Friday, April 27, 2012

Histories of Music

When I was a young man in my late teens and early twenties, just discovering classical music, I hungrily absorbed everything I could find about it. The main histories I read were the standard text by Donald J. Grout which is now in its 8th edition and more expensive than ever! Grout passed away and the book has acquired two new additional authors, but remains an expanded  version of what I read, oh, getting on forty years ago. The book has, therefore, influenced untold numbers of college students. Here is a telling quote from one review of the book: "Although I bought this book for my college class, I like it. It provides a lot of helpful information, and it thoroughly explains how music has progressed over time." It "explains how music has progressed over time..." Remember that phrase. As I continued to study at university, I discovered the Norton series of books on music history with Gustave Reese's large volumes on Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Written in the 40s and 50s, these are still in print. There was another series of smaller paperbacks that included a widely read history of 20th century music and some on non-Western music, but I can't seem to find them on Amazon.

All these histories of music are unreflective with regard to ideology and music history was taught in just this way. I was in graduate school doing doctoral seminars in musicology when the 'new' musicology was just starting to gain a foothold. I recall one seminar on twentieth century analysis where the professor (who had been teaching the course for probably twenty years) curtly listed the 'important' 20th century composers to make some point or another. One of the other students caught my eye and made a sweeping gesture with her hand in the air indicating a hierarchy: 1, 2, 3. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok. She had become aware of the ideology surrounding the way the history of music was seen and taught.

I said these accounts were unreflective, but some of them, particularly in the case of 20th century music, were actually polemic. The series of books published by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft were particularly so in their tireless self-promotion, attacks on rivals, dogmatic insistence on performing rigor and outright fabrications. Another important book of this kind was René Leibowitz' Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music. I quote the whole title because it is very indicative of the underlying ideology.

And what is this or these ideologies that I have so coyly hinted at? It is the historicist one that believes that music progresses, developing newer and newer technical means and vocabularies for greater and greater precision in expression of... Well, more ideologies, of course, like heroic romantic individualism or existential despair or moral complacency! Or at its most extreme, the technical perfection of a compositional method is its own end and listeners are not even needed any more. Some call this 'patent-office modernism'.

I have had my awareness of these issues hugely expanded by reading the newest (and possibly the last of its kind) general history of music, the Oxford History of Western Music in five hefty volumes by Richard Taruskin, possibly the only musicologist and historian with a profound enough knowledge to be able to write such a book. I just finished the last volume yesterday. Yes, I strongly recommend reading it. It is stuffed full of musical examples in score and does not shy away from detailed analysis. It is not, however, a mere chronicle. Taruskin summarizes his approach in the fascinating introduction titled "The History of What?" in which he discusses his goals and methods. He does not merely survey the history; he examines and investigates causes. He looks at music's social context and mythologies. This is an extraordinary set of books (4000 pages in all) drawing on original documents and the most recent scholarship of the 'new' musicology. Which he is no slave to, by the way. I think it is safe to say that Taruskin does not simply replace one set of ideologies with another!

The ever-recurring theme is that there are and always have been two streams of music--at least since the beginnings of music writing: the literate and the oral. As soon as music notation was developed, it was possible to set down compositions, to 'write' music. Before this, all traditions were oral ones. Music was passed on directly. But from the very early Middle Ages, music became 'literate', though the oral traditions still co-existed. And a fantastic journey it has been. But it seems that now we may be moving into a post-literate age where most people and even many musicians, no longer 'read' music. In the pop and digital worlds, the reading of music no longer seems to be necessary.

The melody of this very old sixth-century chant may predate its written down version:

Nine hundred years later, Josquin wrote a mass based on it:

And five hundred years after Josquin, the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has revived this kind of music:

Yes, that notion of music progress is a rather questionable one, isn't it?


RG said...

"The" Pange Lingua, to most people is, I am sure, the one your first link points to, namely that written by St Thomas Aquinas (the philosopher-theologian 1222-1272) for the liturgy of the Feast of the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi, as noted parenthetically on the link), afeast that was instituted in 1264. You don't mention the Saint or the Feast, referring as a point de depart back to the P.L. or Crux Fidelis of Venatius Fortunatus which is online at

You will know that I by no means wish to question your analysis; nevertheless, in case you could not find a link to the particular work you were referring to, here is one. If that is a favour, I ask one in return. To what extent is the melody used traditionally to sing St Thomas' P.L. the-same-as the melody of Venantius' ancient hymn?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks to my knowledgeable commentor! The two areas of repertoire where I feel fairly ignorant are 'Gregorian' Chant and 19th century grand opera. However, after a bit of research, yes, there are two main versions of Pange Lingua, as you say, one by Venatius from the 6th century and the other a 'parody' of the original by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

The first comes from a time before these melodies were written down and so we have no source for the original, but many variants from much later times. Aquinas took the melody with some changes and revised the text making it both rhyming and accented. The version you linked to starts with the Crux Fidelis and gets to the Pange lingua around the 1'09 mark. The melody is very similar to the one used by Aquinas.