Pianist Jeremy Denk was never one to shy away from challenges, so when Lincoln Center asked him for an ‘event’ for part of their White Lights Festival, he decided to condense 700 years of western musical history into one concert. And he’s done it again on his most recent recording, called c. 1300- c. 2000. Beginning with music of Machaut, he chronicles the large arc of musical styles that audiences never get to hear all in one sitting.
“I had this obsession with the idea of covering classical music history in one evening, sort of like a time-lapse photograph, or a rapid fire through time,” Denk says, “And they liked the idea, even though it was slightly insane.” Trying to fit 700 years of music, much of it written before the invention of the piano itself, was daunting, but partly because it made him realize just how concentrated our focus tends to be. “As classical musicians, we forget that there were lots of centuries before Bach, or even Monteverdi, you know? We forget to include those earlier centuries in the big sweep of the story of history… You have this nice language of harmony that is established, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. It’s so clear, and it’s so wonderful for expressing things in music. And gradually the Romantic composers begin to pull at that language. They start to make the harmonies more vague, more ambivalent, more ambiguous. And then there’s this unbelievable story of this language gradually dissolving while people move forward in style, and then what happens when that language falls apart altogether, and how do you choose to go on? How do you write once the accepted language of music is no longer accepted?” Denk says the scope of the project meant that part of its core would be the idea of loss over time. “You have to make heartbreaking choices to make a program like this. You can’t tell the story of history in 80 minutes without losing a lot of detail. On the other hand, you gain a certain kind of sweep or a sense of time’s bigger motions…With each new achievement, an older style seems to fall back into history, and there’s a loss too. So, I tried to write about that in the liner notes a bit about this question of achievement and loss, and the mixture of joy and sadness on this album.”