Thursday 25 January 2007

Book review - A Concise History of Western Music

It is a brave person who attempts to summarise the history of Western classical music in just over 300 pages, but Paul Griffiths has done just that in his new book, A Concise History of Western Music, published by Cambridge University Press ) It is this conciseness which is the problem, of course, how to give shape and coherence to a tradition that is multifarious and varied. But condensing this sprawling narrative into one slim volume has great advantages as it enables the writer (and the reader) to keep control of themes and enable the entirety of Western Classical Music to be considered in one sweep. Larger volumes might have the advantage of comprehensiveness. But small volumes such should have shape and elegance.

Running through Griffiths’s narrative is the concept of how time was considered. To a certain extent this is a conceit which enables him to give his sections some elegant titles, but beyond this you can sense that he is straining to express the way the different periods of music had very different relationships to musical time and pulse.

Griffiths divides his book into 8 sections as follows:-
Part 1: Time whole (14 pages)
Part 2: Time measured 1100-1400 (24 pages)
Part 3: Time sensed 1400-1630 (52 pages)
Part 4: Time known 1630-1770 (40 pages)
Part 5: Time embraced 1770-1815 (28 pages)
Part 6: Time escaping 1815-1907 (64 pages)
Part 7: Time tangled 1908-1975 (72 pages)
Part 8: Time lost 1975- (18 pages)

I have included the page counts to give an idea as to how Griffiths divides his time. This is a book that gives due weight to early music and to contemporary music; Griffiths’s narrative is so structured that Beethoven occurs almost at the centre of the book.

At first I found his language a bit too flowery, e.g. "Music, so intimately engaged with percetion, lights up the mind. Music, being immaterial, touches on the immaterial – on the drift of thought and feeling, on divinity and death". But once we move from the speculation on music’s sources to concrete history then things settle down and Griffiths’s language is generally admirably direct and clear.

There are a number of themes running through the narrative, which help to lift it from being a simple list of names and places. Firstly, Griffiths includes elements of musical analysis so that we understand the musical forms about which he is talking. One of the strands in the piece is the way musical form (and its use of time) has metamorphosed and changed, it is only when the narrative is well under way that we even get the first glimpse of the major and minor keys. His analyses are always apposite and straightforward to understand, he never seems to talk down to the reader. In the early part of the book, this sense of analysis is expanded to include bits of science in easily absorbed forms.

This first section also parallels the development of music with the development of musical notation and Griffiths helps us to understand how rooted in notation our music really is. The various elements of this strand run throughout the book, giving a clear idea of how music works and why it works the way it does.

Another strand of the book is how the present views the music of the past. This is important in a culture such as ours which seems to record everything. Initially this view of the past simply has a bearing on how we perceive the music; Griffiths makes it clear that music is not an absolute but is affected by how it is perceived and how we perform it. He reinforces this with an illuminating discussion on a piece of plainchant which can be heard nowadays but is apparently very old; Griffiths elucidates how modern perceptions and performance issues constantly re-create the music of the past.

This re-creation is made all the more apparent when we come to the music of the 20th century when Stravinsky starts creating works which are affected by past musics but as Griffiths points out "neoclassicism … owed its cool and strict rhythm not so much to the eighteenth century as to how the eighteenth century was being presented to the modern age by such performers as Landowska".

But besides seeing threads of continuity running through music history, an overview such as this is able to elucidate comparisons between contemporaries to help illuminate their musical world. Handel and Bach lived separate yet parallel existences in the same musical world. They never met and their music is apparently distinct, but Griffiths points out some helpful parallels between works written around the same time. Bach’s St. John Passion and Handel’s operas Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda come from the same period and would normally be seen as vastly different, but Handel and Bach were breathing the same musical air and Griffiths is able to detect this and help us see the commonalities between the works.

This crops up repeatedly in the book, the way the different musics of particular time have bearing on each other. Griffiths is admirable in the way he finds a similarity of purpose in late Rameau and late Handel: "Like Rameau at the same time, and very much the same age, Handel produced a series of works in which characterful action cascades into creative enjoyment, his choruses corresponding to Rameau’s dances."

I had never really thought about the parallel developments of music in the Soviet Union and in the USA in the 1930’s but Griffiths points out that in both countries composers moved away from modernistic developments - the Soviet composers under instruction from the government, but the American composers doing so apparently spontaneously. As with many other parallels, Griffiths offers no theories but simply records and allows the reader to develop ideas for themselves.

Finally, the last major strand that runs through the book is the role of composer in society along with how we perform music. How music was performed when written, along with sociological influences, is an important way of perceiving musical history. Other artistic and historical developments are touched on so that the can see modernism in the context of abstraction in the arts or come to feel the major effect that the French revolution had on the music and the arts in general.

Griffiths displays admirable clarity when picking his way through the many developments in music during the 19th century. He seems to be able to write about the era without obvious axe-grinding. And these are virtues which he needs in spades when approaching music in the decades after the 2nd world war. If he quotes Adorno a little to much and a little to abstrusely, he manages to make sense of the developments in music that happened during these challenging decades.

His treatment of atonality, serialism and modernism is scrupulously fair and Griffiths seems to be able to pick his way through the maze. But there is one area that he does not quite address fully. Whereas his discussions of music in the past includes information about performance practice and audience, for modernism he does not really address the central problem with post-War music making, that of the alienation of the audience. This is an area of music history which, I think, needs to be fully addressed in any major work.

Griffiths does enliven his narrative with brief biographical sketches of some composers. He does not always do this, perhaps because biography is not relevant for all composers. But there are moments when we seem to have lists of composers flashing past our eyes as we traverse the page; a problem in any work of this sort, but one that Griffiths seems to have minimised.

You can always play spot the bits missed out in this type of work. Griffiths seems to omit 19th century British composers pre-Elgar neither Stanford nor Parry gets a mention, though Ethel Smyth does.

The main narrative is followed by a 12 page glossary detailing all the specialist terms that you might need to know. Even more helpfully, this is followed by a list of further reading and listening, Griffiths suggests books and recordings which can be explored at leisure.

We have a tendency to view musical history as one of constant development. This is something that seems to be quite valid until we come to recent musical history. But perhaps even when dealing with the past, we should be wary of this model. In his closing sections on the musics of today, Griffiths introduces another, helpful, analogy – that of the labyrinth. We are no longer on a path but finding our way through a constantly expanding labyrinth and books like this help is to put ourselves in proper context.

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