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Musical historicism signifies the use of historical materials, structures, styles, techniques, media, conceptual content, etc., whether by a single composer or those associated with a particular school, movement, or period.
Musical historicism also denotes a theory, doctrine, or aesthetic that emphasizes the importance of music history or in which history is seen as a standard of value or determining factor (as in performance practice).
Meaning of "musical historicism"
The term "historicism" has acquired various, sometimes confusing meanings over a wide range of disciplines. The British philosopher Karl Popper, who disliked modern music and strongly preferred the works of Bach, Mozart, and Schubert, spoke of "the failure of the historicist propaganda for the modern in music."[this quote needs a citation] He opposed the socioscientific doctrine of historicism that discoverable laws of historical change make it possible to predict future developments. Repudiating the claim that Schoenberg was "an inevitable historical force", Popper dismissed the idea of producing art work "ahead of its time" (Gopnik 2002).
When referring to the arts, however, the term "historicism" generally denotes something distinctly different from the historicism targeted by Popper's critique. It designates "a style (as in architecture) characterized by the use of traditional forms and elements" (Merriam-Webster 2003). Historicism stands in contrast to modernism, "a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression" (Merriam-Webster 2003).
Whereas the historicism of the Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute (1917–31) by Ottorino Respighi is readily apparent to the ear, since the composer drew directly on the works of 16th- and 17th-century composers, the historicism informing the Music of Changes (1951) by John Cage, based on the ancient Chinese I Ching, is deeply embedded in the compositional process (Tomkins 1976, 111–12).
The study of history and historical influence also raises fundamental questions about the nature of time. Many physicists, including Einstein, have maintained that the familiar division of time into past, present, and future is an illusion, from which it necessarily follows that "old" and "new" are terms as relative as "up" and "down" (Davies 2006, 9). Since concepts of time and history and the average lifespans of human beings living in different periods and cultures are variable, these, too, are factors that must also be considered.
History of musical historicism
18th, 19th, and 20th centuries
Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries incorporated traditional chorale melodies into numerous of their major works in such genres as the cantata, chorale prelude, chorale fantasia, chorale fugue, chorale motet, chorale variations, oratorio, and Passion. Like composers before them, Johannes Brahms and Max Reger composed variations on themes taken from earlier composers (e.g., Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24, and Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a; and Reger's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Bach, op. 81, and Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, op. 132). Stravinsky derived much of the musical material for his Pulcinella from the work of various 18th-century composers.
Creating new music that closely follows the style of an earlier composer or period has provided a creative outlet for both major and minor masters. Mozart, whose music was richly informed by his contact with the antiquarian music circle of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, exhibited a particular gift for the baroque style in such works as his Suite in C Major (sometimes subtitled "in the style of Handel"), KV 399 (385i), which includes an ouverture, allemande, and courante. (A fragmentary sarabande and Eine kleine Gigue, K. 574 also document his skill as an historicist composer.) In a letter to his father of 7 February 1778, he proudly states, "As you know, I can more or less adopt or imitate any kind and any style of composition" (Solomon 1995, 119).
A more eclectic approach to historicism in which multiple historical style influences are evident was adopted by Louis Spohr in his Symphony No. 6 in G Major, op. 116 ("Historical") "in the Style and Taste of Four Different Periods": 1. Bach-Handel'sche Periode, 1720, Largo - Grave; 2. Haydn-Mozart'sche Periode, 1780, Larghetto; 3. Beethoven'sche Periode, 1810, Scherzo; and 4. Allerneueste Periode ["very latest Period"], 1840, Allegro vivace. Though not characteristic of his later style, Sergei Prokofiev paid tribute not only to the "classicism" of Haydn but also to the baroque gavotte in his Symphony No. 1 in D Major, op. 25 ("Classical").
The fusion of historical and emergent styles, forms, techniques, and content in a given work is encountered with great frequency in the music of most periods. The fugue, for example, whose origins can be traced to the imitative counterpoint of the late Middle Ages and which reached full maturity in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, figures prominently in the musical styles of a number of important composers in the 19th century and beyond, including Beethoven, Mendelssohn (whose early works were modelled on symphonies of C. P. E. Bach), Reger (whose works for solo cello, viola or violin closely imitate Bachian forms), Shostakovich, and Hindemith.
A closely related instrumental genre that first appeared in the late Renaissance, the toccata achieved particular prominence in the keyboard works of Buxtehude and J.S. Bach and has since been revived by such distinguished composers as Schumann, Debussy, and Prokofiev.
Other romantic and early 20th-century composers among the many who demonstrated either explicit or implicit historicist affinities are Barber, Bartók, Britten, Marius Casadesus, Chávez, Ferdinand David, Falla, Fauré, François-Joseph Fétis, Grieg, Hindemith, d'Indy, Ives, Kreisler, Paderewski, Pfitzner, Manuel Ponce, Poulenc, Respighi, Satie, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, and Wagner.
Historicism in contemporary music
Paralleling the work of contemporary architects, designers, authors, and other artists who have openly revisited the past, a growing number of late-20th and 21st-century composers have adopted the historicist approach to composition, employing to a greater or lesser extent materials, structures, styles, techniques, media, and conceptual content associated with previous eras. In contemporary art music, the entire gamut of historical style periods has served as a creative resource.
Given that tonality itself is deeply rooted in pre-modernist historical traditions, tonal types of minimalism, post-minimalism, and contemporary world music may all be subsumed in varying degrees under the rubric of historicism.
Interest in musical historicism has been spurred by the emergence of such international organizations as the Delian Society, dedicated to the revitalization of tonal art music, and Vox Saeculorum, whose composer members have a specialized interest in baroque idioms (Colburn 2007).
Some contemporary historicist composers, similar to the 18th-century literary figures Thomas Chatterton, James MacPherson (the Ossian poems), and Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto), have written under a pseudepigraphic ascription, attributing their work to other composers, either real or imaginary. These include Winfried Michel, author of the impressive "Haydn Forgeries" (Beckerman 1994; Lindskoog 1996) and Roman Turovsky-Savchuk, whose original lute and viola da gamba compositions in the baroque style were sufficiently convincing to be mistaken for works by masters of the composer's own mythopoeic invention (Colburn 2007), and led to accusations of "trivializing musicology" (Smith 2002).
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