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 not unimportant details his chronological scheme mirrors the traditional one, based on the evolution and devolution of harmony. We progress from the pre-harmonic concept of cadence in plainchant to two- and then three-part-polyphony in the high Middle Ages; “classic” four-part polyphony then merges into four-part homophony in the Renaissance; the tonal system emerges and becomes fully developed in the work of Bach and Beethoven; the following pages deal with chromaticism, atonality, and the multiple sounds of post-atonality in the twentieth century. Wagner, Schoenberg, and Philip Glass all have their place.

Old wine in new bottles? Griffiths has not written a revisionist history—even if so inclined or equipped, he could not have done so in a book supposedly for the ordinary reader and listener, who is also spared footnotes and music examples, and indulged with a glossary and a discography—but rather one in which things big and small appear in fresh and insightful ways.


Paul Griffiths is best known in this country for a stint on The New Yorker in the 1990s and occasional pieces—in both senses of the word—that appear in The New York Times.1 He is a critic, not a musicologist, and no more than an occasional guest of the academy, birthplace of most histories, short, long, and very long. Born in 1947 in Wales, he also does translations, novels, and librettos (for Tan Dun and Elliott Carter, among others). He writes principally about the twentieth century—Modern Music and After, books on many of the modern masters from Barraqué to Xenakis, A Guide to Electronic Music—with predictable results for his new history.

First of all, reading the past from the present comes to him only too naturally. Invoking the archaeology in our own bodies already hints at this, and soon we are learning more about the reception of Hildegard of Bingen today—helped along by comments on the reawakening of mysticism in music, as with the modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, as well as in feminism, hit recordings, and hype—than about Hildegard herself. Her plainchant is strong and distinctive, but she was not, as Griffiths points out, the only composing abbess of the Middle Ages, and the hymns of Adam de St. Victor were admired far more and lastingly. All true, but now people like Hildegard’s hymns better. The dialectic between the historical and the aesthetic that underpins (or undermines) the history of an art gives too much here to the historical.


When Griffiths tells us, still in his discussion of the Middle Ages, that Guillaume de Machaut resonates in the works of Stravinsky and Messaien, he is telling us that these composers of the twentieth century have taught him to understand and appreciate the fourteenth. Machaut’s landmark Messe de Nostre Dame is discussed at some length—“a robust and dazzling composition.” (Griffiths is a nonjudgmental writer. Words like dazzling are few, if not, in so concise a book, always far between.) Music of the later Middle Ages sits well enough under the rubric “Time measured,” for the invention, refinement, and overrefinement of musical notation by music theorists answered to the demand by composers like Machaut for increasingly complex rhythms and syncopations. These required more usable divisions of notes—divisions of the whole note, for example, into twenty-four eighth-note triplets, and so on. Griffiths might have noted that medieval mathematics underwent rapid refinement at the same period.

“Time sensed 1400–1630” is more provocative. Too much happened in music over 230 years. Griffiths’s account is often illuminating, as in his lightning contrasts between Josquin des Prez and his contemporaries Ockeghem and Obrecht—and between Josquin and Raphael. On the other hand, the sixteenth-century madrigal receives fairly short shrift and Italian music of the fifteenth century none at all. But obviously there is too much to remark upon in however comprehensive a history, and today, with the canon of classical music discredited and overrun by new claimants, repertories jostle for prestige and relevance, with the concept of historical importance itself in question. Omissions are inevitable, the only question being how many and which. Later on, you have to hand it to an author with space problems who can find something useful to say about each of Wagner’s major operas, with the one cool exception of Die Meistersinger. He must have his reasons for skipping all of Benjamin Britten’s except Peter Grimes and Curlew River.

