Playing in Time


Oblivious of logjams looming in the future, Paul Griffiths begins A Concise History of Western Music in a leisurely, almost lyrical fashion. Music’s prehistory can be inferred not only by studying the remains of ancient flutes, but by listening to “the archaeology in our own bodies”; as our hearts beat and we walk, run, and breathe, we experience pulse, speed, phrasing, and cadence, the sense of completion or punctuation that we also feel in verse and melody. “These…are matters—formal, structural, expressive, existential—that attached themselves to music permanently.” Although they have attached themselves very differently in different world cultures, Griffiths can speak generally:

Music, so intimately engaged with perception, lights up the mind. Music, being immaterial, touches on the immaterial—on the drift of thought and feeling, on divinity and death. Music, as sound, can represent the auditory world: the moan of wind, the repeated whispers of calm waves, the calls of birds. Music, as idealized voice…, can sing or sigh, laugh or weep. Music, as rhythm, can keep pace with our contemplative rest and our racing activity. Music, in proceeding through time, can resemble our lives.

This is beautifully put. And attention to the ways the different musics of past and present “proceed through time” is the main novelty of this book. Organized as a speculative history of musical time, each of its eight “parts,” or major segments—none longer than chapters in more ample histories—begins with just a few pages dilating on the changing relation of Western music to time. These introductory pages attempt to construct a history of music grounded in the history of consciousness, the consciousness of time, which is music’s medium. The part-titles ring changes on some famous lines by T.S. Eliot: “Time whole,” “Time measured 1100– 1400,” “Time sensed 1400–1630,” “Time known 1630–1770,” “Time embraced 1770–1815,” “Time escaping 1815–1907,” “Time tangled 1908–1975″—Griffiths’s short twentieth century—and “Time lost 1975–”.

Time seems an overlarge category for the different phases of musical creation and appreciation. But Griffiths uses the concept to apply to everything from cadence and harmony to symphonies and operas, among much else. He also uses the word to apply to different periods of musical history. The reader has to be nimble to catch on to his shifting uses of the word, as well as patient with the compression of so much history into a very concise text indeed, no more than 316 smallish pages.

Still, the continual attempt to relate music at each historical stage to its time function rather than, say, the state of society or Hegelian teleology—the foci of twentieth-century musicology—makes A Concise History of Western Music new and distinctive. This is an adroit and knowing book, and Griffiths’s focus on time does not suppress a lively awareness of music’s place in society, which plays a large role in his history. And although he sometimes seems wary of the notion of progress in musical forms, he does not shake it off.

As can be seen from his chapter titles, apart from some…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.