Periodisation and Timelessness: Perspectives on ‘Art’ Music in Visual Media

This post is written by network participant Dr. James Cook.

The use of pre-existent music in visual media such as film, television, video games, and stage productions is certainly nothing new. Attitudes towards this have shifted over time and differ greatly across media, and yet it is my contention that a broad consensus can be viewed for approaches to what we might call ‘art’ music, which cross genre boundaries and can be linked to aesthetic – and indeed historiographical – approaches to the framing of certain musics. My starting point today is therefore what we might describe as ‘classical’ or ‘art’ music.  I strongly prefer this latter term since, as well as avoiding chronological confusion with either the classical period of music, or classical antiquity, it also hints towards the unique aesthetic position in which this music is held.

For my argument here, I borrow heavily from J. Peter Burkholder, whose description of the ‘historicist mainstream’ in music of the past hundred years is important in understanding a number of aspects in the apparent use of art music in popular media. According to him, for largely nationalistic reasons linked to the birth of German nation and the need for its social and cultural justification, a body of past works (by German composers) were lifted from their position of historical works and reified as eternal and immortal works of genius. Through analysis built predominantly to diagnose and justify this ‘genius’, the belief that these works were autonomous and could be understood purely in and on their own terms, grew up. New and (sometimes) non-German works were gradually added to the canon by using precisely the same analysis to find similar traits – eventually forming what is generally understood as our canon of ‘great’ works. There is more too it, especially with reference to tendencies in newly composed work following the canon, but the most salient part of his argument for present purposes, which I find very persuasive, is that ‘art’ music is held to be autonomous – it has and indeed requires no links to history, culture, or external programmatic narrative in order to have meaning or power. It is, in short, music for eternity – not for the time in which it was created. We see the after images of this viewpoint everywhere, from the belief in the universality of western art music and its power to ‘improve’ the lives of other cultures, the tendency for art music concerts to programme works from across history with no apparent need for explanation of context, and the (often problematic) clarion call to focus ‘on the music itself’. In visual media, this equates to a tendency for art music to be treated as entirely ahistorical and a-cultural – the use of pre-existent art music in general is more likely to be used to refer to a number of things, for example, a reference to high culture or the upper strata of society, or genius, or indeed psychopathy.

There are, of course, many examples where this is not the case. But I would argue that each of these are related to particular attitudes towards this music – namely a desire to historicise it. In these cases, the music which might usually be described and understood as ‘art’ music, is instead treated as Early Music. In these cases, recordings used are more likely to use period instruments, to utilise historically informed performance practices, and indeed to treat the music diegetically. A good example is the BBC film Eroica which focuses on the composition of Beethoven’s symphony, and makes diegetic use of Beethoven’s music performed on period instruments. Importantly, this music does not necessarily need to be from the ‘right’ period in order to be historicising. Take, for instance, the coronation scene in the pilot of Showtime’s The Borgias, which makes use of ‘Zadok the Priest’ centuries too early, or the use of Bach for a collapsing medieval Cathedral roof in The Pillars of the Earth.  In both cases, the music is nonetheless explicitly historicising, making use of historically informed performance and period instrumentation to demonstrate that this is taking part in the past.

I would argue that these tendencies play out further still – to repertoires not normally considered ‘art’ music, often through the careful interplay of diegesis. In these cases, some popular musics are treated as ‘art’ music – namely those which have gained an almost canonic status (generally through in-depth analysis). This interplay of crossing functions between ‘art’ music, popular musics, Jazz, and Early Music is the current focus of my research.

Dr. James Cook is BMus programme director and lecturer in early music at the University of Edinburgh. He works on music c.1300-1600, as well as popular medievalism, and more broadly on music in TV, film, and especially video games.