imaginations outside of any specific performance. They are connected to the idea of the transcendent, the sublime, and the “genius” creator. Jazz standards, on the other hand, do not exist outside specific performances. We tend to think of them as fairly blank canvases upon which different artists may paint. Rock songs too are “covered” by other artists. The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” gets covered; Smetana’s Ma vlast is performed. When an artist covers a pop tune or jazz standard it is expected that the artist will create something new through their interpretation. When an orchestra performs Ma vlast, there is an expectation that they will be as true as possible to “the work.” There is very little room for creative reinterpretation.

If There Are “Winners,” Then Who Are the “Losers”?

What I refer to as the musical “losers” are the genres and styles that are left out of our mainstream study of music history. Some of these musics may be the big winners financially (as in a lot of pop music) but are not “winners” in terms of the cultural prestige they carry. This idea of prestige is more important than one may think. The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu wrote about how “capital” is the basis of not only our financial well-being, but the basis of our social life and potential for social mobility. Bourdieu defined “cultural capital” as our collections of tastes, preferences, postures, and mannerisms. In short, aesthetic preferences and cultural understandings allow us entrance into specific social groups. Whether you are a brony or a hipster, your membership in the group depends on your ability to navigate the collection of symbolic elements common to that group. Although shared tastes might make us feel comfortable, Bourdieu pointed out that cultural capital is a source of social inequality. It keeps people out just as much as it makes us feel in.

The phrase “history is written by the victors” insinuates that the making of history is somewhat duplicitous or manipulative. In his “Society must be Defended,” Michel Foucault claims that the victors use their dominance to suppress their adversary’s version of historical events and instill the belief that their victory was somehow inevitable. Does music history have the same suppressive result? I believe it does. When we are fighting for limited funding in the arts, the musical “losers” are typically shut out of revenue streams from government agencies, foundations, endowments, and corporate sponsorship.

And there are other losses as well. When we repeatedly tell the story of the “winners” or the majority, then the minority’s stories disappear. These silent voices have just as much to offer, if not more.

So where do we go from here? Well, this is part of The Avid Listener’s mission: to explore other genres, styles, and ways of knowing music. This is a platform to write about losers and victors alike. And as authors of the blog we need readers like you—readers with diverse musical backgrounds and tastes—because, frankly, as a professor of historical musicology at an elite school of music, I am on the side of the “winners.” Vive la résistance! 

For Discussion

Are there other areas in music where we have designated “winners” and “losers?” How does winning or losing shape our understanding of these musical practices?

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