However, long before this point in the book a logjam begins to form and cause real trouble. Names, dates, facts, and figures fly past in quick succession, and fewer compositions are talked about, even briefly. “Though the text is filled with Griffith’s [sic] typically excellent, thought-provoking observations,” one reviewer admits, the total result is deemed difficult and disorganized.2

The reviewer has a point. Composers turn up again and again, no doubt in the conviction that an artist’s impact changes decade by decade, or generation by generation, and that the convenient lumping of everything together into a composer’s “career” is an ahistorical post hoc construction. Hence the book’s chapter titles never include a composer’s name—a vote against hagiography—and no more than two resort to the labels familiar from academic textbooks (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and the rest)—no doubt in an effort to discourage overreliance on such stock periodizations.

All this shows admirable intentions that indeed run the risk of making a book aimed at the ordinary reader/listener overloaded and hard to follow. Griffiths writes simply, without “technicalities” or music examples, but he needs to be read attentively, and not too much of him at any one sitting, probably. In the early Baroque period he glides from Venice to France, England, Germany, Rome, and even Bolivia and Peru, as though glimpsed from a satellite; there will be several more such exotic sightings. Along this busy journey we meet “pre-Bach” music that has been revived recently and found delectable: works for violin by Heinrich Biber in Germany, and for viola da gamba by Marin Marais (of Tous les matins du monde fame) in France.

Griffiths tackles head on an old problem in Baroque music, where music theorists insisted that one kind of expression or affect should remain fixed throughout a movement or major section, in both vocal and instrumental compositions. He turns to one such writer, Johann Mattheson (1681–1764), who pegs the courante, a dance well known from Bach’s suites, as “directed towards a tender longing.” Mattheson goes on to recall one specific example in which

at first “there is something of the courageous in the melody,” after which “a longing is expressed,” exactly as he earlier said was a mark of the form, but “a little joy arises toward the end, especially in the last bar.”… [Some Bach courantes] may indeed be felt to convey hints of longing, courage and joy. But they also insist that each piece has its own feeling and identity, that what it means is what it is.

It was ingenious to have made use of Mattheson to forecast the central characteristic of the classical period: a new fluidity, or better, fluidities of every kind. The music of Mozart and Haydn differs from that of Bach and Handel in a host of ways: in rhythm, dynamic range, melody, texture, tonality, continuity, and affect. According to Griffiths’s thematic segments, music up to 1770 is “known” thanks to its control of time, and after 1770 it “embraces” time:


Haydn’s [music] seems, by means of directed harmony and sonata form, to seize time into itself, to embody not only our observation but also our experience of time, our experience of change and process. Clock time is still there, not least in the metrical rhythm. But the harmonic progressions and the developments of the themes give the music almost our own condition of living, sentient being. We do not so much listen to this music as meet it.

This thinking music, having what we would like to believe is our own temporal condition of purposeful growth….

Right at this point readers may well start asking big questions about who “we” are, or who “we would like to believe” we are, and related to that, about reading the past from the present. Many historians seek to comprehend the past as it seemed in its own day—to defamiliarize it, rather than accommodating it to our local vision. Whether or not today’s listeners find in Mozart or Mahler the earliest music that mirrors their current condition as “sentient beings,” listeners in another era of human consciousness embraced music of that era as warmly as many of us apparently embrace music that is not of our own time, but of one golden moment of the past.

Music, wrote Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian, is

a thing which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thing as seasonable in grief as in joy; as decent being added unto actions of greatest weight and solemnity, as being used when men most sequester themselves from action. The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflexions every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.3

Hooker’s beautiful encomium to music speaks directly to its fluidity. He would have embraced this in the Great Service of William Byrd and the sober madrigals of Orlando Gibbons. Men and women of another age, another sensibility, must also have known what Eliot in Four Quartets meant by

…music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, yet you are the music

While the music lasts.


Despite this reservation, the chapters on the classical period show Griffiths at his concise, unhurried best. With only three dominant composers to deal with, he presents their familiar stories with easy authority and even flair. (They are stories of music; composer biographies are kept at a strict minimum.) In the shadow of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, other composers can be touched on lightly in a way that enriches the main narrative without confusing it; a single long sentence on C.P.E. Bach feels more or less in scale (his name is dropped a number of times elsewhere, as is Griffiths’s habit).

