Historian Will Durant said he first set out to write a history of the 19th century. Then he decided that if he wanted to be able to understand what happened in the 19th century, he'd have to back up a bit and find out what led to the cultural and political situations he encountered then. At which point he realized that that too was caused by what had happened before and that he'd need to back up even more.
Which is how he got all the way back to the dawn of recorded history, and ended up writing The Story of Civilization in 11 volumes of 600-1000 pages, trying to tell the story of human history (Euro-centered, of course, but with an attempt to deal with every culture around the world to some degree and grapple with its entire recorded history at least in passing).
It took Durant and his wife, Ariel, most of their long lives to finish the task, and by finish, we mean they ended up in about 1815, which was still a good century and a half before their last book was published in 1975. Before that, they had planned the ultimate cliff-hanger and decided to finish with volume 10 on the eve of the French Revolution. (We weren't even going to get to find out how it ends!)
It's even a monumental task to read it all, and, having begun the series just after moving to Champaign 11 years ago, I'm about 150 pages from the end of the final volume with just a few months left until our move. I think I'll make it.
My connection to Durant may not be just as reader. In some ways, we are engaged in a similar task, what he would call the ridiculous and ultimately doomed effort to see things whole, to understand all of it. In the past five years, just in the area of sound recording, I've posted nearly 30 hours of organ and piano music stretching all the way back to the earliest surviving organ music from the late Middle Ages, including some piece based on chants that go back even further (often we have no better than a good guess as to when). It encompasses many countries, mostly in Europe and America, with some contributions from other places in the world, and includes improvisations and compositions of my own vintage and those of a few others who have written their pieces in the last few years, showing that the tradition is alive and continuing to forge ahead.
This survey of mine will hopefully grow to include every major school of musical thought and composition and every major voice who has spoken in a written musical dialect. But it cannot possibly be thorough. There simply is not enough time to get to everything that has been written, no matter how long or short life is. It will never be long enough. Rachmaninoff knew that. He said "music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music." Durant knew that about history, too.
And why should it be possible? Me vs. every important contribution from thousands of members, past and present, of my own species? How can I possibly represent all of that? And who says I have to?
One of the amazing things about human beings is their ability to fling their voices far across space and time. To continue being part of the conversation long after their physical voices have ceased; to influence people who could never know them personally. We will never even know who wrote those organ pieces from the Robertsbridge Codex, c. 1360. Maybe he died of the plague. Maybe he was not a nice person at all. Or perhaps I would have enjoyed having lunch with him. Or, just possibly, her.
Maybe I'm approaching his or her music all wrong. I try to do my best for these honored dead as well as make the music live and breathe for today, as well as the future which might still get to hear it. Frankly, as all-inclusive as the catalogue is I'd like to be able to play music from the future, too, but it's a little difficult.
It feels like skimming the surface. And it is. If I have more time perhaps I can get back to the days when I spent two years on Brahms. Perhaps. But in five years I've made a pretty good start. It's probably as much as most artists previously recorded in their entire artistic lives.
It still isn't a dent. And what difference has it made for me (and perhaps you?) It is the glorious inheritance of our species, the accumulated thought and wisdom of those who could speak and be heard. We cannot hear it all and not be changed. It is hard to imagine we could not be bettered for the experiences. How can we not share these gifts? "Let us," said Durant, "before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children."