Thinking Through Music History

July 21, 2009

singing style

An individual singing style often involves a singer’s imitation—for better or worse—of a popular artist’s tone quality. It sometimes calls for a sudden break in the voice, plaintive bleating, or wild screeching: all these effects, however, are purely ephemeral and continually change with their originators.

These devices by which some singers develop a vivid, individual, and compelling style are quite familiar to us from the music all around us. They may bring to mind specific artists who have used them successfully. These will doubtless be performers of great (and perhaps somewhat uninhibited) expressivity. Some readers will think of certain now-venerable jazz singers, others of soul, folk, or rock singers whose vigorous expressive devices fit such norms of what we might call mal canto. What the quoted remark of course will not describe at all well is the goals and achievements of our best “classical” or operatic singers. Their more or less bel canto interpretation of the standard repertory of the past has become a sort of international standard. It is widely considered to have the only valid claim on the serious attention of people of elevated musical culture.

The quotation, which deserves to be read with great attention, is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musical dictionary of 1768. (The philosopher’s untranslatable expression here rendered as “particular style of singing” is gout de chant.) The passage refers to the best usage of Rousseau’s day. The musical events that involved such singing were naturally rather different from the specific decorum of modern “classical” occasions both in aesthetic posture and in the whole atmosphere that surrounded them. (If they weren’t considerably more highly-charged before the singing began, they certainly must have become so in the course of the breaks, bleats and screeches.) Rousseau’s description was originally applied to repertory that is now generally referred to as “early music,” which a curious chronological reflex in us will, if we are not careful, associate with the prim and the restrained—even despite the most feverish exertions of such as Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus to disillusion us.

But, in the early twenty-first century, we here and there find people willing—or perhaps driven is not too strong a word—to try to go back to earlier musical repertories with an openness to experimentation involving even the most extreme of the old expressive ways. (Joseph Kerman has described the singing of one of the best of them as “inspired screeching.”) Insofar as they do so, they bring together crucial aesthetic ideals of the “pop” culture and of the early-music nook of the “classical” culture, which manages to be rarified and frisky at the same time—not unlike some esoteric jazz circles. (Both the jazz and early-music movements, significantly, have tended to be viewed with suspicion by the same people.)

The Rousseau excerpt provides a simple and useful first example of the sort of radical anomalies in our musical life that can be considerably and usefully cleared up by a serious view of music-as-event. Somewhat different musical bedfellows are found together through an event-directed, performance-oriented approach than through the more customary chronological or social-class segregations. These latter groupings may scrupulously play by their own historiographical rules without sufficiently taking into account the nature of the musical art itself.

The works of Rousseau are of course not unknown. But the certain testimonies that his, and vast numbers of comparably illuminating sources contain, have not been as useful as they might have been: the greater cultural world has not found them sufficiently striking without adequate reference to the larger event that music indissolubly belongs to.

And that greater world is right. We will here endeavor to look at some things, both familiar and novel, with the freshest eyes that we can possibly assume. Doing so can be an exhilarating imaginative experience. Doing so will teach us much about our musical culture. It is a prerequisite to finding what that culture itself can tell us about what we are accustomed to thinking of as wider issues.

If the styles of Rousseau’s eighteenth-century opera singers and of modern popular singing have much in common with the almost infinite quantities of vivid folk singing around the world (and, incidentally, with what is known of medieval and Renaissance singing ideals); and if they have rather less correspondence to what now comes to us—with all its considerable virtues—licensed as the preferred, correct way to sing all Western “art” music seriously and well; then when and why, we may ask, did the change occur? What other changes went with it? And, crucially: why are even earnest music-lovers so generally unaware that Rousseau’s contemporaries (who included Bach and Handel at one end, Mozart and Haydn at the other, and Gluck all the way through) were accustomed to such singing as was at least within hailing distance of his description? To establish what has happened, we need to look at radical changes in attitude to what we may call the musical occasion. And to do it, we will want to walk through some cultural history with that goal in mind.

