Monday, February 9, 2015

Love Songs

Is it time to do a hit and run, I mean, critical review of the latest bit of pseudo-musicology to appear? Heck, it's always time for that! Let's turn to the Daily Beast where we find this opening to an article about the origins of the love song:
The love song has dominated Western music for a thousand years, since the rise of the troubadours. But its history, as commonly told, is filled with distortions, half-truths and a few bald-faced lies. The real innovators, who created almost every key thematic element in this music, are left out of the history books—especially the visionaries from Africa and the Middle East who gave us the modern love song.
Uh, well, there's a few errors there, starting with the first sentence. If you grew up on pop music and then discovered the troubadours, you might be tempted to write that the "love song has dominated Western music for a thousand years." Sounds good, but no. No one form or genre has dominated Western music for more than a fraction of that time. For a very long time, say, 600 AD to 1100 AD, Western music, at least what we know of it, was dominated by the unaccompanied chant of the church and monasteries. With the rise of secular music there were indeed songs in praise of courtly love, quite a different thing than our modern idea of love, but equally important was dance music and even more important was the birth of polyphony. The 15th and 16th centuries were dominated by vocal polyphony and the rise of instrumental music, the 17th and 18th by the triumph of, on the one hand, opera and on the other orchestral music: concertos and symphonies. I think one could honestly say that at no point until the 20th century and the rise of popular music was Western music ever dominated by the love song. So, turns out that this little article begins with a distortion, quarter-truth (there were some great love songs by Schubert and Schumann, but they did not "dominate" the music scene) and bald-faced lie.

Here is another problematic passage:
at several decisive junctures over the last 5,000 years, Western songs of courtship, romance, and sexuality have been fundamentally changed by the introduction of African and Middle Eastern innovations.
For example?
The qiyan, the singing female slaves of the Islamic world, invented the key elements of courtly love long before they were known in Europe. I have a whole shelf of books on troubadour love songs in front of me, and not one of them mentions these innovators, whose music spread into Europe via North Africa after the Muslim conquest of Spain.
We certainly have examples, mentioned in all the history books, of the Christian West adopting musical instruments from North Africa and the Near East. Two of these are the oboe, brought back by returning Crusaders, and the lute, a European modification of al oud, the Arabic plucked instrument. However, what we don't have is much evidence that the music was brought along as well. Apart from this, perhaps:
All-but-forgotten sources tell us of an even earlier meeting between African and European musical cultures from the 7th century. Saint Valerius, an ascetic monk from this period whose autobiographical sketches have survived, was shocked by his encounter with an Ethiopian priest who performed love songs on the lute.  Valerius resided in Spain before the Moorish invasion, but his experiences make it clear that African songs of romance were entering Europe even during the Visigoth era. It is worth nothing that no love songs in the vernacular language have survived from the Christian world during this period—so these hints of a vibrant African tradition are especially revealing.
Hints are not necessarily revealing of much. Which Saint Valerius does he mean? Wikipedia has three, none of whom lived in the 7th century. Perhaps African songs of romance were entering Europe at this time, but the problem is that, apart from mention in literary texts, if they exist, we have no musical evidence. Musical notation was very rudimentary in this period and we have no secular songs at all. They might have had a vibrant tradition of love songs in pre-Moorish Spain with their own Grammy awards, but there just isn't any evidence, a possibly shocked Saint Valerius notwithstanding.

There is a depressing lot of scholarship these days that is based entirely on the desire to confirm the prevailing biases of our time. We want to give women as much credit as we possibly can, so we go ahead and invent a history where they dominate:
Even closer to our modern love songs, however, are the lyrics unearthed in Egypt from the 19th and 20th dynasties. These also pre-date the Greek lyric poets by centuries, yet here too this important legacy is known only to a few scholars. And here, as in the other instances mentioned above, the most innovative love songs adopt a female perspective.
The problem here, of course, is that all we have from these remote ages is the poetry, not the music. So, q.e.d. you can't talk about the music. No music, no song. Not that that inhibits this writer:
A lesson I’ve drawn from my research is a simple one, but it took me a long time to learn: when a powerful man gets credit for a new way of singing about love, there is usually a hidden story—about a slave or woman or some other forgotten innovator—hidden in the background worth unearthing.
Isn't it marvelous when you go out looking for something you find exactly what you are looking for?
The most amazing part of this story is how the same plot is repeated over and over again. What took place in ancient Mesopotamia is echoed during the Middle Ages, and again in 19th century America, and finally at the heart of the 20th century music industry. The ascendancy of the love song to the dominant position in Western music is the cumulative result of these cross-cultural innovations. Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge the innovators from outside the Western world who laid the groundwork for this success.
It's the same story over and over: nasty, evil white men stole all the creative wonderfulness from black people and women. Wherever we look in history we find exactly the same story!


Let's listen to a wonderful example of a love song from a female perspective: "Un bel di vedremo" from the opera Madame Butterfly composed by that exploitative white man, Giacomo Puccini:


Gabriel Amaral said...

Hello Bryan, I really enjoy this kind of post. This kind of bad, fallacious writing and argumenting on music is enraging! I came across this video today:

It´s particularly funny when she sums everything up at around 27:40.

Just in case you run out of pseudo-musicology to criticize :)

Rickard Dahl said...

Some seriously ridiculous stuff in that article. Instead of arguing about love songs being the dominant type of music, one might as well argue that religious music was dominant. In fact there is more evidence that religious music has had more importance over a longer period of time. There was the chant tradition you've mentioned and then polyphonic religious music and so on. I know you might not believe in the Bible but I think it gives lots of historic details even if you don't believe some of the more miraculous things in there. Either way, there is a whole chapter in the Bible dedicated to psalms, as in lyrics that were sung in some way and there are also accounts about singing or playing on certain instruments in the Bible. The tradition of religious music goes back to at least 2000 years ago. But there's evidence that suggests that it's been practiced in pagan religions. For instance there are horns from the bronze age, which scholars suggest were used for religious worship. But calling it the dominating musical type is probably incorrect. I might be wrong but given the lack of evidence it seems like the article is just another hitpiece about the "evil" white heterosexual male. It's more a projection of our current mainstream political climate onto history than an accurate historical assessment based on evidence.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Gabriel. I will have a look at that video when I get a chance.

And Rickard, I think you underlined very well a point I should have brought out. Yes, the genres of religious music are probably the most dominant in the history of Western music. In comparison, secular love songs are a very minor, almost negligible genre.