The Magazine

Your Hit Parade

Since 2300 B.C., the music's gone 'round and 'round.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the 20th century, as perceived by Griffiths, things get really skewed. The extremely important Henri Dutilleux rates one sentence; no mention at all of Luigi Dallapiccola, Frank Martin, Frank Bridge, Alexander Tcherepnin, and many other fine composers. But pages and pages enshrine the likes of Nono, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Barraqué, and other fingernails-on-blackboard moderns. Should Pierre Boulez (better than some, to be sure) appear on 18 pages, Manuel de Falla on only two? The great Benjamin Britten, a brilliant fellow Englishman, gets far less than his due, and even that, I suspect, more as Brit than as Britten.

There is almost as much on the futurist Luigi Russolo, a mere curiosity, and more of a painter than composer, "but lack of musical grounding was not a problem, for what he demanded--in The Art of Noises, one of the manifestos typical of this group--was a wholly new art in tune with the modern world: 'The machine today has created so many varieties and combinations of noise that pure musical sound--with its poverty and monotony--no longer awakens any emotion in the hearer.'"

True, Griffiths is somewhat patronizing here, but I cannot escape the feeling that he, too, is more "in tune with the modern world" than with the tunefulness of certain modern composers who are not atonalists, dodecaphonists, or concocters of electronic music or even ghastly musique concrète, which is close to what Russolo advocated.

Going back in time, Griffiths has his uses. I was pleased to learn such non-Western data as that the earliest known composer, circa 2300 B.C. at Ur, was Enheduanna, high priestess of the moon. Also that the earliest known notated music, from circa 1400 B.C., is a hymn to the moon goddess. Could it sound any worse than the stuff of Brian Ferneyhough, extolled on six of Griffiths's pages, whose music, to my ears, is so much moonshine?

But, I repeat, we do learn things from Griffiths. For example, that the Holy Ghost was said to have sung into Pope Gregory the Great's ear the once and again so popular music known as Gregorian chant. Or that Rameau's music became "so popular that the Paris Opera was instructed by the government to limit productions of his works to two per season." No such enlightened governments nowadays, alas.

In his very second paragraph, Griffiths fascinatingly tells us that flute music almost certainly began somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 B.C., as we deduce from "fragments of hollow bone with otherwise inexplicable holes." He is equally fascinating--after quite a few less valuable paragraphs--in his penultimate one, where we read: "Given that most people in western societies have access, through computers, to sound samples (including music of so many kinds), and to routines for synthesizing and transforming sounds, composition may soon become as widespread as the writing of poetry."


The book ends with a helpful, though incomplete, glossary of musical terms, and a list for "Further reading and listening." The recommended books seem worthwhile--I have certainly profited from a few of those that I own, notably Faubion Bowers's on Scriabin, Roger Nichols's on Debussy, Michael Kennedy's on Strauss, and Laurel E. Fay's on Shostakovich.

But with Griffiths's CD choices I have problems. Many of them are sins of omission, but there are also some of commission. One example: If you are going to recommend as your sole specimen of the important German lied Schubert's Winterreise, well enough, perhaps; but sung by whom? Matthias Goerne?

Now Goerne is a very fine baritone, especially if you like his lean, modern approach. Yet surely the mandatory choice would have been Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. What he has done for the lied--magisterially performing it, cogently writing about it, and hugely popularizing it--deserves a place in a history of western music, no matter how concise.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.