Musical and Intellectual Values: Interpreting the History of Tonal Theory

Burnham, Scott

For many years, the history of music theory seemed most useful as a
source for dissertation topics, the models of choice being the critically
annotated translation of some little-read treatise, "book report"-style coverage
of a wider range of a theorist's work, or sometimes the tracing of a
concept or category through several generations of theorists. The unstated assumption that there would be little overwhelming relevance in such topics guaranteed their suitability as journeyman
demonstrations of scholarly aptitude. Students could safely work in distant tributaries, away from the roaring cataracts of central issues. Intellectual investment would be limited to showing a consciousness of the relationship of such tributaries to the main stream, either by locating
originary traces of modern theories or by indulging in the compensatory satisfaction of being able to appraise earlier theories as primitive and unenlightened. But as more and more theorists have been brought to light in this manner and the list of critical editions grows, there is an equally growing apprehension that the history of our theoretical assumptions has moved closer to the center of our concerns in musicology. For as we become increasingly self-aware of the ways we talk about music, as talk about music eclipses music itself as the most fascinating object in the
academic firmament, the history of such talk suddenly assumes a luminous relevance.



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Columbia University
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January 29, 2015