Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review of "Music in the 18th Century"

Since summer tends to be a slightly slower pace for me, I try to catch up on some of my academic reading. A quick search on the Barnes and Noble website revealed that a new Norton History series entitled Western Music in Context has been edited by Walter Frisch.  Since the first volume on medieval music wasn't available, I decided to begin with John Rice's volume on Music in the Eighteenth Century.

I found Rice's work informative, insightful, and unique in its approach to the topic. I was surprised to find that the luminary composers that are normally associated with the era -- Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven -- did not dominate the volume. I found it refreshing to explore other composers in the light of the century's history and developments.

Possibly the greatest attribute of Music in the Eighteenth Century was its arrangement. Rather than telling the musical story from a strictly chronological point of view, the music's development was traced geographically as well as historically. It was fascinating to explore Paris in light of the French Revolution, St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, and London in the 1790s instead of just focusing in on the city of Vienna. Rice's prose is extremely well-written and easy to follow. The book seamlessly weaves historical events and political developments with composers and their output. (Additionally, a companion anthology which I did not purchase is also available to allow further study of the era's music.)

Every text has a weakness. In my opinion, Rice's explanation and use of theoretical terms related to the "schemata" identified by theorist Robert Gjerdingen in 2007 was the potentially fatal flaw of the work. I found the inclusion of the schemata explanation to negatively interrupt the flow of the book. I further questioned their inclusion and the validity of their use (a question Rice raises at the end of the chapter). Without the theoretical discussions, I believe the text and accompanying anthology could be a valuable resource in academic settings in the future.

I plan to continue investigating the Western Music in Context series. I appreciate the series' readability while maintaining a high level of scholarship. I'm looking forward to diving into the volume devoted to the 20th and 21st centuries in the coming months.