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Classical Mythology 101

4. The Myth of Music Trivia

The only concern of music history is music.

It almost sounds like the conspiratorial design of Romantic era music critics: Divorce classical music from its history. Erase all evidence that it sprang from a given time and place. Paint a picture of the musical world as a sort of bland creative haven untouched by politics, war, social movements, religious tides, commerce, science, literature, poetry, art or philosophy. Let music's only context be itself so that that music, though dated, might remain timeless. A work of art to be appreciated on its own merits by later generations, independent of the historical context and the outer world from which it arose.

That's exactly what classical music is to us today -- a stand-alone art form. We make some vague association between Beethoven and Vienna in the early 1800s, but we really have little idea of what it was like to live in that world. On the upside, we now listen to his Ninth Symphony and hear it as a living document for our own 21st century and not some museum relic associated with events whose day is long past. On the downside, we've lost something of our own connection to the richness of the past. Depth in music tends us toward shallowness in all other regards.

As a society, we're weak on history, weak on philosophy, weak on literacy. We still listen to Ballades by Chopin, but no one reads the novels of Georges Sand anymore. We hear Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" at the opera house but know nothing of Pushkin's play, let alone the historical Boris, who was a contemporary of England's Elizabeth I, France's Henri de Navarre and Spain's Felipé II. Program notes that point out the common melodic theme in Beethoven's Razumovsky Quartets and the Coronation Scene in "Boris" practically define Count Andrei Razumovsky by his minor role as Beethoven's patron but neglect to mention he was a key player in post-Napoleonic Europe (as Czar Alexander's second at the Vienna Congress, he wrangled unsuccessfully with Talleyrand of France, Metternich of Austria, Hardenburg of Prussia and Lord Castlereagh of England to win all of Poland's territory for Russia).

Classical music is the soundtrack of history. It was the music of popes, kings, princes and capitalist aristocrats. Its composers and performers have often moved among the rich and powerful, and they have always associated with some of the most brilliant minds of their time. Vincenzo Galilei didn't just help bring opera into the world; he was also the father of Galileo. Johannes Ockeghem was part of the entourage that travelled to Spain to negotiate a marriage between the Duke of Berry (Louis XI's brother) and Isabel of Castille. Organist Orlando Gibbons ~ "the best Finger of that Age" ~ entertained the French deputation that visited London to arrange the wedding of 17-year-old Henrietta Maria to the future Charles I. Incidentally, not only did Henrietta's Catholic faith alienate Parliament from her doomed husband, it probably sealed the fate of his court musician, William Lawes, who was killed (along with many of the other artists, poets and Royalist gentlemen in the King's Cavaliers) trying to defend Charles against Cromwell on the fields of Chester.

Try reading up on classical music history, and you may end up learning about little else than the music. That may not bother the narrow-band critics, writers and radio DJs who provide the public with much of its introduction and indoctrination to classical music. But when you divorce music history from music's history, what you're often left with is music trivia ~ something that's useful for playing a round of "Jeopardy!"

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© David Bündler, 2000
Last revised: May 23, 2000