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Saturday morning quotes 4.41: The common touch

February 21, 2015

As we observe so frequently, history as we know it is written by the victors, those who have the best archival tools, and those with the most effective means of conveying it to others in the short term. We read recent stories of certain states in the US wanting to erase from the history books any events or facts that may raise embarrassing questions for those among us still capable of critical thinking.

In the field of music history, we tend to create a collection of “the best of” whatever, whether it be style, genre, or composer.  I’ll personally never forget the experience of visiting a local CD shop and when I asked whether there was a category of music listed under the composer “John Dowland,” being told that there was not, since he was not considered an “important” composer.

Generally speaking, in the world of art, we tend to think that what has been preserved is the best representations of the past.  But this is faulty logic.  For instance, lutes that survive intact from the 16th century may not be the best examples to copy and play today – maybe they survived because they sounded terrible and weren’t considered worth playing.

We may be missing the point entirely until we dig deeper and attempt to discover works that were less popular.  A good example of this line of thinking can be read in this interesting article by Jonathan Jones from the Guardian, Tuesday 17 February 2015, where he states:

Putting faces on people from the past is a dangerous delusion. It makes us think we can understand past centuries more easily than is the case. But worse, it casts a spotlight on a tiny number of individuals and throws the vast majority of humankind into their shadow. Inevitably, the best-preserved, most-portrayed faces are those of the few – kings and queens, ladies and lords.

What are the chances of a medieval peasant being remembered as an individual? Bertolt Brecht defined the dream of a “history from below” when he asked:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

We tend to go out of our way to find lesser-known music by less famous composers, and then discover the significance of the text and the magic of the music hidden in the scrawled notes.  This is the most satisfying work, and we encourage students of art and music history to ask for more opportunities to dig deeper than the received “important” works.

One Comment
  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Nah, Dowland ain’t important. Take Giovanni Battista dalla Gostena- now that’s an IMPORTANT composer! Also Melchior Neusidler, Albert de Rippe, Julien Belin, and Miguel de Fuenllana; everybody knows how important they are.

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