The Future of Music

Since music is a primitive and essential human activity its survival is not in question. By many eighteenth-century thinkers it was held to be the original form of language, the origin of speech. If there is a question of survival it is of Western art music, or serious music, what is called “classical” music. That its survival is in jeopardy is an opinion expressed largely by journalists and by a few disgruntled critics. This is, however, a view that has been surfacing regularly for the last 230 years. It was even passionately maintained more than four centuries ago. I presume that some conservative Greeks felt that way when the purity of the Doric mode was perverted by the introduction of the lascivious Ionic mode. Perhaps the best plan would be simply to take a summary look at what enabled Western art music to survive in the past, and see to what extent the same factors still apply today.

I should like to start with what may seem like an irrelevant detail from a related art. The troubadour poetry of late-twelfth-century Provence was originally written down with the music: the manuscripts contain both the words and the tunes. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century, however, collections of the poems appear without the music. It is also at this time that they begin to be accompanied sometimes by biographies of the poets, called vidas, or by critical commentaries, called razos. It would seem that when the poetry was isolated from the original musical context that gave it part of its meaning, a new context had to be invented to substitute for the lost significance. (It was sometimes true that the old melodies would have been known without being recopied, but this was not always the case.) Being read without the music, the poems now had a different social function; they were no longer performed to make up a part of a communal experience. The void caused by the disappearance of the poet who sang was made good by his biography. And the critical commentary replaced the experience of hearing together with others.

It was more or less at this time during the thirteenth century that Western music began to draw apart from poetry with the introduction of poly-phony, in which two or more strands of music sound simultaneously. The new degree of complexity, which developed over the centuries to an unprecedented and unequaled richness for music, resulted in a demand for greater and more intense awareness from both listener and performer, an awareness that was at least partially independent of the words. Words and music developed separate interests, each with an independent aesthetic that was sometimes at odds with the other. The poems now asked to be read on their own, but consequently they now required a new context to make good the disappearance of the musical context. Biography and critical commentary arose to provide a kind of significance that was previously not felt to be necessary. The poetry now had …

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