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This article is taken from PN Review 2, Volume 4 Number 2, January - March 1978.

Thinking about Musical History Alan Walker

MUSIC HISTORIANS are more difficult to justify than historians generally. If you wish to understand the Battle of Waterloo or Oliver Cromwell or the South Sea Bubble, the historian will tell you what you want to know. Indeed, unless you read his books, such topics will remain for ever closed to you: Oliver Cromwell no longer exists. But if you wish to understand Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, or Beethoven's 'Eroica' symphony, you do not consult a historian. You acquaint yourself with these works directly, by listening to them. There is nothing the history books can tell you about music that hearing it won't tell you more clearly; or else, what the history books are telling you cannot be heard.

The historian will argue that it is his function to provide background, to trace the social, political, religious forces at work, and disclose their bearing on artistic creation. Behind his activities lies a clear assumption: there is a causal connection between a composer's background and his music; a knowledge of the one is essential to an understanding of the other.

Let us put this to the test. Suppose we learn of the 'Eroica' Symphony's connections with Napoleon and the French Revolution. Are we expected to think of Napoleon and the French Revolution the next time the Symphony unfolds before us? If not, of what use is such information? Suppose, again, that we read about the chronological development of Brahms's four Symphonies, and we are told that the ...


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