I’m not actually that interested in the supposed German dominance of the classical music canon; I’m interested in art more generally conceived. I would argue that similar phenomena are evident in all forms of art. Human artistic achievement repeats this pattern: a long period of low-level achievement, then a short period of inspired production of marvellous art by a small group of exceptional creators; then another long period of low-level production overshadowed by the canon of works by this earlier group. Let me call this phenomenon golden-age clumping; an uneuphonious phrase by which I mean that separate discourses of artistic productivity are almost always dominated by a “golden age”, a small cadre of artists working in close proximity to one another.
For example: classical literature from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD (that’s 700 years, give or take) was dominated by the brilliant achievement of just such a small group, all from the same city (Athens), all working within a hundred years of one another (in the 5th century BC), many of them friends: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, names that are still resonant today. These poets, dramatists, philosophers and historians, overshadowed Western culture for two millennia. It is not that nobody else was writing between the 5th century and the Renaissance. On the contrary, each generation produced myriad scribblers and thinkers, aspirants to the golden-age mantle. They just weren’t as good as the golden names of Periclean Athens.
Here’s another example: in two hundred years England gave the world Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning: no poetry written before or since, I patriotically (or chauvinistically) assert, comes close to the cultural dominance of the poetry written by that group. Great poets have come and gone all over the world, of course; but this list represents some of the most influential and dominant grouping in the history of world poetry.
Painting has been a feature of every single world culture for thousands of years, and yet our notions of ‘great painting’ are still rooted in two clumps: a handful of Italian Renaissance painters on the one hand; and a handful of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French painters (or painters who lived and worked in France) on the other. Why should this be? Moreover the enduring success of the second group is grounded in the fact that they invented a new way of doing painting, and so created a body of work distinct from the Renaissance masters. What does this tell us?
And what about fiction? Two hundred thousand new novels are printed every year. Many of them are good. Yet I’ll hazard a prediction that no novelists working in any language today will have the enduring cultural weight and influence enjoyed by a group of a dozen-or-so French, British and Russian novelists from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century’, amongst them Jane Austen, Scott, George Eliot, the Brontes, Dickens, Flaubert, Hugo, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Henry James, Balzac, Zola, Conrad, Proust, James Joyce.