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From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra

The manuscripts containing the troubadour songs were compiled a century after the troubadours had disappeared—or, rather, after their art had migrated to northern France after being wiped out in the south by the Albigensian Crusade. For a hundred years, the songs ceased to be sponsored by the courts. How did they survive if not in other venues, although little is known about them? The evidence for troubadour art is skewed in any case. As Taruskin relates, the manuscripts compiled after a hundred years were all illustrated luxury items, a medieval equivalent of coffee-table books, paid for by later aristocratic courts. How much of the poetry and music was preserved either by the minstrels’ memory or by some notation before the surviving written evidence was transcribed we do not know, nor can we tell to what extent the selection made for the manuscripts was representative or biased.

In short, the art of the troubadours was indeed elitist. How could songs in a complex style, some of them difficult to understand even after several hearings, not be so? Perhaps no art has ever been more elitist. Nevertheless, Taruskin’s terse formula—“’high art’…produced by and for political and social elites”—while obviously true, is uninstructive and unedifying. It is only a fashionable critical slogan. What made up this elite? How did it affect the art? The social situation was more than slightly ambiguous, and the slogan only hides to what extent the poetic and musical art corresponded to the interests of a small class (perhaps, in fact, a small part of a small class) or reflected the ideology of feudal society in general—or, indeed, represented the interests of a professional caste which cut across social distinctions of class.


Taruskin returns over and over again to the question of elitism. “Elite” used to have an agreeable connotation, like “liberal,” but is now used as a term of reproof.1 Taruskin approaches the subject with an air of apology or guilt, as if he felt uneasy about enjoying and teaching an art that is accessible only to a minority with the money to pay for it and the leisure to appreciate it. He does not make a sufficiently clear distinction between two different ways that art can be “produced by and for political and social elites.” The first way is for a member of the elite to engage a well-known artist to produce something for display. If you commission a famous architect to design your house, that may reflect great credit on your taste, even if you find the house impossible to live in. The second way is to create, or have created for you, a work that will express and mirror your ideals and your way of life, like Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican apartments commissioned by the Pope. The second way is preferred by sociological critics because it enables them to construct a subtle analysis of the way the art embodies the ideology of the elite, whatever the identity of the artist. For this to work, however, the elite, political or social, must not only have a recognizable identity but display some kind of consensus about the world and the way life is to be lived, and we must be able to eliminate the possibility that the artist engaged is not subverting the ideals of the patron for reasons of his own.

The two social classes that generally have the power to commission art are the bureaucratic governing class, either aristocratic or plutocratic, and the well-to-do middle class, or what used to be called the bourgeoisie. The taste of the aristocracy and the upper middle class is not always apt to produce an art that endures, and the more talented artists must sometimes find a place in the margins of the establishment—a rich patron with eccentric tastes, for example. In his characterization of nineteenth-century English culture, Matthew Arnold identified the aristocracy as Barbarians, interested largely in fox-hunting and gaming, and the middle class as Philistines, obsessed with respectability. A great deal of art that goes against the grain is paid for by the establishment unwillingly and with misgivings. When some of it endures, the sociologist must engage in an agreeable analogue of Freudian analysis, and claim that in hidden ways the work embodies the ideals of the class in power, unaware of what is revealed by an art of which it overtly disapproves. This is the stimulus for a good deal of criticism today.

Meyer Schapiro, one of the most distinguished art historians of the last century, was reproached by one of his students for having lavished praise on Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art. Schapiro replied that he knew it was bad, “but it’s the only one on an important subject, which should be encouraged.” A sociological history of art is, as we would all agree, very desirable, but there are difficulties that stand in the way.

To understand the problems of a social history of music, however, let us step back, or rather aside, for a moment, and consider a fascinating essay on the water mill by the great French historian Marc Bloch.2 In this story of the invention and exploitation of the water mill to make flour, two anomalies stand out. The first odd fact is that the water mill was invented as early as the first century BC, but it took an astonishingly long time—at least five centuries, in fact—for this extraordinarily practical machine that made life so much easier to be widely used. That is because during the Roman period, slave labor was plentifully available. As slavery declined, the expense of building water mills paid for itself, above all when the lord who owned the water rights could make his tenants pay for grinding their grain. The second anomaly is that in the nineteenth century, when steam power provided an even more practical way of making flour, the water mills continued to be used because the local lord could force his tenants to continue bringing the grain to his mill. The processes of invention and exploitation are out of phase. Inventions arrive before they are needed and continue to be employed when they are no longer useful. The history of society and the history of scientific invention do not fit neatly together.