Griffiths finds graceful ways of saying the conventional things that have to be said and of slipping in the less conventional. For example, while many concertgoers know that Beethoven’s opus 1 of 1795 was a set of piano trios notably grander than trios by Haydn and Mozart, fewer understand that he had published a quantity of music previously but even in his boyhood reserved the designation “opus” for works he wished to show off as important. Griffiths adds that as Beethoven’s creative assurance grew he started saving his sketches by writing them into bound sketchbooks.4

Griffiths has allotted himself enough space for the classical period—probably his ideal space, for with more space his talent for aphorism might play him false, and with less the aforementioned risk of overloading becomes positively hair-raising. This certainly happens in the next segment, “Time escaping 1815–1907.” There must be a hundred names (and more dates) in these sixty pages—not all of them necessary. Some very sophisticated matter sits back to back with boilerplate. The air clears a little by the turn of the century, with Mahler, Richard Strauss, and the beginnings of modernism, which is the author’s special field. Special interest, then, attaches to his penultimate and longest segment of this book: “Time tangled 1908–1975.”

The first atonal compositions by Schoenberg, in 1908, count as the beginning of modernism in most music histories. In this one the launch comes a little earlier, with Einstein’s revelation that time is relative, that time is “not one but many,” as Griffiths puts it. He starts with the idea that modernism was an era of multiple time, listing varieties such as “the stationary time of immobile harmony,…the reversing time of events being repeated backwards, the double time of old forms and genres unexpectedly reinterpreted.”5

Perhaps it was too obvious to adduce the new diversity in the length of compositions that are associated with modernism, as in Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” of 1907 (eighty minutes) and Webern’s orchestral Passacaglia of 1908 (eight). While in some respects one can find precedents for contrasts on such a scale, soon Webern’s compositions got much shorter and those by figures like Lamont Young and Morton Feldman very much longer. John Cage twits us in 4’33” with the awkwardness of musical time when vacated entirely of music.

That composers abandoned large-scale orchestras and genres during and after World War I is an old story; Griffiths also remarks upon the “great silences” of older figures such as Sibelius, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, and Ives, whose output certainly fell off in this period. Although the “objective” music of neoclassicism does not get much respect these days, not even that of Stravinsky, one would never know it from this nonjudgmental author. By around 1930, he says, the hostility between modernist music and concert institutions, once a key plank in the modernist platform, began abating; indeed the first performances outside the Soviet Union of Shostakovich’s radical Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk of 1930 were by pillars of the musical community in Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia. Composers began writing symphonies again (Stravinsky), concertos (Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg), orchestral variations (Schoenberg), and concertos for orchestra (Bartók).

A chapter named, somewhat bitterly, “The people’s needs” sets the gradual decline of modernism in the United States and Britain squarely up against its brutal suppression in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Well-known facts such as Ruth Seeger’s abandonment of modernist composition for folk song, Copland’s turn after the Piano Variations of 1931 to accessible national music and his subsequent entanglement with Senator McCarthy, the fracas over Marc Blitzstein’s leftist musical The Cradle Will Rock, and so on, are traced to one or another populist ideology among many in both democracies and dictatorships. As Griffiths notes, America’s most radical modernist, Edgard Varèse, already a veteran of the European avant-garde when he emigrated here in 1915, never retreated. Nor did several native-born modernists, notably Roger Sessions; yet like other writers of “victory symphonies” such as Copland, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, Sessions wrote one too, his second. The experience of World War II resulted in a social cohesion unknown for decades, and as it ended “composers found their heartbeats in synchrony with the pulse of the age.” For Griffiths, this seems to mean that time became “untangled,” at least temporarily.