Our earliest records of human community life include fortunate references to music. They sometimes put, in fact, drastically more emphasis on music than is considered quite the thing in our more recent enlightened societies. There has been much brave effort spent on finding a natural cause for this invariable presence of music among people. In the process, the anthropologists have been able to collect evidence showing that the ability to make music is as innate to our species as speech and that virtually all known societies share some musical practices. These common habits evidently involve, for example, the primacy of certain melodic intervals, usually producing a “pentatonic scale” that is heard all over the world, and on which China’s traditional music is as dependent as Scotland’s is. This constitutes, among other things, a modern vindication of Pythagoras. He found that these intervals are the first naturally to emerge from abstract mathematical thinking on music and also from practical experiments with a vibrating string. That humankind (who, we sometimes forget, is also a part of nature) reflects these facts in universal musical practice may be a matter of comfort to pessimists who fear that our species never does anything right.

The universals of rhythm are easily observable. All ordinary meters, whether of drum, bells, clapping, stamping, or poetry, are divisible by either two or three. In its provision of two hands for drum-beating, for example, the human frame predisposes us to duple meter, and the structure of our foot imposes a quadruple meter on the act of walking. The special appeal of things triple is deeply embedded in human history and, hence, human psychology. The fact that anatomy, philosophy, and psychology confirm each other in such considerations would have come as no surprise to our thoughtful forebears (and is the subject of writings on music and poetry from ancient times). It is we who often expect disorder in nature until the taming hand of humanity has subdued it. This expectation is the basic principle of magic and of applied science. It is philosophy and religion that look to human conformity to nature as the way around serious difficulties. Music has often shown itself capable of taking sides in such rivalry between control and co-operation.

There seems to reside in human nature a certain sameness of approach to the uses of music. Music is, for example, always and everywhere used for transcending time and space, telling stories, solemnizing pacts, dignifying words, governing dance, relieving ennui, lending rhythm to work, sending signals, recalling prior events, paying honor to other beings or ideas, making love to a prospective mate, drawing groups together, confirming separate identities, mourning, mounting protests, pacifying babies, building up courage, chasing melancholy, and giving expression to high spirits.

These—for want of a better word—uses of music do not of course preclude a decidedly non-utilitarian character in music’s effects, some of which, in their intensity, belong to it alone. Music’s ecstatic element—what may be experienced as a kind of passionate sanity—can seem to some people its main characteristic. The individual can feel the achieving of a god’s-eye-view of the universe. But never do music’s transcendent powers ever exist entirely apart from societal considerations. It is key to music’s nature that it functions socially rather than in isolation. That is, what we often call the art of music does; acoustical science of course awaits no one’s pleasure, is unresponsive to social situation. It exists even where the tree falls in the woods. This art/science duality creates a natural balance in music’s character that made it an early object of fruitful study in many cultures.

No society is heard of in which music’s rôles contradict those mentioned above. Communities may, however, specialize in certain uses of music, as do individuals. The ancient Hebrews seem to have emphasized the ceremonial and psycho-somatic purposes of music. The Greeks codified ethical and theatrical uses. Oratory is the first thing that comes to mind from the Roman extension of highly developed Greek practices. But each of these cultures also in some degree possessed all the other systems mentioned.

The Christian church, from its early days a predominantly urban and cosmopolitan society-within-societies, found itself heir to all these, even those it chose to de-emphasize, such as the theatrical. (The dramatic impulse in Christian liturgy has never stayed smothered for long at a time, however.) The nature of musical culture produced crises in the ninth century, and the activities it often accompanied were less those of peace than of the sword. The important thing for modern Westerners to remember here is that music was once something that unambiguously existed in time—not on paper, or even primarily in the memory. However lasting its effect, its existence evaporated at the moment it occurred. Musical practice found itself being altered according to places and circumstances, and the early church at Rome seems to have led the typical Romantic project of letting it adapt as men and women felt was fitting. In this—to be quite explicit—we see a tradition that has repeatedly asserted itself, combatting attempts to freeze practice in some ideal state. Already in a Carolingian movement given its marching orders by at least two rulers of the eighth century, we find an ideology tinged with the rival tendency: that of codification, uniformity, and a sort of mild, incipient conservative classicism.

