Comparing history to a stream, no doubt an urgent idea when new, seems nowadays less vigorous, especially regarding the arts. So also does belief in their continuing progress, as if any series of related events involved necessarily a destination.
Myself, I prefer to think of the arts as a museum or as a wine cellar. These comparisons would leave room for paying honor to great soils, great years, great workmen, also for preserving ancient methods. Museums and libraries are mainly devoted anyway to conserving works and ways that it is no longer practical to imitate.
Gertrude Stein used to say that nothing changes from generation to generation except what people are looking at. Actually, what people have thought they were looking at, arranged in chronological order, makes up whatever consistent fairy tale that history can be imagined to illustrate. And though repeating patterns do seem to recur in any such narrative, organic development is notoriously difficult to identify. In the arts, certainly, the creating, elaborating, and transmitting of techniques are basic procedures, but among these there are few long-term growths. They are more like inventions—say the fish net, the wheelbarrow, or pie crust—which once they have come miraculously into being stay on. And as for the game of “influences,” which reviewers, and sometimes even historians, like to play, it is in my view about as profitable a study as who caught cold from whom when they were all sitting in the same draft.
Nevertheless, since what people are looking at changes constantly, everything can seem to be changing. Also, the things that don’t change, like wheelbarrows and fish nets and pie crust, are always there. Playing games and eating and childbirth and death, for example, change almost not at all; they merely get arranged into stories about people doing them, into literature. And in this literature people move around and talk; sometimes they even sing. This makes for plays and films and operas. And in all these kinds of entertainment the element that affects people most intensely, that makes chills to run up and down the spine, the digestive apparatus to work faster, and the breath to hold or catch, is music. This element has no precise meaning and no dictionary. But it does provoke intensities; and it provokes these so rapidly and so powerfully that all the other elements—the verbal ones and the visual ones for sure—more often than not call on music’s transports for reinforcing their own cooler communications. Music’s lack of specific meaning, moreover, allows it to be attached to other continuities without contradicting them. The way that singing can give acoustical reinforcement to speech—can shape it, help it to run along and to carry—this is music’s gift to liturgical observances, to prayers, hymns, and magical incantations, as well as to mating ceremonials like social dancing.
The composition of music not intended for provoking movement or for singing, and involving no spectacle other than that of men …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.