Problems of Historiography: Atavistic Polyphony and Johann Gottfried Herder’s Music Aesthetics

Friends, colleagues, students, and followers of this blog will know that much of my work is driven by an interest in the problems and pitfalls of historiography. I am ever curious to find out why we engage with history in the way we do: what, for example, constitutes the boundaries of ‘music history’ and how can we adequately write this history?

The use of organal styles (parallel polyphony in fifths and octaves) beyond the thirteenth century, for instance, has been described by musicologists such as Ludwig Finscher and Arnold Geering as ‘atavistic’ and ‘retrospective’ because of its seemingly backward design that appears to be out of sync with the cutting edge musical developments of the day found in the thirteenth-century motet and various fourteenth-century Ars Nova repertoires. Yet pieces of old-fashioned polyphony, such as those found in the Cistercian miscellany GB-Ob MS lat. lit. d. 5, were valued by the communities using them precisely because of their tried and tested design as well as their historical rootedness, their auctoritas. In the context of modern historiography, however, such attachment to tradition has struggled to fascinate scholars who preferred the ‘Notre Dame and Ars Nova revolutions’ to old-fashioned organal polyphony, which was consequently branded as atavistic.

Indeed, historiographical categorisation and its concomitant value judgement is a problem that can be observed not only in relation to repertoires of medieval music. The music aesthetics developed by the eighteenth-century humanist Johann Gottfried Herder are a case in point, as they have been largely ignored by music scholars (perhaps with the exception of Herder’s oft-quoted, but little understood notion of the ‘Volkslied’). Instead, musicologists and others have focussed their attention on the aesthetics of Herder’s teacher Immanuel Kant — even though the latter considered music mere play and of little profound meaning. The complex, even contradictory nature of Herder’s aesthetics further contributed to obscuring his work in the looming shadow of Kant: while Herder adopted what might be described as a Romantic view of music akin to the works of Wackenroder, Tieck, and Hoffmann in his Viertes Kritisches Wäldchen of 1769 (though this work was not published until 1846), Herder’s later writings such as Kalligone (1800) can be associated more closely with earlier philosophical traditions of the Enlightenment.

The dichotomy inherent in Herder’s work provided ample material for his divergent historical categorisation by scholars working in the divided Germany of the second half of the twentieth century. In capitalist West Germany, scholars such as Wolfgang Boetticher and Walter Wiora viewed Herder as the precursor of German Romanticism. Georg Knepler, Johannes Mittenzwei and other scholars in East Germany, in contrast, underscored Herder’s rationalism and portrayed him as a proto-socialist who insisted on music’s role in educating humanity. The same corpus of texts was selected differently in East and West and evaluated with different emphases in order to adapt Herder’s music aesthetics to the prevailing state ideologies. I’ve outlined this divergent reception in more detail in: ‘Herders Musikästhetik im Zeichen von Hammer und Sichel: eine Untersuchung der musikästhetischen Herder-Rezeption in der DDR’, in: Herder und seine Wirkung: Beiträge zur Konferenz der Internationalen Herder-Gesellschaft Jena 2008, ed. by Michael Maurer, Heidelberg 2014, pp. 325–332.

As the two examples of early polyphony and Herder’s music aesthetics suggest, scholars would be well advised to question historiographical choices instead of accepting them as set in stone. More than that, we should think carefully about our own decisions of how to write about history, as others may wish to reflect critically on these choices.

Pone, Domine, custodiam ori meo et ostium circumstantiae labiis meis; […] corripiet me iustus in misericordia et increpabit me.
[Psalm 140, 3;5]





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