By the twelfth century, the contest was over on the official level. The North and systemization had, to some extent, won; and the more Romantic tendencies became a more-or-less tolerated, but ever crucial, leavening of cultural life. Attempts to break out of this, motivated by many of the same tendencies as the rebels against the earlier Carolingian codifiers, produced the polyphony that would be intermittently controversial for at least four hundred years. In the fourteenth century, we have the first composer whom we know to have collected his works into bound manuscripts as visual objets d’art. The idea that musical works might to some extent, and however exceptionally, transcend occasion was a new and bold one and fit well with the courtly ideas of artificial and transferable amorous etiquette and ready-made feeling. This greatly accelerated a tendency that European music managed largely to keep at bay until the late nineteenth century. But the genetic strain of fixed compositional procedures had been introduced and was hardier than it might appear from the luxuriance of the more dominant improvisation-oriented musical frameworks in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. During all that time, there was a strong sense of insult involved in inserting a piece of composed music (even something so large as an opera) into one occasion when it had been tailored for another (rather as we might now be revolted by re-using for one funeral the floral tributes arranged for another funeral). It is significant that even so efficient and effective a re-user as Handel usually kept the matter decently cloaked, or at least did not parade it, and Bach could show willingness to slip previously secular material into the liturgy but showed scruples about traffic in the opposite direction. He may have considered such material consecrated by its sacred use; but nothing would have shocked, or perhaps embarrassed him, more than the uncritical reverence that sometimes motivates our collecting his merest manuscript trill (which, for all we know, is there to cover a bad note on the instrument that it was first performed on) to publish it in our editions and duly reproduce it in sound-recordings. These laudable tasks do, however, seem to meet real needs of ours that are not exclusively or inherently musical.

The predominantly improvisatory and “occasional” nature of public music-making still continued to mirror that of private playing throughout most of the nineteenth century. Even the learning of music was a social activity, and the idea of an instrumentalist spending the major part of his music-making time alone playing to himself seems to have been as foreign to Frederick the Great, and then to Mendelssohn, as it had been to Henry the Eighth and would eventually be to Bix Beiderbecke.

As eminent composers and musical thinkers emerged who were less inclined (and, not co-incidentally, less able) to perform as charismatic virtuosos, the creation of music began gradually to be seen, not as the making of sonic art in a social setting, but as the solitary graphic effusion of genius onto paper, only gradually and very ceremoniously to be birthed to a reverent public on occasions where musical midwife-priests would allow nothing else to compete (at least theoretically) with the divine musical utterance. After ages in which the performance had been seen as yielding an unrepeatable event, it was now the process of composition—rather than performance—that aimed at producing a unique masterpiece.

About this time the Paris Conservatory established a formal composition curriculum. It did not aim at equally emphasizing all kinds of composition. (The separate classes in such things as Fugue and Organ—meaning improvisation—were still high on the composer’s list of necessary pursuits.) Far the greatest concentration in the composition classes was put on the composition of operas—the least improvisatory, the most schematic, of musical forms. (Even there, the composers only very slowly and with famous difficulty were able to stamp out the improvisatory habit in the singers—though the extent to which composers like Rossini even tried to do so has been traditionally exaggerated.) So composition was increasingly concerned with large numbers of decreasingly autonomous performers at the very time that public musical life was becoming more and more centered on the performance of compositions for paying audiences.

In that same period, understandably enough, works of the past began to be seen in a different light; for the inherited (or, increasingly, rediscovered) compositions that people found they approved of must, they felt, have been created by these same hallowed, and increasingly mysterious and specialized, processes. The ranks of citizenry considered “musical” shrank more and more into a narrow caste. Amateur became almost a term of reproach.

An old composer’s accidentally remaining manuscripts are often the slender, fragmentary, relics of a career that they did not typify. But this has not prevented the erection of a preservative edifice around the works that have met with the approval of the same people who were lining themselves up as either successors or professional interpreters of these Great Composers. No matter if these Greats were primarily performers or even what we now would call, perhaps with a curl of the lip, entertainers (including thorough men of the theater), they would henceforth be known and characterized —or shunned and vilified—according to the nature of the manuscript crumbs that fell from their tables and were carried into the laboratories of analysis and dens of criticism. Berlioz, in his guise as critic, could take the Alceste operas of Lully, Handel, and Gluck and judge them as works of written-down art (to the great disadvantage of the former two) without betraying much suspicion that such works had any other layer of musical significance, procedure, means, convention, or context than he could see jotted down on paper. In this he was, as always, in the avant-garde. Music manuscripts began to join the subject matter of archeology in glass cases of museums, but—unlike these other artifacts, whose essence is much more a matter of material existence—they were more thoroughly deprived of their time and context and judged largely by current, anachronistic standards. They were labelled “primitive” in the least sympathetic sense of that word.

