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  • Print publication year: 1983
  • Online publication date: June 2011

4 - Does music history have a ‘subject’?


One reason why history seems to be endangered and at odds with the Zeitgeist might be found in the banal fact that it has become difficult to write history without the nagging thought that the past as it really was cannot be recounted in narrative form. Disparagers of traditional history have long suspected that narratives compounded from events emerge less from the structure of the materials concerned than from the historian's sense of form. The ‘explanation sketch’, as Arthur C. Danto would call it, has its roots in the historian's original intention to proceed by narration, rather than by explication as in the natural sciences. And while the concept of narrative history automatically conjures up the image of an unbroken landscape and a continuous chain of events, it turns out to be fragile and precarious the moment we begin to analyse it instead of merely treating it as one of those timeless truths that tend to dominate our thinking precisely because we never think about them.

What, then, is the cohesive force that makes historical narration possible? The question obviously – or so it would seem – aims at discovering a ‘subjective agency’ in history that maintains its identity throughout the vicissitudes of change, thereby guaranteeing an unbroken continuity that prevents our picture of the past from disintegrating into unrelated fragments.