Nor does the history of music fit neatly with social history. Of all the arts, music has the greatest kinship with science, even abstract science: Greek and Roman philosophers speculated about the relation of music to mathematics, and in the latter part of the eighteenth century the philosopher and economist Adam Smith remarked that listening to a fine symphony was like contemplating a great scientific system (it took the long development from the monodic Gregorian chant and the gradual emancipation of music from words for this observation to become possible). A musical system has important attributes of a language, like grammar and syntax, although some of the aspects of communication are very rudimentary—that is, you can convey emotion with music, and imitate cuckoos and babbling brooks, but you cannot make a dinner appointment or a train reservation without words. Nevertheless, as the musical system changes over the centuries, possibilities of exploiting the musical language suggest themselves that are too fascinating to ignore, but the works inspired by this stimulus may possibly have to wait a long time for their exploitation. A musical system appears to have a logic of its own that can be inflected but not completely controlled by social pressures; it can act as an inspiration to composers, who often feel as if they were discovering rather than inventing. That is what the greatest of music critics, E.T.A. Hoffmann, conveyed when he wrote that Beethoven was not the wild, untamed genius as so many of his contemporaries thought, but the soberest of all composers, because everything he wrote came from the nature of music itself.

Bach’s great Mass in B minor was never performed during his lifetime: as a Catholic Mass, it could not be played in a Protestant church, and the use of an orchestra was forbidden in Catholic churches during Bach’s lifetime, although he hoped it might eventually be possible. His “Goldberg” Variations is the most successful of all his works in concert performance today, yet the kind of concert in which it can be performed did not exist for another century, and it had to wait for recognition and acclaim for still another hundred years. Both these works fascinated many musicians during the long period before they could find a niche in the social world of performance. The first great set of works to become the staple of serious public piano performances was the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas: only two of these were played in a concert hall in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime. To judge a work, as Taruskin often does, by how it sounded in the conditions that existed when it was written is useful and even necessary, but it can lead at times to profound misunderstanding. This is where the irritating contradiction between the work as written and the work as heard begins to rear its ugly head.

In any case, many works of music like Beethoven’s Great Fugue for String Quartet appear principally as a response to possibilities of the musical system of the time, possibilities that are irrelevant to any kind of contemporary social conditions, and the system itself develops both as a response to social pressures and in ways that are completely independent. No social history of music can succeed that does not acknowledge the partial independence of the musical language, the way it can offer abstract possibilities to the imagination irrelevant to the social and economic world of the musician, but often too tempting to turn down.


For the beginning of the period from 1300 to 1600, Taruskin offers a splendid account of Guillaume de Machaut—the first composer to make a four-voice polyphonic setting of the entire ordinary of the Mass. The ordinary of the Mass is the text that is repeated at every service: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei; in between these sections, the text changes from day to day. Machaut’s setting of the ordinary around 1360 is the first large-scale musical work in several movements in history, and it elevated music to the level of greater ambition. Taruskin’s writing has the great virtue of making the reader want to hear the music. Equally illuminating is Taruskin’s chapter on the next important stage in this development, the use in 1430 of a single liturgical chant to unify the setting of all the sections of the ordinary of the Mass, each section now clearly based on the same easily recognizable melody. This endowed the composition—which came to be called the cyclic mass—with an easily perceptible unity.

A Mass written by a single composer is not only held together by his style, as with Machaut, but is now given a specific identity by the liturgical chant, which appears prominently in every movement. (The practice seems to have started in England, which played a leading role in the musical development of the early fifteenth century, but it quickly spread to the Flemish and French musicians, who were to dominate all European music until the middle of the sixteenth century, even at the Italian and German courts.) These chants were at first taken from the liturgical repertory, but very soon secular songs were used as the basic unifying melodies, a practice that would eventually provoke consternation in ecclesiastical circles, particularly when some of the choir sang the words of the secular tune instead of the liturgical text it was now supposed to serve.

  1. 1

    Liberal,” which used to be a term of approval, is oddly pejorative in politics today for different sides of the political spectrum on the two sides of the Atlantic—for the right wing in the United States but for the left in Europe, while “elite” is a term of opprobrium on both sides of the Atlantic for both left and right for entirely different reasons—for the right, an “elitist” is an unpatriotic, degenerate left-wing fan of the avant-garde; for the left, he is an undemocratic enemy of the people.

  2. 2

    Avènement et Conquête du Moulin à Eau,” first published in the Annales, Vol. 7, No. 36 (November 1935), pp. 538–563. Reprinted in Marc Bloch, Mélanges Historiques (Paris: SEVPEN, 1963), pp. 800–821.

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