All of which explains why the presence of African-American music in Western society presents such an opportunity for understanding and re-orientation. Using that repertory, we can compellingly illustrate some otherwise obscured connections that our society’s music still maintains with that of all other human communities past and present.

For some time now, when people speak of “the musical world,” some of them have meant, when one thinks of it, something quite miserably small. There is none of the spaciousness there that the word world properly connotes. Nor is there anything of the sweep that a Haydn took for granted as he interacted with folk music, liturgical ceremonial, the music of ball and street, lady-like boudoir, Enlightenment masculine amateurism, antiquarian criticism, operatic exoticism, academic speculation, and whatever else he and people like him unselfconsciously knew as provinces of music. The “world” of music is too often one that has been brought to think of itself as a limiting norm. It may have been the unconscious limitation of the reader or writer of this post at its beginning. We probably think—if we think of the subject at all—that the mass of people would get into this musical world if only they could. It is thought to be small only because those outside it, sad to say, are ill-equipped, in some more-or-less undefined and indefinable way, to be participants in “real music.” Well-intentioned attempts to bring more people into the circle are regularly mooted and almost as regularly regretted as failures; but both attempt and failure would undoubtedly make almost all those we commonly call our musical forebears scratch their heads in puzzlement. In the repertories that have African-American origins, this bizarre situation in musical life is reversed.

Those who have lately been in the habit of reading and writing books on musical thought—if indeed the two groups are not one and the same—may need to think particularly hard to see the extent of the reversal. There is a tendency for all serious discussion of music to be about a certain kind of music, and that of the most numerically minuscule constituency. There is an acceptance that for a repertory to be widespread is to be other than serious and to be serious is to be limited to those like “us.” (Schoenberg bluntly tells us that music cannot be art if it is popular, or popular if it is art.) It is assuredly not the contention here that the constituency for what is most widely thought of as “art” music is either contemptible or that it must die. Nor need it be necessarily small. But it is surely socially moribund without an opening that is offered to it by both the best musicology and, quite harmoniously, by such as the African-American phenomenon abroad in the musical world—in that great, broad world peopled with the millions of the naturally musical by virtue of their humanity rather than with the few who have proclaimed themselves musical by virtue of … what?

By virtue of participation in social rituals that have very little, if anything at all, to do with musical values. If people are excluded from some classes of musical life on account of non-musical factors, then the differences in attitude and occasion characteristic of the African-American repertory not only explain its wide popular (and economic) appeal, but point to ways that the best benefits of the “high” musical culture could in future be extended through the population. When changes in the manners and rituals of “classical” musical life are proposed, many of us will revolt and say that we don’t want the repertory “cheapened” by association with other patterns; but, if we do so, let us be honest enough to admit that values other than styles of composition and quality of performance are coming into play for us—and that these values are superseding “purely musical” considerations (that very idea being an anthropo-musicological error that tries to separate the anthropo- from the musicologia). And we might at least ask the question of how much the characteristic aura of the “classical” has to do with musical content, and how much with style of presentation, including location and dress. This may explain why we have found it relatively easy to welcome less serious—even undeniably “popular”—music into our concert halls, so long as it orginates from some particularly “well-behaved” European community of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Societies in Africa and elsewhere who lack our approach to the social distinctions also lack a separate classical music. The fewer compartments an art has been partitioned into, the more adaptable to the flow of life that art will be.

2 Responses to “Thinking Through Music History”

  1. mpnmnl said

    Skimmed through most of it but it was very informative.

    Do you know who did the painting? It’s amazing. I’m a big fan of expressionist-type paintings.

  2. rogerevans said

    I should have acknowledged the online source, so thanks for asking. It’s:

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