On Progress in Music


  • Ivo Supičić




The question of progress in music was at least implicitly present long before it found expression explicitly in different theories. Until the 17th century, musicians spontaneously felt that music was progressing: it was the music of their own time which was the most widely performed and the most appreciated. In the 17th century, the idea of progress in music expressed itself in the disputes between the »Ancients« and the »Moderns«, especially in French music. The music of the past was often regarded as obsolete, and during this and the following century, a more or less clearly defined theory of progress was formulated, according to which only new music was good music. S. Calvisius, P. Maillart, W. C. Printz, S. de Brossard, Ch. Burney and many others believed in the progress of music. Even Johann Sebastian Bach found himself, in the eyes of the younger generation (e.g. Scheibe), considered to be a retrograde composer. But as early as the 18th century, it was remarked that music had also passed through periods of degeneration and decadence. Thus Hawkins pointed to the decline of polyphony and counterpoint after Bach and Handel. At the time of Romanticism, the idea of progress had not been completely abandoned; however, Romanticism brought a new outlook, one which attached a high value to the music of the past. On the other hand, romantic music led to views which were divided in the evaluation of that music itself. The polemics concerning Wagner contributed greatly to this, though he himself was deeply convinced that music progresses and that, of course, it was his own music which had reached the highest point in the whole history of music. In the 20th century, the theory of progress has been revived again. No epoch has been so thoroughly penetrated by tendencies towards novelty and innovation, no epoch has made such a break with traditional (or past) music as has contemporary music. Nevertheless, no period in the history of music has been so well informed about the music of the past and no age has appreciated traditional music so fully as has our own. The progress of music on the level of technique, language and style is not in question. What is in question are only those conceptions which would evaluate the artistic and aesthetic values of music in the sense of »progress« by considering that old music is less valuable than new music, that there is »progress« of artistic and aesthetic values in time, chronologically. Accordingly, Schütz's music would be of more value than that of Palestrina, Mozart's than that of Bach, or Chopin's than that of Haydn and Stravinsky's than that of Wagner. Progress which a musical work may embody on the technical or stylistic level, for instance, or on the level of its specific language or expression, should not be identified with its artistic and aesthetic values. These values are independent of progress on that level. The progress achieved on the level of extra-musical functions or the adequateness of a musical work in a given social milieu should also be distinguished from them. Progress in music and progress of music are not quite the same thing.


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How to Cite

Supičić, I. (1978). On Progress in Music. Musicological Annual, 14(1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.4312/mz.14.1.5-12