The Musical Work Reconsidered, In Hindsight

Steingo, Gavin

Certainly, the concept of the musical work has not always existed. Yet deciphering precisely when the work emerged has proved an immensely difficult task for musicologists. In particular, the publication of Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works—in which she famously argued that the work–concept crystallized around 1800—has provoked an endless litany of modifications and outright rebuttals. In many cases scholars have retained the gist of Goehr’s argument but have sought to push the date backwards, often to the period of their own specialization. Several scholars of Baroque music have argued that musical works existed in the seventeenth century (although not before) while several scholars of the Renaissance have argued that the musical work emerged during that era (although not earlier). Indeed, there have been attempts—although somewhat muted—to locate the advent of the musical work in the Medieval period. In particular, the question of whether J. S. Bach composed musical works has received a great deal of attention. Although he died a full fifty years before 1800, several scholars have argued that Bach did compose musical works and have used this argument as a refutation of Goehr’s 1800 hypothesis.


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January 27, 2017