Review: History of Western Music

Review: History of Western Music

A History of Western MusicA History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The audience for “serious” music—art music of a certain complexity that requires some effort to understand—has never been more than a small fraction of the population.

What seems like a long time ago, I worked in a university music department as a professor’s office assistant. At the time, I was trying to improve my meager understanding of art history by reading E.H. Gombrich’s excellent Story of Art. Seeing art as an integral part of civilized society, in the context of historical change—rather than as decontextualized globs of color on canvass—really helped me to appreciate it in a way I could not before; and I wondered if the same might not be possible with music.

One day I asked my boss if there was a book similar to Gombrich’s about music, and he responded with one word: “Grout.” Finally I’ve gotten around to following up his recommendation.

A History of Western Music is the standard music history textbook in use on college campuses, at least in the United States. Its first edition was written by Donald Jay Grout; later editions were revised, first by Claude V. Palisca, and then by J. Peter Burkholder. I bought the fifth edition, mainly because it was cheap. Between the previous edition and this one, Palisca had entirely rewritten the book, removing the last remaining traces of Grout’s prose. So in this review I’ll being talking about Palisca.

Any author of a general music history textbook deserves some sympathy. First, it is proverbially difficult to write about music. The poor writer is forced to choose between a vague string of adjectives, metaphors, and images, discussing the music’s subjective effects; or he can resort to the technical language of music analysis, which at least allows him to be precise and objective, but at the cost of being inaccessible to music newbies.

Somewhere between these two extremes is the narrow path that Palisca tries to tread, sometimes precariously—veering too much in one direction, and then too much in the other—but for the most part ably. Even so, this middle path carries its own cost: dryness. Since Palisca can neither describe his own tastes and aesthetic responses, nor make any incisive analyses with music theory, he is forced to be a somewhat unexciting guide—the fate of most textbook writers.

The other major challenge is compression. How do you fit 2,000 years of music history into 800 pages? How do you give a decent overview of medieval plainchant, Italian opera, German romanticism, and American minimalism, while also providing the names, biographies, and accomplishments of the major composers, as well as integrating the relevant cultural history—all in enough time to teach it in two semesters? The obvious answer is that you can’t, and Palisca doesn’t. There is simply too much material to do justice to it all. But he does succeed in giving his reader a generous spoonful of all the main dishes.

If I measure this book by my own progress, I must deem it a success. Beforehand, I had only a scattered and incidental knowledge of the major composers. I could rattle off a few names, but I didn’t know who influenced whom, who lived when, who was part of what movement; and I could only name about two composers who lived before J.S. Bach. Now, not only do I feel much more knowledgeable, but the chronological framework will make it easier to learn more.

One of my most pleasant discoveries was the wealth of wonderful music that was written before J.S. Bach even took his first breath, in 1685. There was Leonin and Perotín, Guillaume de Mauchaut, Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstable, Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, and Arcangelo Corelli, to name just a few of my favorites. Most surprising for me was how much I enjoy sacred music. Like the shadowy interior of a gothic cathedral, the music is tranquil, meditative, and otherwordly—pregnant with tragedy and hope.

So this book does its job. What prevents it from being as great as, say, E.H. Gombrich’s history of art, Kenneth Clarke’s history of civilization, or Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy, is the lack of authorial personality. In all three of those works, the author is not afraid to opine and speculate. Palisca, by contrast, rarely offers his own judgment, and does not venture to make any theories. His writing is neutral and plain, simply serving up information. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and many would think that it’s the correct approach. But I think that when you’re dealing with an art form, it is neither possible nor even desirable to be “objective.” Gombrich, Clarke, and Russell are experts, and thus have refined taste. Seeing how they think about their subject, and how they feel about it, is as much an education as the information they present.

As I went through this book, I downloaded and listened to most of the representative pieces discussed in each chapter. I ended up with a long playlist (which you can see here), which I replayed over the course of few weeks before writing this review. I recommend that any curious listener do the same. Several historical trends seem apparent when you do this.

First is the obvious rise of instrumental music, as music shifts from purely vocal, to vocal with instrumental accompaniment, to mainly instrumental. The second is the rise in the prestige associated with secular music, and the attendant fall in the importance of sacred music. The composer becomes increasingly important as time goes on, exerting ever more control over the performance, while the performer becomes merely an executor rather than a collaborator. With many notable exceptions, art music also seems to grow in harmonic and rhythmic complexity, at least in the time since Haydn and Mozart, until the traditional rules of harmony break down entirely.

Something strange happens in the twentieth century, especially in the second half. Music—along with literature and art—seems to split into a dichotomy: erudite and inaccessible, and popular and oversimplified. The first camp, represented most perfectly, perhaps, by Milton Babbitt, write music that does not make sense to the untrained human ear, while popular songwriters make catchy tunes with little depth. This division seems to correspond to sources of income: the university patronizes experimental music; while popular music is obviously commercial. To me it seems that neither of these extremes are desirable, but I don’t know a way out of this dilemma.

Now that I know more about European history than ever before, I can’t help drawing connections between composers’ styles and their cultural moment. The impish, dancing, and perfectly balanced melodies of Mozart now remind me of Voltaire’s prose, suffused with Enlightenment ideals of harmony and wit. I also mentally associate the fall of religious vocal music, and the concomitant rise of secular instrumental music, with widespread changes in attitude towards nature: Nature went from being conceived as animated by intelligence and oriented around humankind, to an impartial force, indifferent to humanity, driven only by mechanical laws.

I also wonder why so many first-rate composers—Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name only some—are from German-speaking countries? (And I might also ask why relatively few first-rate painters have arisen from these same countries.) Is this something to do with language? With the Protestant Reformation? I’m sure there are a few monographs about this, somewhere.

To bring this review back to its purported subject, I think that this book is a competent, well-researched, and intelligent overview of the history of western music. And with this rather bland statement, and with this song, I will make my final bow.

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