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The Future of Music

1.

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 to survive without the music, and it stimulated the new setting that allowed it to flourish. Complex vocal music could even, at times, be executed by instruments alone, and the music began to stand by itself.

When we speak of survival here, obviously we do not consider the survival of the art itself, but of the specific works of art. An art can survive simply because its traditions survive, its practices continue. This kind of ritual survival is best accomplished in a society that remains static, and that is culturally homogeneous. The survival of a work in a rapidly changing society, on the other hand, depends not only on whether it is handed down to us unmutilated, but on its ability to adapt to changing conditions of reception, on its capacity, when its original social function has been destroyed or altered beyond recognition, to create or inspire new kinds of significance that allow its vitality full play. Just as troubadour poetry, when its original form of presentation was moving toward obsolescence, found a new social context from biography and critical commentary, so many works of Western music have inspired new forms of presentation from age to age that have brought them back to life again and again.

Essential to Western music is its ability to adapt to different social conditions, or—to put it a different way—to remain independent of the conditions that watched over its creation. By the middle of the fifteenth century, manuscript collections of music mixed together religious and secular music. Vocal works could be performed by instrumentalists; liturgical music—motets and sections of masses—could be arranged for the lute. Church music could be transformed into secular entertainment. As with troubadour poetry, when the art of music began to free itself from any rigid or absolute attachment to its social function in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, critical writing about composers and their works started to appear as if to justify and give meaning to the existence of an independent art. We learn, for example, that Josquin des Pres habitually withheld his compositions for several years before allowing them to circulate.

The survival of a work of Western music, before the twentieth century, depended essentially on a system of notation. Of course, we must not underestimate the power of memory. Thomas de Quincey, for example, was able to repeat a good deal of Wordsworth’s The Prelude from memory after having heard it read to him years before (he was certainly not permitted to copy any of it before the publication thirty-five years later). Most of the music in the world is not notated at all: it survives insofar as it does only through repeated performance, through the fidelity of the performers’ memory. A great deal of music is not repeated at all, but newly created on each occasion. In any case, some of the finest music does not need notation, or at any rate resists it. Folk music is particularly recalcitrant to being written down, and it is only in recent years that an attempt has been made to notate—with only partial success—some of the best examples of jazz.

In odd corners and pockets of European civilizations, a few fragments of medieval and Renaissance music were perpetuated throughout the eighteenth century, half-alive, like the crumbling Gothic ruins of an earlier culture. A monastery south of Rome continued (and still continues today) to preserve Byzantine chant. The Sistine Chapel choir still had the odd piece of Palestrina in its repertoire. But the history of music came into being inspired by the antiquarian interests of the end of the 1700s, when, in literature, old ballads were printed along with the legends of Robin Hood, and the Dark Ages became romantically fashionable. The true beginning of musicology was Charles Burney’s decoding around 1798 of the puzzling notation of Josquin des Pres’s masterly Déploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem, a composition in memory of the fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. For his General History of Music Burney set the parts into score. (In Josquin’s time, all music was copied as separate parts for the different performers; whatever full scores may have existed at that time, none have come down to us, and we have no autograph manuscripts from that period.)

The dependence of classical music on the score, or on a system of notation, has given rise to odd and eccentric philosophical speculations. To dispel some of the clouds, we may briefly examine what Burney did. Having copied the parts out into a score, he found that they made no sense. The dissonances were intolerable and absurd. The tenor part, set to the chant of the Requiem for the dead, was marked “Canon.” To any eighteenth-century musician, a canon was a piece in which different voices sang the same melody together but starting at different points, out of phase, like “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,” so that a single melody would make contrapuntal harmony with itself.

This could be presented as a puzzle. Musicians would be given the melody in a single voice, and challenged to find the places where the other voices entered into it to make perfect harmony. That would presume that one had to find how to add a voice singing the chant to Josquin’s Déploration but beginning later than the tenor in a way that would make proper sense. However, the dissonance of the piece was already so intolerable that adding notes could only make it worse. Burney’s discovery was that “canon” simply meant “puzzle,” and this one was resolved by transposing the tenor chant, which was in the mode of church music called Dorian (centered on D), up a step into the mode called Phrygian (centered on E); once this was done, all became clear, and a great work was revealed.

Josquin’s canon can stand for us as a symbol of the relation of notation to realization, of score to performance. For practical purposes, not every aspect of music can be written down. Notation is selective: only certain musi- cal elements, or “parameters,” are chosen. For this reason, we might consider an art heavily dependent on notation like Western art music as essentially inferior to the musics of other cultures, transmitted orally or by the imitation of practice. That is why we can say of such and such a pianist that he or she may be playing the written notes but has no idea how to interpret the music. It is almost entirely on what is not written down that different schools of pedagogy attempt to base their claims to superiority. However, it is essentially the fundamentally unsatisfactory nature of notation that has allowed the monuments of Western music to survive, to escape the ruinous erosion of time. In fact, it is the basic antagonism of score and performance, of concept and realization, that is the glory of Western music.

One metaphysical aspect of Josquin’s canon needs to be set in relief. We hear the tenor part sung in Phrygian, but in reality it is in Dorian. This reality has two facets. First, the original chant is in fact in the Dorian mode; that is the way it came down to Josquin and has come down to us. Second, the chant is written on paper in the Dorian mode: that is the way the singer saw it and still sees it (if one keeps the fifteenth-century notation). The written form acknowledges the “authentic” version of the chant, which is then, as Burney discovered, inflected and even contradicted by what one sings and hears. If the originating form is the written one that is not heard, the emotion conveyed by the music comes from its realization: to our ears, and probably to the ears of a contemporary of Josquin, Phrygian harmony has greater pathos than Dorian, and is most suited to the elegy celebrating Josquin’s greatest predecessor.

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