Monday, July 19, 2010

1000 years in 122 pages

I was intrigued to learn of the Student's Guides to the Major Disciplines, a series of books currently being marketed by ISI Books. The books are intended for members of the general public who would benefit from a concise introduction to disciplines in the humanities that would otherwise have passed them by - a sort of do-it-yourself alternative to an institutional liberal arts education. The titles feature an impressive lineup of contributors - John Lukacs on history, the late Ralph McInerny on philosophy, and James V. Schall on "liberal learning".

I was intrigued enough to pick up the volume on music history, authored by Australian organist-composer and writer R. J. Stove. The book attempts to summarize music history from Hildegard of Bingen to the present in language comprehensible by non-musicians, all in a mere 122 pages. Many books have attempted this task, but closer inspection reveals that almost all of them are intended for university music appreciation courses. The most prominent such book is, of course, Joseph Machlis's apparently indestructible The Enjoyment of Music, now into its tenth edition and still a reliable cash-cow for W. W. Norton and Co. Music majors are more likely to encounter Donald Jay Grout's even more indestructible History of Western Music. Purchasers of either volume shell out up to $500 for a dizzying package of materials including the book itself, multiple volumes of scores and a large package of companion CDs and "multimedia learning tools," all of which are produced by committee and are so tightly geared to the requirements of college survey courses as to have no possible use or value after the final exam. More inviting for the average person, perhaps, are Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise - but since the former is essentially a series of biographical sketches and the latter deals only with twentieth-century music, the need for a good-quality, readable single-volume history remains unmet.

It didn't take long to realize that Stove's history is one of those books that will leave you slightly out of breath at the end. The book's first six pages must suffice for the entire history of western music up until the high Renaissance; its last eight offer a précis of musical trends since 1945. This is not a book to read for detailed biographical sketches; the average speed is approximately one composer per page for most of the book, and often goes considerably faster. To bring history to any semblance of life under such restrictions requires the ability to say much in few words, and a flair for the well-chosen anecdote. Thankfully, Stove has both. I was particularly delighted by his summary of Ockeghem: "[H]e cultivated fantastically elaborate counterpoint, sang bass, and wore glasses." Indeed.

The organization and structure of this text is notably clear and free of jargon. A book on the history of any art form risks becoming a meaningless succession of book-jacket blurbs - decontextualized information that cannot possibly be retained without some broader organizing principle. The usual solution is to wash down the indigestible mass with soothing bromides about "periods" or styles, in the hope that by grouping three hitherto unfamiliar composers together with a simplistic label the reader has thereby learned something interesting. Stove's approach is so unobtrusive as to be almost unnoticeable - unexpected connections between composers are exploited to effect a transition from one to the other, sometimes in surprising ways. Handel, for example, is sandwiched between his English predecessor Purcell and his Italian colleague Corelli; the discussion of Corelli paves the way for a discussion of the Italian school which will eventually lead northwards to J.S. Bach. Such an approach does infinitely more to place the music in a meaningful context than the usual approach of pairing Handel and Bach. Equally memorable was the juxtaposition of Brahms, Bruckner, and Johann Strauss II, giving the reader a broad overview of the variety of music-making in late nineteenth-century Vienna.

A couple of insights are particularly striking, sending me running to listen to the music again - this on Couperin, for example:
Paradoxically, the greater Couperin's blue-blooded and periwigged elegance, the more widespread the sense of desolation behind it. His keyboard oeuvre is a masked ball that repeatedly threatens to turn into the Masque of the Red Death.
Also very fine are the discussions of Richard Strauss and of Carl Nielsen, who is finally beginning to receive the wide recognition he deserves.

There are some problems. Bach's music is unimaginable without predecessors like Pachelbel and Buxtehude, composers that deserve more coverage than the passing references they receive. More context is needed for the development of instrumental music in general, which is pushed aside in favour of vocal forms practically until the advent of Paganini. The most significant omission is a list of recommended works and recordings by each composer; a listener unfamiliar with the repertoire is not helped by the information that Hugo Wolf's songs are "frequently superb," for example, without being told which of his hundreds of songs are the superb ones.

Stove's assessments of composers and works are usually sound. The twentieth-century avant-garde receives spotty coverage, which is fine; this repertoire is the musical equivalent of blue cheese. Someone wanting an introduction to the Western musical tradition probably doesn't mean Xenakis, and someone who would enjoy Xenakis will find him without our help. The assessment of Stravinsky, though, leaves something to be desired - he tells us that the composer's "creative gifts had already peaked" by 1917, and that little of his later music "shared the quality of, or even appeared to come from the same hand as, his pre-1918 achievements." I've more or less given up on trying to understand why some people like later Stravinsky and others don't - there is no apparent pattern. For me, the bracing tragedy of Oedipus Rex, the awe-inspiring Symphony of Psalms and the alternately hilarious and touching The Rake's Progress can stand with any of his early ballets. For Stove, and for many otherwise intelligent musicians, the entire style is a closed book. Even more bizarre, for me, was the assertion that Brahms's chamber music is "on the whole, less performed and less attractive" than his other music. Far from being unattractive, Brahms's trios and quartets are among my favourite pieces of music, full stop, and seem to me to be at the heart of his entire output.

Yet the critical judgements in books like these are at best a mere crutch, helping the new listener to orient himself in a repertory before he develops particular tastes of his own. The cure to the errors of emphasis in this book, or any other, is more listening. It would be surprising if anyone could read this little book without being inspired to listen to some of the music Stove describes, and on that count it must be considered a success. Add to that the fact that the book can be comfortably read in an evening and is available in an extremely cheap paperback edition, and the book becomes self-recommending.

1 comment:

cnb said...

I've read a few of the other books in this Student's Guide to... series, on literature, philosophy, and 'liberal learning', and generally found them to be good. Brief, as you say, but well done given the constraints. I'd seen this volume on music at Amazon, and circled around it once or twice, but hadn't bitten yet. Thanks for the appraisal.

Of course, I'm in the middle of Taruskin's five-volume history of music, so perhaps I'll wait a while before checking out Stove.