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From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra


A history of Western music is, more or less, a history of all the music that has a history—that is, a large body of musical works that stretch from a distant past to the present through a series of stylistic revolutions. Other civilizations, India in particular, have magnificent musical traditions, but few authentic, documented musical works survive from their past. Only in the West was there an elaborate system of notation that delivered the musical artifacts of more than a millennium to the future, and, as a consequence, only in the West has there been an extravagant historical development from the Gregorian chant of the tenth century to the symphonic complexities of Wagner and Stravinsky, and the contested triumphs of modernism. Western music, in short, has a history that can be placed in richness and complexity by the side of a history of literature and a history of the visual arts.

Richard Taruskin has wisely made the invention of a system of notation the basis of his long history. It is a history of “literate” music in the West —that is, a history with verifiable historical evidence, the notated scores from the eleventh century to our time. This “literate” body of music existed alongside an important unwritten tradition of folk music and popular music, handed down orally and by demonstration. Of course, “literate” music, too, has never been taught or communicated by notation alone: how to read and interpret the texts has been transmitted by example from one generation to the next. No notation (except that for electronic music) can indicate every detail of performance, much of which has been left to the individual performer but within a tradition learned by experience and imitation.

This makes for a difficulty that has irritated philosophers of aesthetics and their readers for a long time: Is the work of music to be identified as the written text or its performance? Is a symphony of Beethoven the printed score or the sound in the concert hall when it is played? The printed text is invariable while two performances are never exactly alike. Most histories of music, therefore, have settled for being histories of texts, but this has become more and more unsatisfactory as our knowledge of the performance practice of the past has been widened by research into old accounts, and as we have realized how much we have to know about the habits of performance transmitted “orally” simply in order to be able to read our texts properly. An admirable aspect of Professor Taruskin’s project is his intermittent attempt to discuss the parallel “oral” tradition that accompanied our immense heritage of musical scores, including the improvised ornaments often added in the written scores, to take into account the way these scores were actually performed during the composers’ lifetimes (although he unwisely assumes that the documents recording these improvisations are a faithful reflection of the practice).

The best part—indeed the glory—of his overstuffed six volumes is the analyses of a huge number of printed examples (the public he has in mind is, of course, the undergraduates who take a general introductory course in the history of music, and his aim is to replace the textbooks that now dominate this lucrative field). His analyses are generally both cogent and entertaining, written in a rambunctious style that conveys technical information with great lucidity.

His intentions, however, are far more ambitious than simply enabling his readers to listen with understanding. He maintains that this is the first history of music which not only relates what was done but how and why. He aims, he writes, to present a social history of music; that is, he attempts to place the development of music in the general culture of the place and time it was created, to describe it in its social setting, to explain its genesis and its significance for the composers’ contemporaries and at times for their posterity. He gives a bird’s-eye view of the history of Western culture filled out by piquant details (he is particularly assiduous at searching out examples of anti-Semitism). He claims, in short, that he has written the first sociological history of music comparable to Francis Bacon’s attempt to embrace the entire history of culture in The Advancement of Learning, and he observes with a certain satisfaction that Bacon “never lived to complete [his task]: I have—but only by dint of a drastic narrowing of scope.”

His inspiration, avowed in his acknowledgments, is the old textbook by his teacher Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization, but unlike Lang, much of whose book was written by his graduate assistants, Taruskin completed his formidable 3,825 pages on his own; never, he declares, has he had a research assistant. He has written a very personal history, often entertaining, self-indulgent, long-winded, occasionally brilliant, and even sensible. He is very levelheaded, for example, on the scarcity of women composers, affirming that it is society, and not any lack of innate talent, that is the reason, but that it is unconvincing to claim that great women composers have been overlooked. (It is a curious misjudgment on his part, however, to give more space to Lili Boulanger than to Ruth Crawford Seeger: of the latter, one of the most interesting composers of the twentieth century, he treats only very minor pieces, neglecting the important string quartet and violin sonata for which she is most admired.)

He claims not to have followed his own taste on what to include: “I hope readers will agree that I have sought neither to advocate nor to denigrate what I did include.” His hope has been thwarted. In writing about art, a pretense of objectivity never succeeds: clearly, Taruskin writes much better about music he likes than about music to which he is indifferent. His prejudices loom large throughout the volumes.


