One of the paradoxes of an artistic style is that it is defined by its paradigm examples, not by the inferior works which outnumber them. Thus we define the Classical style of music by paradigm works by its three greatest exponents, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Lesser figures like Hummel and Dittersdorf, and the crowd of still lesser figures and still lesser works, do not concern us, even though their “classical” works far outnumber those of the Big Three. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style, articulates this paradox far better than I can:
What makes the history of music, or of any art, particularly troublesome is that what is most exceptional, not what is most usual, has often the greatest claim on our interest. Even within the work of one artist, it is not his usual procedure that characterizes his personal ‘style’, but his greatest and most individual success. This, however, seems to deny even the possibility of the history of art: there are only individual works, each self-sufficient, each setting its own standards.
Walking back in today’s unseasonable chill, it struck me that prior to Kuhn, science seemed to be defined this way as well — in terms of its greatest figures and greatest discoveries. There was no concept of what Kuhn calls “normal science“. Instead, science was seen as consisting mainly of the linear progress of important discoveries. No mopping up, no barking up the wrong trees. In short, science was thought to consist of purely the “revolutionary” part of science. Most people will probably intuitively think of this “great events” concept of science whenever science is mentioned. Even though I have been exposed to more of the process of normal science than the average person, and I have read Kuhn, mention the world “science” to me, and my first thoughts still concern seminal discoveries made by seminal people. Science as a grand, coherent structure with its revolutionary nodes outshining everything else.
I don’t quite know where I’m going with this parallel between the naive conception of scientific progress and stylistic paradigms* in art. Perhaps Kuhn’s recharacterization of science could be applied to an artistic style. Perhaps it is a mistake to view art/music history with an eye only on the paradigm works. Kuhn takes great pains to emphasise that despite the apparently disparaging label he had endowed it with, normal science is the meat of science. It is not in any way less imporant or “anomalous” compared to revolutionary science — quite the opposite, in fact. Could this be true for art/music history as well? Are there analogues of paradigm shifts in art? Clearly we can make analogies between scientific revolutionaries and artistic revolutionaries. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven would count as artistic revolutionaries. But what of an analogue to “normal science”? For Kuhn, normal science is necessary for revolutions to occur, because revolutions occur only when the previously established paradigm conflicts with observations and theories produced in the process of normal science. The robust paradigm that normal science creates constitutes the firm fulcrum and long lever that revolutionary science uses to shift the earth, like Archimedes did. Can we argue in the same way that Dittersdorf-type figures provided a similar established basis against which the revolutionaries could rebel? Does an artistic style demand a horde of imitators, or could Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart on their own have defined the Classical style?
This is where my non-existent knowledge of music history fails me. By non-existent, I mean that although I know a great deal about the seminal figures, I know nothing about the others. This, however, is no different from science students who learn all their science from textbooks and standard lectures without dabbling in research themselves, or without being contaminated by their corrupt colleagues in the history/philosophy of science department. Only the seminal discoveries appear in the textbooks. They never learn anything of what normal science was like, until they get involved in normal science themselves. Similarly, even though musicologists may concentrate their analyses almost entirely on the great works, the lesser works might still have a philosophical and historical significance that has been overlooked.
*This is confusing. When I say stylistic paradigms in art, I of course do not mean paradigm in Kuhn’s “worldview” sense, but paradigm in the sense of an ideal model.