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Saturday morning quotes 5.21: Historical continuum

October 10, 2015

Following up on last week’s quotations we introduce a small reality check to highlight the importance of remembering the sometimes forgotten segments in the continuum of history. For history is indeed a continuum that is interrupted from time to time when those with an axe to grind wield said axe to chop away a segment, rewrite it to suit their purpose, and paste it back in place with skewed alignment.  But the point is that history is broad and interdisciplinary, and specialists whose words we value recognize this fact.

“If there is, indeed, a single historical continuum it ought to follow that there is an underlying unity to all forms of historical research. All the disciplines that make up the continuum describe and explain change in the past even if they work on different parts of the continuum, operate at different scales, use different methods and paradigms, and focus on very different types of objects…This ought to mean that scholars in these disciplines have much to learn from each other, and students have much to learn from understanding what links different parts of the historical continuum. Indeed, the existence of a single historical continuum makes it anachronistic to describe as “History” a scholarly discipline that concerns itself only with part of the past of our own species.”

– David Christian,“A Single Historical Continuum“, Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2011, The Institute for Research on World-Systems, University of California, Riverside, pg. 14.

On the subject of a musical education and its value, we again chide instrumentalists to remember that in order to play music from the 16th century with sensitivity and taste, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of vocal polyphony.

“Training in instrumental performance was, throughout the period of our concern here, mostly an individual practice, often a father-son relationship that resembled guild apprenticeship…Playing “genteel” instruments, especially keyboards and the lute, was an instruction-aided goal for aristocratic amateurs in what was otherwise a professional and definitely non-aristocratic calling.  Not all or even many children were taught to play an instrument. By comparison, a much larger number learned to sing; it is not too much to say that instruction of the young in music centered on singing.”

– James Haar, “Some Introductory Remarks on Musical Pedagogy”, in Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Edited by Russell E. Murray, Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J. Cyrus, Publications of the Early Music Institute, University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, IN, 2010. p. 4

We tend to miss the point of historical music when we excise a small segment from the whole and remove it from its context.  If you appreciate the music of John Dowland, you may want to indulge in the music of Luca Marenzio, a composer Dowland held in the very highest esteem—but a composer who wrote no instrumental music.

For whatever reason, music history is taught today in easily digestible segments that remove facts from their context and rearrange them to highlight a particular point of view.  Yes, the lute was an important instrument in the 16th century and an enormous amount of appealing music was written for it.  But the amount of music for lute is but a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of 16th-century vocal music that survives, and the bulk of published lute music was vocal polyphony reworked and arranged for the instrument.

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