Surely there must be a name for the logical fallacy of extrapolating a universal principle from one’s own personal experience. I look in vain for one in David Hacket Fischer’s classic Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970). (This was a book of such a reputation that Richard Taruskin once referred to it as “a scurrilous tract”—if I remember correctly—but I was of the impression that he meant it affectionately.) Perhaps the reason Fischer didn’t deal with it is that historians would not generalize from anything so unitary. Still, it deserves a name, because at least in music it is all too common.
Here is an illustration. “Look, when I compose a symphony, I [do X]; when Beethoven composed a symphony, he [did X].” I swear, that’s an exact quote of something I once heard. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep. It is as if the person is daring you to call him out. “Are you kidding? What are you thinking? Beethoven, and…you?” It does not matter that he may have accidentally been right. A trivial example would be that, yes, you both put notes on paper. That you write symphonies, however, does not privilege your experience in doing so to the point that you can explain others’ with any assurance.
It gets dicier, of course, when the matter under discussion is a skill I think I have. “Look, when I improvise, I [do X, or think Y]; so I know that when Chopin improvised, he…” Don’t I know about improvising, having supported myself in dance studios for four years doing that? So Chopin and I, we…wait a minute. Did he think harmonically, or melodically? Did he just play familiar figurations and travel well-trod paths? Were some of his improvisations better than others, as with all of us, or was he just stratospherically beyond other musicians? What about Liszt? Anton Rubinstein? Can I talk about them? Because I hacked through ballet exercises, varying them in certain utterly predictable (to me, at least) ways, does that mean I can speak for the improvisation experience of all pianists, living and dead?
[Cue: Sound of a mousetrap being sprung.] How can any of us be sure how people’s minds worked? Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?
At the moment, I’m writing (desperately, against the clock) a paper dealing with improvised ornamentation in certain historical styles, how important it is in certain repertories, etc., so these matters are much on my mind. An improvisation event (not involving me, thankfully) is planned at the symposium I’ll be attending this coming week, so I’m hoping my doors will be blown off. What if one actually had time to spend at the piano?!
I intend to report back. Watch This Space.