Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Art of Listening: Overview of Music History

One thing that helps get perspective on music is to have an overall sense of its history. For a really thorough, detailed account you can't do better than Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music which runs about 4000 pages. But I think that we can do an overview in a little less space!

Western Music, at least that part of it that we know much about, has a history about a thousand years long. The practice of music is age-old, of course, but up until people figured out how to write it down, all that is lost. We have no idea what the music of the Ancient Greeks, used to accompany their tragedies and comedies, sounded like, nor any of the other multitudinous kinds of music practiced before about the year 1000 AD. It was around then that a brilliant music teacher and monk named Guido of Arezzo discovered the one thing that made Western classical or concert music possible: how to write it down accurately. Before then, all we really had were a few ambiguous scribbles. But Guido came up with the idea of a simple horizontal line. Using that to orient the squiggles around, the exact pitch of the notes could be determined. One line wasn't enough, though, so in time a set of five lines came into use and with that, the possibility of music composition and performance moved to an entirely new level, one that made the large and complex structures of Western music possible.

(There are lots of non-Western musics that use large and complex structures, but they do so in ways that are fundamentally different and rely not on precise notations, but on rote memorization of traditional formulas. I talk about this in various other posts and don't want to digress into that here.)

Once the way of writing down pitches was discovered, the next step was to be able to write down the rhythms exactly. This proved to be very difficult and it took up until around 1500 AD to fully work out. Between 1000 AD and 1500 AD we do have written down pieces of music that are, more or less, clearly notated, though the earlier ones need some interpretation as regards the rhythm.

This whole period comprises one large phase in music history with a number of interesting characteristics. For one thing, all the composers tended to be singers. They thought in terms of long melodic lines and composed in the same way. Today, most composers are pianists and they compose in score, thinking of the whole piece at once. Back then, it seems that composers would compose whole lines and then go back and add other ones. Two of the earliest composers we know of, at least by name, are Léonin and Pérotin who both worked at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris around 1200 AD. Between them they pretty much invented the idea of counterpoint, or combining two or more melodic lines. Here is a piece in two parts by Léonin. This kind of simple, early counterpoint is called organum and consists in adding a decorative line in shorter notes to another voice in long ones.

For a few hundred years music for the voice was the most important of all and instrumental music was far less significant. Here is a piece for voices by the very famous composer Josquin des Prez, who flourished around 1500 AD. Notice that the voices now play an equal role and that they imitate one another:

In the next big phase in music history, we start to find more and more instrumental music. One thing it was particularly good at was providing music for dancing, but it also started by imitating the texture of vocal music. Here are two lute pieces, the first a dance:

This is a fantasia by Francesco da Milano that successfully copies the imitative counterpoint of the voice:

This second phase, where we find instrumental music finding its place and even dominating some genres, takes us up to around 1750. I haven't been using the traditional names, but the first phase is usually called Medieval and Renaissance music and the second, Baroque music. These terms can be a bit deceptive though. The thing to note is that the development of instrumental music came to the fore in this second phase and we find uniquely instrumental forms like the concerto developing. Composers now were often keyboard players or perhaps violinists like the great composer of concertos, Antonio Vivaldi. This is the Concerto in D major, RV 208:

This kind of rhythmic, accented music with lots of quick scales would be quite unsuitable for the voice, but perfect for the violin. Some of the greatest pieces of this phase combine voices and instruments to really spectacular effect. J. S. Bach was pretty much the master here. This is the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, one of his greatest works:

The next phase is rather brief in comparison, stretching from around 1760 to around 1820, but pretty important nonetheless. I haven't mentioned opera, which deserves its own overview, but Italian opera buffa, with its clear and charming melodies and its bustling and energetic accompaniments was a major inspiration for the new instrumental (and vocal) style we call the "Classical Style" (after a book by Charles Rosen). This is the kind of music that is what most people think of when they think of Classical music. The trio of composers central to the style are Haydn, who largely invented it, Mozart, who wrote some of the most beautiful examples and Beethoven who moved it to an entirely new level. Let's have three samples. First, a symphony by Haydn, the Symphony No. 44 in E minor:

I think you can hear a new flexibility and fluidity in both the harmony and the rhythms that expressively support the clean-cut melodies. Mozart added his own unique charm to the style and brought the keyboard concerto to its first flourishing. Here is the Concerto No. 18 in B flat major:

While Beethoven wrote some great concertos and even greater symphonies, his sonatas for piano are even more numerous and just as remarkable. This is the Sonata in E major, op. 109:

As I said, that takes us up into the 1820s so this post has an overview of the first 800 years of music history. I will save the next 200 years for the next post!


Ken Fasano said...

Have you considered writing a book on this subject, something that could be read by a non-specialist but which would be interesting to a specialist?

Bryan Townsend said...

I have thought about it, but I'm not sure I have time at the moment.

Marc Puckett said...

Today's the vigil of the feast of St John the Baptist, and the Liturgy includes the hymn Ut queant laxis, which is traditionally the vehicle used by Guido to denominate the notes in his scale:

Ut queant laxis
resonare fibris,
Mira gestorum
famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
labii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc! I did a whole post on our friend Guido of Arezzo and talked about this piece in particular: