In his review for The New York Review Of Books of Richard Taruskin's mammoth (6 volumes, 4154 pages), The Oxford History of Western Music, the always brilliant musicologist, music journalist, author, and concert pianist, Charles Rosen (whom, as I've elsewhere remarked, I'm fast coming to regard as the 21st-century's answer to the great Donald Francis Tovey), writes:
His [Taruskin's] intentions, however, are far more ambitious than simply enabling his readers to listen with understanding. He maintains that this is the first history of music which not only relates what was done but how and why. He aims, he writes, to present a social history of music; that is, he attempts to place the development of music in the general culture of the place and time it was created, to describe it in its social setting, to explain its genesis and its significance for the composers' contemporaries and at times for their posterity. He gives a bird's-eye view of the history of Western culture filled out by piquant details (he is particularly assiduous at searching out examples of anti-Semitism). He claims, in short, that he has written the first sociological history of music comparable to Francis Bacon's attempt to embrace the entire history of culture in The Advancement of Learning, and he observes with a certain satisfaction that Bacon "never lived to complete [his task]: I have—but only by dint of a drastic narrowing of scope."
I confess that — even while acknowledging its value and importance in terms of the historical record — the idea of the explanation and understanding of a piece of music in terms of its social and cultural context at the time the music was written has always seemed to me an enterprise perverse in the extreme in terms of interpretive understanding and performance; an idea inimical to the very music itself. Any music that lives beyond its time of creation will say and mean different things to succeeding generations and eras (which, in fact, is precisely what enables it to live beyond its time of creation), and attempting to fix what it has to say and means in terms of the social and cultural context of the time of its composition is not only thoroughly wrongheaded and potentially destructive, but lethally contrary to a true and meaningful understanding of the music itself qua music. Rosen quite correctly says that consideration of this question involves
...a difficulty that has irritated philosophers of aesthetics and their readers for a long time: Is the work of music to be identified as the written text or its performance? Is a symphony of Beethoven the printed score or the sound in the concert hall when it is played?
Rightly or wrongly, I quite clearly come down on the side of the latter — resoundingly and categorically.
Rosen's review (the first part of a two-part review, the second part of which is to follow at a future date) is brilliant and hugely informative in it own right, and must reading for every music-lover.