The new Oxford Handbooks publishing venture aims to present, in each volume, an authoritative "state of the art" survey of current thinking on the topic at hand. Accepting that debate and competing theories are as valuable to the discipline in question as are certainties, essays were commissioned from world leaders in the areas covered. These are intentionally embedded within the contexts and environments of change – in this case the cultural history of music – in ways that, chiefly, specialists (graduates and scholars) expect. There are three other such handbooks with tempting titles, "The Oxford Handbook of Medical Ethnomusicology", of music psychology, and of computer music. Just published and edited by Jane Fulcher, Professor of musicology at the University of Michigan and specialist in French culture, the Handbook of the New Cultural History of Music runs to nearly 600 pages and does indeed cover a vast area. So vast in fact, that it seems to make few or no claims to comprehensiveness. Yet it truly gives the reader both an excellent overview of current thinking in the discipline and many separate insights into specific areas of this aspect of music. Just as important, perhaps more important, than the word "Handbook" in the title is "New". This is useful in two ways: coverage of topics considered recently elevated to (greater) importance, such as gender; and re-appraisals of established ones, like the relationship between Freud and Mahler.
The book is divided into two parts: the first dealing with cultural identity, the second with cultural experience. In the first, four broad topics are covered: ways in which music addresses constructions or representations of the body, gender and race; subjectivity and the self in society; nationalism, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism; exchanges between élite and popular culture. In the second, three: urban, aural and print culture; symbols, icons and sites of collective memory or ritual; politics, aesthetics and transmission. This expresses well the ground covered by the book. Although it gives but a bare indication of some of the riches that are to be found in essays such as those on music and pain (by Andreas Dorschel), Music, Violence and the Stakes of Listening (Richard Leppert), the Strange Landscape of Middles (Michael Beckerman) and an essay by Joseph Lam on Chinese state sacrificial music.
It could be argued that a selection of topics as diverse as this (and Song Dynasty China (12th and 13th century), seventeenth century Venetian opera, the jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, and Music as History after the Age of Recording) emphasizes specifics and particularities at the expense of the all-encompassing aim that is usually associated with a "handbook"… a handbook to a new computer had better cover every aspect of using it. Clearly, once you become as disparate and eclectic in your coverage as this volume does, it's not comprehensive.
Yet Fulcher goes some way towards defending this rationale in her pointed and nicely-distilled introduction. The basis of this book, the expertise of whose contributors is a delight to follow, takes as its starting point the new convergence between historians' and musicologists' work in the context of commitments in equal parts towards explaining and illustrating the ways in which "cultural objects" (music is treated as such in this book) communicate and construct meaning, understanding and experience of those involved. Significantly, major advances (the so-called "new cultural history" and "new musicology" as they evolved 30 years ago) at least seem to have made necessary fundamental re-assessments, adjustments and altogether new paradigms. These have also been thrown up by a sense of crisis in the field as a result. The Oxford Handbook of the New Cultural History of Music does a good job of setting out the scene in the light of such changes and doubts, of identifying some major trends, and of suggesting where ideological and methodological developments are likely to lead.
At the very least, the writers as representatives of their various disciplines make their contributions fully aware of the huge extent to which the fields interact and overlap – and influence one another. How far, for example, can music be described as the "outcome" (the "product", even) of the social and cultural circumstances which exist at the time when it is conceived, developed, performed (probably) and received? What can (or must) be understood as meaning in music when meaning can be argued to be the "result" of political, ideological, racial, sexual and other social impetuses and patterns? To what extent must patterns anyway be seen as more illuminating than instances? But what makes this book such a useful corrective, or potential corrective, to the more dogmatic tendencies in history and musicology is its (contributors') insistence on a retreat from too great a reliance on theory and interpretation at the expense of a more empirical approach. Music might be "text" but it's living, breathing text. At best, this might lead to an understanding, an encouragement even, of ways in which the arts influence politics and not the other way around. Specifically, The Oxford Handbook of the New Cultural History of Music examines ways in which symbols work. More specifically still, the thrust of the volume and its implicit arguments is that the two disciplines have much to offer each other; much can be gained for all of us when their practitioners refer both to what they have in common, and to what is unique to each as well.
Although some prior knowledge and understanding of the issues and key trends in the field of cultural history as well as music and musical history is an advantage, is probably actually necessary to make the most of this book, the style, substance, use of illustrations and references between chapters also serve to make much of its material available to the reader prepared to persevere with some admittedly specialist and quite specific ideas, theories and narratives. That it's well worth persevering almost goes without saying.
Most lovers of music are likely to gain something from either thorough or cursory use of The Oxford Handbook of the New Cultural History of Music. At $150 it's not inexpensive. But there's nothing comparable – or, at least, nothing comparably broad – in terms of deepening our understanding of the nexus between musicology and cultural history. Particularly nothing that seeks to sum up the current state of thinking across so wide a range of historical and geographical areas. Well worth investigating.
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.