Musical historicism

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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"[edit]

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 wishing to do work "ahead of its time" as "nothing but historicist propaganda" (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 2003a), or a style or movement characterized by "regard for or preoccupation with the styles or values of the past", frequently used pejoratively (OED 2012). Modernism is, on the other hand, "a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression" (Merriam-Webster 2003b). The two concepts come together in what is called "historicist modernism", represented compositionally by Max Reger and Ferruccio Busoni. It is neither nostalgic nor conservative, but rather attempts to bridge perceived historical gaps without denying, collapsing, or attempting to retreat over them to return to the past. In historicist modernism, "musical techniques from the remote past are used are used prominently and vigorously as a way of achieving a distance from late Romantic styles" (Frisch 2005, 139).

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).

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).[clarification needed]

History of musical historicism[edit]

17th century[edit]

By the second decade of the 17th century, the idea of cultivating the stile antico (as exemplified by the music of Palestrina) had become a conscious effort at historicism on the part of composers of the seconda pratica, or stile moderno. Francesco Soriano revived Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli (with "improvements") in 1609, and the next year Claudio Monteverdi, until then a staunch adherent of the stile moderno, composed his Missa in illo tempore, a parody mass based on a motet first published in 1538 by Nicolas Gombert. Monteverdi published his mass together with his Vespro della Beata Vergine, a sharply contrasting work of the seconda pratica (Atlas 2006, 119).

18th, 19th, and 20th centuries[edit]

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.[clarification needed] 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").[citation needed]

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.

In the 20th century Carl Orff attempted a revival of ancient Greek practices of musical theater (he also regularly contributed his own texts in Latin and Ancient Greek to his own musical works).

Historicism in contemporary music[edit]

In contemporary art music, the entire gamut of historical style periods has served as a creative resource.

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 "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 second-rate composers of the 17th or 18th century (Colburn 2007), and led to accusations of "trivializing musicology" (Smith 2002).

See also[edit]


  • Atlas, Allan W. 2006. "Music for the Mass". In European Music, 1520–1640, edited by James Haar, 101–29. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music 5. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-200-3 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-84383-894-4 (pbk).
  • Beckerman, Michael. 1994. "CLASSICAL VIEW; All Right, So Maybe Haydn Didn't Write Them. So What?" New York Times (May 15).
  • Colburn, Grant. 2007. "A New Baroque Revival." Early Music America 13, no. 2 (Summer): 36–45, 54–55.
  • Davies, Peter. 2006. "That Mysterious Flow." Scientific American, 16, no. 1, special edition: 6–11. Reprinted from Scientific American 287, no. 3 (special issue: "A Matter of Time"): 40–44, 46–47.
  • Frisch, Walter. 2005. German Modernism: Music and the Arts. California Studies in 20th-Century Music. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-25148-9.
  • Gopnik, Adam. 2002. "The Porcupine: A Pilgrimage to Popper". The New Yorker (1 April), accessed 23 September 2015.
  • Lindskoog, Kathryn. 1996. "In the Footsteps of Michelman". The Lewis Legacy 69 (Summer).
  • Merriam-Webster. 2003a. "Historicism". Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, eleventh edition.
  • Merriam-Webster. 2003b. "Modernism" Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, eleventh edition.
  • Oxford English Dictionary. 2012. "Historicism, n.2". Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. Oxford University Press (online) (subscription required).
  • Smith, Douglas Alton. 2002. "Hoax or Art" Lute Society of America Quarterly, (February): 4.
  • Solomon, Maynard. 1995. Mozart: a Life. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Tomkins, Calvin. 1976. The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde, expanded edition. New York: Penguin Books.

