Originally published 10/27/ 2009
The death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 was a solemn occasion indeed. It would have to have been–it’s hard to imagine anything more solemn than a German funeral. Germany, and certainly all of Europe, mourned the passing of one of the greatest paragons of artistic achievement they–and, assuredly, the world–had ever known. Bach’s entire enormous family was there, including his wife Anna Magdalena and their twenty children, most of whom were probably half-occupied composing trio sonatas in their heads, hoping to remember all the counterpoint by the time they got home to write it down. His eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach stood off to the side, sneaking snootfuls of whiskey from a hidden flask, musing to himself that he was REALLY going to have a hard time living up to his father’s reputation now that the old man was dead. The pallbearers lowered the casket with unparalleled Teutonic solemnity into the grave.
And then, as they threw the first shovelful of dirt on top of the casket, the sky lit with fireworks! A trumpet fanfare sounded! Banners dropped from the eaves of every building in town, bearing in gaudy colors the message “Welcome to the Classical Era!”
Well, no. That’s probably not how it went at all. This idea of imposing labels onto artistic epochs is something that doesn’t happen until long after the epochs have passed, but this contrived practice is one that’s always fascinated me. Why do we have such a huge desire to categorize things? And who makes up the names? And why has this process spiraled out of all control since the 20th century?
It’s fitting, I think, that historians should mark the year of Bach’s death as the end of the Baroque era. He was probably the most important creative figure working in that period–and I feel pretty safe in asserting that, since I think he was probably just about the most important creative figure working in ANY period. Not to take anything away from Handel and Telemann and Vivaldi, they were all pretty good too. But I do agree with Douglas Adams’s statement that Bach’s B Minor mass (and I’ll add the St. Matthews Passion as well) is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. So, OK. Bach’s death vis-a-vis the end of the Baroque era is sort of a no-brainer.
So what about Mozart? He was probably the most important composer in the Classical era, but they don’t ascribe the end of the Classical era to the year of HIS death. I’m going to fault Mozart himself with that one, since he died at the young age of thirty-five. Wouldn’t really do to have the Classical period be just forty-one years long. And anyway, artists were still doing things in the Classical style after Mozart died. It’s a little unfair, really–it’s not like everybody just put down their quill pens and stopped writing counterpoint the second Bach’s body hit the floor, but his era is pretty much universally recognized to have died at the same instant he did. And it’s nigh impossible to get people to agree on when the Classical period ended and the Romantic began. Sure, Beethoven started doing things in the style that would later be tagged with that name around the time of his third symphony. But Mozart had sorta-kinda also foreshadowed that with his fortieth.
So, whatever. Goethe whipped everybody in Europe into a frenzy with his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and the Romantic era began, with all its attendant Sturm and Drang and Klang and Katzenjammer and whatnot. And, like Thunderdome, there was only one rule: “Two men enter, one man leaves!” Or rather, the rule was more along the lines of “there are no rules.” Still! With the Baroque and the Classical, it was pretty easy to sort out which Stuff went with which century. But in the Romantic era, things started getting a little blurrier. Artists played around with the established conventions. Schubert started writing art songs. Liszt invented tone poems. Wagner started writing operas without regular operatic features like arias and recitatives. People invented bold new chords and tonalities.
And then we hit the twentieth century and all hell broke loose. Really! Even the one rule about there being no rules went out the window! There were still composers like Mahler writing in a sort of Romantic vein (and somebody came up with the clever tag “post-romantic.” No, seriously, well-frigging-done, geniuses). Ravel and Debussy started composing in a manner reminiscent of the impressionist painting style of the time, but they also messed around with jazz. Songwriters like Gershwin meshed classical style with burgeoning young blues and jazz traditions. Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School thought it would be a really cool idea to turn music into a math problem with the twelve-tone idiom of composition. Novelists like Faulkner and Joyce started getting all experimental. Not to mention painters like Jackson Pollock and his abstract expressionism. And then, in the midst of it all, artists started looking not forward, but BACKWARD! Stravinsky had his whole neo-classical period, and Prokofiev was a fan of neoclassicism as well. J.R.R. Tolkien (and later, George Lucas) wrote things based on ancient mythology, and Carl Orff based his Carmina Burana on MEDIEVAL sonorities. What a hodgepodge! And the best anybody could do was call all this stuff “Twentieth-Century” or “Contemporary.” Oh, bravo! Well done AGAIN!