“To begin again” and “To begin again again”: these chapter titles signal parallels between the two phases of modernism that emerged prior to World War I and erupted right after World War II, respectively. Time quickly tangled again. One difference is that phase one was spontaneous, mostly the work of individual composers such as Stravinsky, whereas phase two was supported, nay swaddled, by institutions—radio stations eager to test sound equipment; subsidized outlets like the Donaueschingen Festival and the BBC’s Third Programme; and musical think tanks like the summer courses at Darmstadt, Princeton’s Music Department, and the imposingly named Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) at the Pompidou Center in Paris. Music was a battleground of the cold war, as Griffiths says. Darmstadt was sponsored by the American occupying forces; in effect, the West encouraged modernist music as symbolic of freedom. Meanwhile new purges under Zhdanov devastated new music in the Soviet Union, and the sufferings of Shostakovich were soon to follow.

Once again the narrative falters because the strictures of space now reach a critical stage, and while Griffiths can write eloquently, he can also go slack when the logjam turns into virtual gridlock. In brief, he views the first radical outburst of phase two as relatively short (like the parallel episode in phase one)—from 1946 to 1952, encompassing Cage’s 4’33”, Pierre Boulez’s Structures, and the Piano Sonata by Jean Barraqué. Serialism, drawn and progressively overdrawn from Schoenberg and Webern, was the mantra, yet by 1960 the term encompassed so much, we are told, as to become almost meaningless. The retreat from modernism would occur under the banner of postmodernism in the mid-1970s.

This eventful, Griffiths might say fateful, decade witnessed iconic postmodern works such as Le Grand Macabre, the one opera by György Ligeti, and Einstein at the Beach, the first of many by Philip Glass. Shostakovich and Britten, the century’s last truly popular great composers, died, following not long after the death of Stravinsky. Boulez founded IRCAM at the Pompidou Center in Paris—Boulez, the most fiery of the phase two modernists, retreating farther than any of the others, downplaying composition, it appeared, in favor of administration, influence, and the promotion of the classics, most vividly (since it was televised) the “French” Ring at Bayreuth directed by Patrice Chéreau. Now in his eighties, Boulez has continued to compose, slowly, and conduct, yet for Griffiths the years since 1975 have “seen no startling innovation other than the absence of innovation.”

Strong words. At last Griffiths acknowledges that linear history is not the only history, that all histories have to be understood as partial views, and that the present demands an entirely new historiography:

There are histories in which the musical events of 1950–2 were an aberration, just as there are histories in which atonality was a terrible mistake (indeed, many composers since the mid-1970s have depended on [such histories]).

Whereas chronology once provided a historian with a path, with postmodernism the path has become a “labyrinth,” defying even so tireless a pathfinder as Paul Griffiths.

Nothing, by the way, is said about how time is lost after 1975, despite the title “Time lost,” and I take it readers are being quietly told that the writer is lost, a telling that I also take to be courageous of him. For me, too, the labyrinth is an unhappy metaphor, giving rise to nightmares of teams of Minotaurs consuming composers and belching out more pieces than we are sure we need to hear or hear about, along with great gusts of hot air. Griffiths-Ariadne draws many threads from the labyrinth, some appearing to glisten with gold, yet none brings a new Theseus.

Unless it be still-young Thomas Adès, welcomed in a final chapter of positively self-conscious conciseness. There is wispy applause for two or three fairly recent works by elders such as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. Electronic music, says the author of A Guide to Electronic Music, has come to a dead end, and interactive computer music, where mostly spontaneous human activity directs the computerized sound, he probably considers a feeble compromise. More promising, for him, are the special performance groups devoted to contemporary music, such as Britain’s now extinct Fires of London, Australia’s Elision, and the Ensemble Recherche of Freiburg (and numerous American counterparts missing from the list).6

And in conclusion, we have a fresh formulation of the riddle of past and present, and the future:

Being performable, and reperformable, classical music can keep its past alive—and at no time in that past has it done so more comprehensively than today. From new music this presence of the past cannot be disguised….

The past nourishes us, and we nourish it, exactly by maintaining it, and retraining it, as part of our present. It can also, by what it lacks, show us the future.

The title of this final chapter is “Interlude.”

This Issue

May 15, 2008