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A mapping of musical modernity

October 12, 2015

Excerpt from an OUPblog article, published on 8th October, by Julian Johnson, Regius Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of numerous books available on Oxford Scholarship Online, including Out of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity, his most recent work.

Out of Time: Music and the Making of Modernity

"What has history got to do with music? Music, surely, has to do with the present moment. We value it as a singularly powerful means of intensifying our sense of the present, not to learn about the past. If we listen to Mozart, it’s for pleasure, not for a snapshot of Viennese life in the 1780s. Nevertheless, that begs the question why we take pleasure in something from such a distant time and place. We don’t enjoy the plumbing systems of the 1780s, or surgical procedures of nineteenth-century medicine, nor do we wear the clothes our grandparents did. So why do we use music from all these times as part of our own present? Why is old music still so resonant?

One answer to that question is that, for all the differences of musical style across several centuries, the concerns of old music are remarkably similar to those of today. Such a view pushes against a normative understanding of history which sees historical time unfold like the line on a graph, moving irreversibly from left to right. Music history has certainly been told that way, as a narrative of development and progress which sees each generation take up and transform the achievements of previous ones. Of course, that produces a glaring and awkward contradiction – unless you want to argue that the latest music is always the best."

Discover more: Read more about the enduring nature of classical music in Julian's article 'A mapping of musical modernity'. The introduction to Out of Time is now freely available until the end of November. Get access to the full text of this book, as well as hundreds of Oxford Music titles, by recommending OSO to your librarian today.