Jeremy Denk Explains the History of Western Classical Music (Yes, All of It!)
There’s a genre of videos in which YouTubers attempt to distill the entire history of things—countries, religions, fields of study like mathematics and art—into quick-cut montages or fast-talking lectures of preposterously short duration: “Ancient Greece in 18 Minutes,” “The History of Romania Explained in 10 Minutes,” “The History of Cinema in Two Minutes.” Not always serious but not always funny, most of them are essentially dare pranks for fans of video-editing apps, predicated on the question of whether such vast and complicated subjects can really be so reducible. The answer, in the dozen or so videos of this kind that I’ve seen, is: Yes, surprisingly, sort of—but seriously, no.
Three years ago, the pianist Jeremy Denk was asked to put together a recital for the annual White Light Festival at Lincoln Center. I don’t know how much YouTube he watches, but the idea he came up with could have been titled “The History of Western Classical Music in About 100 Minutes.” Denk selected 23 works (or combinations of works) composed over a span of some 700 years, from the medieval era to the arrival of the third millennium, and performed them in chronological order in one concert. (For a bookend effect, he opened and closed with medieval pieces.) After fine-tuning the program in venues around the world, including Wigmore Hall in London and the Piano aux Jacobins festival in Toulouse, Denk recorded a version for release by Nonesuch Records this past February as c. 1300–c. 2000. If it doesn’t quite match the audacity of YouTube videos like the one covering the history of Earth in five and a half minutes, it’s still an undertaking of extraordinary daring.
Does it work? The answer, for me, is: Yes, surprisingly, absolutely. In fact, it works in ways I never could have anticipated.
The album begins with “Doulz Amis,” a spare, numinous piece originally written for voice by the 14th-century composer Guillaume du Machaut. Track by track, Denk leads us through the historical progression of Western classical composition, from the Renaissance (Byrd, Monteverdi) to the Baroque (Bach, Scarlatti), the Classical (Mozart, Beethoven), and the Romantic (Chopin, Schumann, Liszt), from Impressionism (Debussy) to Modernism (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen) and to the brink of the 21st century (Ligeti, Glass). There’s a welcome peppering of gifted composers of early music who have unfairly been dismissed as primitives, such as Johannes Ockeghem, Clément Janequin, and Carlo Gesualdo. The great surprise is how the selections come together to tell a compelling and unexpectedly moving story.
Unified by the warm fervor and virtuosic sensitivity of Denk’s playing, c. 1300–c. 2000 presents a startlingly cohesive narrative, a biography of the object of the pianist’s ardor: formal concert music. We follow the music as it develops, taking up counterpoint, then chromatic harmony, and expanding and mutating to the point of implosion in the 20th century. With each track, we feel the exhilaration in new possibilities being discovered and explored, even as past wonders fade quickly into the realm of nostalgia or harden into tropes. We thrill at the turns the music takes and marvel at its depth and variety, because Denk clearly finds it thrilling and marvelous himself; we can practically see him smiling as he plays.
The long and familiar history of a well-established art feels like something personal and intimate here. This is a testament not only to the passionate wisdom that Denk brings to his performances, but also to the idiosyncratic logic of his musical selections. Though most of the most canonical figures in classical-music history are represented on c. 1300–c. 2000, Denk has curated a mixed program of repertory favorites, underappreciated treats, and musical curiosities, carefully organized for balance and flow. When it’s time for Bach, we hear the beloved Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, and when it’s Beethoven’s turn, we get what we want in the thunderous chords of the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor. But from Stravinsky we find the cheeky miniature “Piano-Rag-Music,” rather than chestnuts like the Sonata in F-sharp minor or the Serenade in A.
It’s easy to poke holes in such individualized curation. Yes, the most valorized of the Great Men of classical-music history are represented here; and no, that does not mean there were no great women composers. A two-CD set with room for Guillaume Du Fay and Josquin des Prez could have found space for Clara Schumann or Ruth Crawford Seeger. Speaking personally (which seems an appropriate way to consider a project so exquisitely personal), I would have loved to hear an actual work of ragtime piano, ideally by Scott Joplin, in tandem with (or in place of) Stravinsky’s modernist use of ragtime as a resource.
I’ll assume that Denk precluded works by African-American composers like Joplin and Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn on the grounds of genre, not quality. If so, I’ll nourish the hope that he’ll get to them another time soon, or that a jazz pianist finds inspiration in this record and tries something along similar lines. Granted, a project called the “History of Jazz in 2&1/2 Minutes” already exists, but it’s just a YouTube video.