No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents

No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents

A shared language of harmonic procedures characterized the original so-called “common-practice period,” which is generally understood to have lasted from the 17th through the early 20th centuries in Europe. During this period, the story goes, composers spoke in the same tongue, and could thus successfully communicate with each other and “the audience.” The ascendance of instrumental music and growing ease of long-distance travel—mainly within Europe, of course—supposedly contributed to an increasing sense of internationalism, which in turn led to a pretense of universalism. (This universalism returns again and again in relation to the possibility of a common practice.)

Of course, it’s questionable to apply such a rigid notion of musical grammar to a creative tradition that was so often characterized by discontinuity and rupture (especially after the turn of the 19th century). Also, we can never know the audience for an earlier period, so attempts to define it are problematic. How we currently define the audience of earlier periods is very different from what an audience was in the past, which makes them difficult to analyze using current critical approaches and standards. Understood in a broader cultural and historical context, Europe during this period was anything but stable.

It could be argued that there was no division between popular and elite culture at the dawn of the common practice period. That’s not to say that a peasant could sit next to the king to hear the latest concerto! Social divisions were firmly in place in the 17th century, but musical language moved more easily between the courts and the streets. This was no longer the case by the end of the 19th century, when the popular/elite division was firmly in place and policed.

Other areas, such as the outer boundaries of Europe as a whole, were initially very well defined, only to be exploded by the social upheavals brought on by capitalism and imperialism. It is easier to speak of “the Audience” in the context of a circumscribed European community, before urbanization and industrialization introduced an unprecedented level of intercultural exchange on a global scale. This inevitable mixing of cultures, histories, and musics destabilized certain hermetically-sealed categories — instead of a single “Audience,” there were gradually two, three, many audiences.

It’s important to remember that the music of the common-practice period was not for the commoners; in fact, it wasn’t very common at all. None of those struggling peasants (or rural landowners, for that matter) heard much of the music being played in the courts and cathedrals, nor did they move in the circles of international travel. The music we now index to represent the common-practice period is merely a slice of the musical life of those social groupings. Despite the relative lack of distinction between certain categories like popular/elite, we still only have written texts to guide our understanding of that musical world. History’s reliance upon writing all but guarantees that we have a mere fraction of the picture, which should not be forgotten when we begin to make statements about a monolithic “Audience” of the 17th century. We are, in fact, speaking of a musical practice that was quite uncommon.

This issue can be approached another way by borrowing concepts from the mid 20th century French socio-political philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Their abstract ideas about space can aid our discussion of socio-musical flows by contributing a new set of metaphors, namely the interplay of smooth and striated spaces, spaces which in fact “exist only in mixture: smooth space is constantly being translated, transversed into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space” (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). Think of it like this: At the beginning of the common practice period, the European music world could be described as a relatively smooth space, where the division between “elite” and “popular” was less clearly defined, more fluid than in later history. Deleuze and Guattari take care to note, however, that smooth spaces are not necessarily homogeneous. Following their caution, we might note that musical flows may have been more mixed during the early common practice period, but this in no way warrants belief in the existence of a monolithic Audience-with-a-capital-A. Due to changing modes of production and distribution, this smooth space gradually transformed into a more striated, segmented, and defined set of spaces by the end of the period. Globally, it appears that the process is reversed. Before significant advances in technologies of communication and transportation, regional cultures were reasonably well-bounded; global space was striated. As products and populations began moving more freely across greater distances, stable cultural borders became much more difficult to pin down, and striated space was partially returned to smooth space.

Backing up to get a look at the sweep of social and economic change during the modern era can refine our understanding of the common practice period’s demise. Those early achievements of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, and Scriabin aren’t simply stylistic evolutions or interruptions, but also extensions of social processes already long underway. The wistful complaint that Schoenberg inaugurated “The Split with The Audience” ignores the crucial fact that globalized monopoly capitalism had already made it impossible to imagine any European culture homogeneous enough to contain a single, unified audience. Furthermore, capitalist society had already begun a process of internal segmentation that would ensure the production of multiple, overlapping audiences.

From No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents
by Benjamin Piekut
© 2004 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.