Further reading[edit]

  • Applegate, Celia. 2005. Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn's Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Cornell University Press.
  • Böggemann, Markus. 2007. Gesichte und Geschichte: Arnold Schönbergs musikalischer Expressinismus zwischen avant-gardistischer Kunstprogrammatik und Historismusproblem. Vienna: Lafite.
  • Bryn-Julson, Phyllis, and Paul Mathews. 2008. Inside Pierrot Lunaire: Performing the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg's Masterpiece. Lanham and Plymouth: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6205-0 (pbk); ISBN 978-0-8108-6225-8 (ebook).
  • Burkholder, J. Peter, Andreas Giger, and David C. Birchler (eds.). 1994–2007. Musical Borrowing: An Annotated Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana School of Music.
  • Carl, Robert. 2001. "Introduction: Historicism in American Music since 1980". Contemporary Music Review 20, no. 4:1–7.
  • Cherlin, Michael. 2007. Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination. Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-1394-6389-8.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1983. Foundations of Music History, translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1989. Nineteenth-Century Music, translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07644-0.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1965. "Quotation and Originality." The Portable Emerson, edited and with an introduction by Mark Van Doren. New York: The Viking Press.
  • Ford, Joseph Dillon. 2003. Orpheus in the Twenty-first Century: Historicism and the Art Music Renascence. Gainesville, Florida: New Music Classics [online publisher].
  • Frisch, Walter. 2002. "Reger's Bach and Historicist Modernism". 19th-century Music 25:296–312.
  • Frisch, Walter. 2004. "Reger's Historicist Modernism." The Musical Quarterly 87, no. 4 (October): 732–48.
  • Gardiner, Patrick L. 1995. "Historicism." The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Garratt, James. 2002. Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination: Interpreting Historicism in Nineteenth-Century Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Garratt, James. 2004. "Mendelssohn and the Rise of Musical Historicism." The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, edited by Peter Mercer-Taylor, 55–70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca. 1996. A History of Western Music, fifth edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
  • Hailey, Christopher. 1997. "Schoenberg and the Canon". In Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of Twentieth-century Culture, edited by Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey, 163–78. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-20314-3.
  • Headlam, David John. 1996. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06400-4.
  • "Lament." 1975. Harvard Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised and enlarged.[full citation needed].
  • Lenz, Eric David. 2002. "Neoclassicism in Claude Debussy's Sonate pour violoncelle et piano." DMA diss., University of Alabama.
  • Lippman, Edward. 1994. A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
  • MacKenzie, James C. 1995. The Text of Time: Musical Quotation and Historicism in Berio's Sinfonia. Ottawa: National Library of Canada (Bibliothèque nationale du Canada).
  • Mahnkopf, Claus-Steffen. 2004. The Foundations of Contemporary Composition. Hofheim: Wolke.
  • Mercer-Taylor, Peter. 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mihailovic, Alexander. 1999. Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries : A Centennial Symposium. Westport, Connectivut: Greenwood Press.
  • Popper, Karl R. 1957. The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Reese, Gustave. 1959. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
  • Reese, Gustave. 1968. Music in the Middle Ages. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
  • Roth, Michael S. 1994. Rediscovering History: Culture, Politics, and the Psyche. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Saffle, Michael and Rossana Dalmonte. 2003. Liszt and the Birth of Modern Europe: Music as a Mirror of Religious, Political, Cultural, and Aesthetic Transformations. Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio (Como), 14–18 December 1998. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press.
  • Toews, John Edward. 2004. Becoming Historical : Cultural Reformation and Public Memory in Early Nineteenth-century Berlin. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Trachtenberg, Marvin, and Isabelle Hyman. 1986. Architecture from Prehistory to Post-Modernism: The Western Tradition. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Watkins, Glenn. 1994. Pyramids at the Louvre: Music, Culture, and Collage from Stravinsky to the Postmodernists. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Weaver, Robert Lamar, Norma Wright Weaver, Susan Helen Parisi, Ernest Charles Harriss, and Calvin M. Bower. 2000. Music in the Theater, Church, and Villa : Essays in Honor of Robert Lamar Weaver and Norma Wright Weaver. Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press.
  • Wiora, Walter (ed.) 1969. Die Ausbreitung des Historismus über die Musik: Aufsätze und Diskussionen. Studien zur Musikgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts 14. Regensburg: G. Bosse Verlag.
  • Wolff, Christoph. 2004. "A Bach Cult in Late-Eighteenth-Century Berlin: Sara Levy's Musical Salon." 1886th Stated Meeting. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. House of the Academy, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 15 December.
  • Zon, Bennett. 1999. Nineteenth-century British Music Studies. Aldershot [Hampshire]; Brookfield [Vermont]: Ashgate.