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…

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