And I haven’t even mentioned all the “popular” music! It went from blues to country to blues-based “rock and roll” to fluffy early-sixties pop. And then the Beatles, above and beyond all their advances in recording techniques and arrangement (thank you, George Martin) proved that the lyrics of a song could actually adopt a point of view, instead of singing about how pretty some girl was. But wait! The “art music” composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, pioneered electronic and ambient music, which was adopted by “popular music” people like Brian Eno and David Bowie. So where are all the lines drawn now?
Instead of breaking it down by era, we started going by DECADE with the “popular” music. The biggest hits of the 80s, 90s, and today! Classic rock from the 60s and 70s! Except that, well, rock and roll in the early 60s was waaaaaay different (relatively speaking) from the music of the later 60s, for instance… So what do we do now? Divide every decade into an “early,” a “mid-,” and a “late”? Christ, how does THAT help? Not to mention that the “classic rock” radio stations have an ever-increasing catalogue of songs to work with as time goes on. I swear I once heard a “classic rock” station play “Smells Like Teen Spirit!” Does this do anything other than make people feel old? Can you imagine a time when the Jonas Brothers are considered “classic rock”? I do not want to live in that world.
I guess the point is that as communication became easier and easier, it allowed artists to incorporate many more diverse elements into their creations. I think it probably also had the paradoxical effect of making the classification of art more prevalent, and also more difficult. I mean, ya gotta be able to describe this stuff somehow, right? But it’s all so damn confusing!
“So I was listening to some folk music the other day…”
“Oh, you mean like Bartok’s adaptation of Hungarian folk songs?”
“Oh, then like Schubert’s adaptation of German folk songs?”
“No, more like…”
“Oh, like the folk songs of 19th-century Appalachia?”
“No, no, it was...”
“Right, right, the folk music of the early-middle 1960s.”
“No, goddamnit! It was the frigging ‘Mighty Wind’ soundtrack!”
“Oh… So semi-ironic neo-Americana filmic homage folk music.”
“Go stick your head in a rabid pit bull.”
So I really have no solution. I just imagine that this all has to come to a head at some point, and eventually people’s brains will start exploding, and the few ragged survivors will have to start all over. Maybe they’ll build their very own Thunderdome someday. But I am curious to see how the historians start grouping things together in another thirty or forty years or so. Maybe if I’m lucky, after I die, the year of my death can be used as the beginning of the “Stop Trying to Categorize This Stuff All the Time” era. A guy can dream, anyway.
photo originally published here
Throughout his career (an archaic definition of the word, derived from the Huttese “Kar-Eeeeer, Ho-ho-ho-ho” meaning to “avoid work” or to “drink heavily”) he has played with famous musicians like Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Randy Newman. He has also performed the entire symphonic, chamber, and solo viola repertoire five or six times, or at least it feels that way.
In addition to writing and playing with indie-rock juggernaut Get Set Go, he has played and recorded with many, many bands, including I Give Up, George Sarah, Adam Marsland’s Chaos Band, Bang Sugar Bang, Silver Needle, Wormstew, New Maximum Donkey, Secret Powers, Rachel Van Slyke, Underwater City People, Robotanists (as part of their “Artificial Hearstrings”), Mike Viola and the perenially-on-hiatus XUK.
He also works in the video game industry as a paid grammar fascist. He likes British television and loathes anime to the core of his being.
You can read more about Eric here.