Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Music History for the Shy and Intimidated

People have funny attitudes toward the topic of music, especially serious music. The attitude is that it is like physics or metallurgy or something: you have to be an expert or you dare not speak out on the topic for fear of showing one's ignorance. I can understand this. For non-musicians, musicians seem to speak a foreign language, and they are passionate about disagreements. No one wants to make a misstep for fear of being blasted and humiliated. This is a special problem today since music (again, serious music) is not taught like it once was.

Well, I'm here to tell you about a fun workaround that I've recently read. It is called A Student's Guide to Music History, by R.J. Stove. The size is great: about 90 pages. The price is right: $8. More than that, I'm amazed at how much content and substance that the author is able to pack into such a small space and not have it read like a series of small biographies and program lists.

Most music history texts treat pre-Bach music almost as if it is pre-music music. This one is different. A major and very impressive feature is that the author is familiar with Gregorian Chant and the polyphonic tradition, so we get very nice and respectful treatments of the lives and works of Palestrina, Josquin, Tallis, Victoria and others. And by the time that we arrive at the Baroque, it is clear that it doesn't emerge out of nowhere: hundreds of years of great development precede.

The author has the right mix of repertoire, biography (always a fascinating anecdote about each composer!) and any historical data of the time that had an impact. I've learned so much about, e.g. how the Protestant reformation ended up nationalizing music styles, and the impact of the emergence of the nation state on music and culture.

This is not a religious work, but the author is not shy about telling the reader when a motivation of a performance or composition is religious. So in this way, the book is more complete than others, despite its size.

Another point about the subject matter: the author is writes unashamedly about Western music. His point is not that there are not great musical traditions that are part of India or China or Japan. There are but to cover all of that in a perfunctory way is more of an insult than a compliment. So he dispenses with all the multicultural pieties to write only about Western music. He also avoids the absurd cliche of all art histories in attempting to say that all things culminate in such and such famous guy who is alive today (and probably forgotten tomorrow). This book solves the problem completely: he ends in 1945.

I'm current using the text for a small class for young teenagers, and they love it, even though the prose is actually a serious challenge for them. To me, this is a plus: it never talks down to readers. He offers judgments on the music as he goes along but it is clear that his primary purpose is not to get the reader to believe what he believes; rather he is there to serve the main purpose of the volume, which is to educate.

While this book won't teach you to read music, it is guaranteed to make you conversant in the topic, so much so that you will be able to enlighten even people who think they are knowledgeable. And you will be better prepared to listen to music of the great composers, and imagine them almost as friends. I hope that some major publisher finds this work and commissions the author to write a large series. Until then, this little gem will serve as an excellent substitute.

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