The opening chapters of Volume 1 on the invention of notation and on the origins of the first written evidence of music, Gregorian chant, are lively and lucid. With the troubadour poets of twelfth-century southern France, the earliest secular musical repertory that is documented, however, we arrive at our first chance of interpreting a musical art with respect to its social setting. Most social interpretation of art views a body of work as the production of a class, generally a dominant or governing class, imposing its ideals. Taruskin affirms it in its simplest form:

One of the enduring characteristics of “high art,” and a perennial source of contention, is the fact that it is produced by and for political and social elites.

Troubadour songs offer a set of works for interpretation that seem to inspire no problem for social interpretation: they are “knightly songs in a European vernacular,” as Taruskin puts it:

William, (Guillaume), seventh count of Poitiers and ninth duke of Aquitaine (1071–ca. 1127), was the first European vernacular poet whose work has come down to us. The tradition, socially speaking, thus began right at the top, with all that that implies as to “highness” of style, tone, and diction…. A troubador’s subject matter was the life he led, viewed in terms of his social relations, which were ceremonial, idealized, and ritualized to the point of virtual sacralization. In keeping with the rarefied subject matter, the genres and styles of troubadour verse were also highly formalized and ceremonious, to the point of virtuosic complexity of design and occasional, sometimes deliberate, obscurity of meaning.

In short, troubadour songs were a courtly art, reflecting the ideals of the feudal aristocracy.

The true heart of troubadour poetry, as Taruskin says, was the love poem, the canso. In this form, the loved one is always a young married woman never to be possessed by the singer, whose love is always hopeless. This is indeed a refined and artificial kind of art, and cannot have corresponded very closely either with the reality or even the ideals of life in twelfth-century Provençal courts (there was a less-refined but also less-admired form in which the two lovers wake up in bed in the morning). There were two kinds of troubadour verse, clear and hermetic (or “closed”), and there were heated defenses of each style, some troubadours practicing both. It has been remarked that it is not always easy to tell the clear from the closed, and that some of the clear is sufficiently complex to have caused difficulty in understanding even to twelfth-century contemporaries.

Troubadour songs were obviously a rarefied, aristocratic form, but what does this mean? Were they written by aristocrats? Sometimes, but many of the troubadours were not at all upper class. Taruskin tells us that Bernart de Ventadorn, one of the most famous and popular, was the son of a furnace-stoker, although he oddly does not tell us that the furnace-stoker was his mother. He claims that Bernart was a commoner “like many of the later troubadours,” but some of the best early troubadours were commoners as well—Cercamon and Marcabru, for example. Taruskin also relates that Bernart “rose to prominence, and received noble patronage, strictly on his merits as a poet,” but the little we are told by Bernart’s biography informs us that his first patron found out that his wife was in love with Bernart, had her locked up, and threw Bernart out. His next patron was the duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, and, again according to his biography, he fell in love with her and she with him (s’enamoret de la duchessa, et ella de lui). The biography, written a century after Bernart was working, may be fiction, but at least it has more chance of being authentic than Taruskin’s speculations. Anyway, the idea that Bernart de Ventadorn made a successful career solely on his poetic merit and not on his personal attraction has no basis except for the evident technical virtuosity of his poetry.

Taruskin knows that the troubadour songs were generally not performed by the nobles but by minstrels, called jongleurs, and affirms that most of the non-aristocratic troubadours started out as minstrels. However, he strangely imagines:

A noble poet would compose a song and teach it to a minstrel, thus sending it out into the oral tradition from which it might be transcribed, with luck, a hundred years later.

But, as we have seen, the poet was not necessarily noble, many of them being children of furriers, or notaries, or clerks; the jongleur could have been taught by a poet from the middle class. We do not know how far the art of the troubadours penetrated into the lower classes, but it is unlikely that the popular minstrels confined their performances to the courts. It is also exceedingly snobbish as well as improbable to assume that the complex and often obscure art of the troubadours was appreciated only by the upper class. Does Taruskin think that songs about a pure love for a titled lady would not have appealed to twelfth- and thirteenth-century peasants and urban clerks? It might have been just what they wanted.

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