A Concise History

of Western Music

by Paul Griffiths

Cambridge, 358 pp., $35

Music is an abstract art, however much some musicians resist its being called that. Almost all other arts have something to do with natural or man-made forms, or with words, most of which everyone (at least until recently) would know. To be sure, we have abstract painting and sculpture, but there is something concrete and substantial about them, making them more accessible, palpable. Music, though, exists in time rather than space, and before you know it, it vanishes into thin air.

A play or movie also vanishes, but it is there--on tape or DVD--for you to recapture and analyze. Music, however, will not stand still. No matter how often you play it on disc, you do not, as a non-music-reading layman, understand its structure and components. Or do "pedal point," "Lydian mode," or "cantus firmus" mean much to you? Something about music remains elusive to all but the expert.

Abstract, then. So, to make its effect, it has to be either simple enough for the common man to get it on first hearing (he is not likely to return and study it), or subtle and profound enough for the uncommon man. It need not polarize the audience, but only at its best will it appeal to the best audiences. And to do this for longer than a mere lifetime, it had better be classical music.

It is so that this generally useful book concerns itself (save for some asides) with the classical music of Europe and North America, in both of which Griffiths has been active as a critic. But already I wonder: Why not include Latin America? Is it less western than North America? Are Hector Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri, Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas, and their likes eastern, as they would have seemed to Columbus, or merely small potatoes for Griffiths?

Granted, a history of music from prehistory to today, which may be post-history, in 358 or so pages may be a bit too concise--downright laconic. Certainly much that is included gets short shrift, and much that you would want included isn't there at all. But you do get a smorgasbord, most of whose items are worth sampling, with only a few likely to cause indigestion.

Griffiths does some good things. First, he realizes that music has much to do with using, ordering, interpreting time. The insufficiently known, short-lived German Pre-Romantic Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder wrote in the 1790s, "Music is to me wholly an image of life--that springs from nothing and subsides into nothing." Whether or not Griffiths read this, he is on to something related in several statements: "Any musical performance--any musical listening--is a heroic exercise against time's depredations." In other words, an ordering and bestowing of life in the teeth of transience. And he considers music, in part, an antidote to mortality.

Next, he tries to demystify music as much as possible for the lay reader. He provides brief definitions of such things as fugue or motet, translations of Italian or Latin terms such as da capo and conductus. When a work has a foreign or esoteric title, he usually translates or explains it. But he is rather erratic about it: He discusses Barraque's . . . au-delà du hazard or Xenakis's Jonchaies without a helpful translation. Conversely, he offers English translations of others--Ligeti's Poème symphonique and Scriabin's Le Poème de l'extase--which even a grade-schooler would consider supererogatory. (As, incidentally, is that "Le," which Scriabin himself never perpetrated.)

Further, Griffiths usefully cites the historic, social, and cultural circumstances that may, consciously or not, have influenced a piece of music, which can be better apprehended and appreciated in such a context. Often he will also suggestively invoke parallel aspects in the other arts, or even the sciences, adding cultural to musical interest.

He likes, too, to point out any sort of relationship between the music of different eras, providing an intellectually satisfying sense of continuum. For example, in discussing the medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut, he observes: "As his music became known, so it began influencing the composers of six centuries on, including Stravinsky (in his own mass), Olivier Messiaen and Jean Barraqué. Some others, notably Harrison Birtwistle and György Kurtag, were making arrangements of pieces by him."

Finally, Griffiths is not afraid to stick his neck out in offering subjective interpretations as having universal value. So, for instance, he volunteers about the above-mentioned Scriabin work that it combines static harmonies "with urgent propulsions that come from a trumpet melody, resulting in a series of waves that mount with unabashed sexual connotations." All right, waves; but whom do they mount with unabashed sexual connotations? Could this have something to do with Griffiths's knowledge (unmentioned in the book) that Scriabin abandoned his spouse and mother of his children to take on, as common-law wife, a young admirer, with whom he begat several more children? But whether this made the music erotic, let alone unabashedly so, remains open to question.

Or consider the following three passages. It seems that "in the first movement of [Mahler's] unfinished Tenth [symphony] alarm--alarm conveyed by the music about itself as well as about the world or the persona whose feelings are being expressed--sounds out in a chord of violent dissonance." Alarm about the world, if you like, but why and how about itself? And who is this persona whose feelings are being expressed? Could it be Alma, the tempestuous Mrs. M?

Similarly, we read that Chopin's "gestures could be as terrifying as anything in Berlioz, as at the close of the G minor Ballade." I promptly put on the formidable Maurizio Pollini's performance of that piece, expecting him to do his terrifying worst, but nary a tremor did it elicit from me.

Even more mysterious is Griffiths's exegesis of Charles Ives's Unanswered Question: "A sound drama for instrumentalists in three different positions, such multi-locality being another of his innovations. A solo trumpet keeps placing the barely tonal question, to which woodwinds respond with atonal scurryings that suggest evasions, while strings, like seers, guard their own answer in slow descents of dense concords." Here I worry especially about strings like seers--why? And what seers would guard their answer? Surely seers relish trumpeting their prophecies, whether by solo trumpet or any other means of foisting them on us.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, Griffiths may have ruthlessly compressed his text in the interest of concision, sometimes to the point of opacity; or, more often, by squeezing it into supposedly suggestive, poeticizing tropes that seem de trop.

A more serious problem for me is his excessive catholicity. Granted that, in the capacity of historian, Griffiths must rein in critical predilections and antipathies, and try to be objective and impersonal. This, we might assume, justifies the following: "In his 4'33" [John Cage] asked his closest musical associate, David Tudor, to sit at the keyboard for that length of time and play nothing. The piece was of course provocative, an indication of Cage's closeness not only to east Asian (especially zen) ideals of non-intention but also to the 'anti-art' of Europe in the 1920s. But it was also an invitation to listen to whatever sounds were being produced in the room or outside. Music was liberated from composers, performers, instruments and occasions. It was everywhere."

Cage, whose importance is luckily diminishing, though not nearly fast enough, was esteemed by many in his day. That Griffiths is paying this kind of attention to such nonsense attests to more than a historian's duty. Clearly, 4'33'' belongs at the utmost to the history of Dada, or of the great hoaxes; with music it has precious little to do.

Griffiths pays far too much attention to unlistenable composers such as Cage, Kagel, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Barraqué (about whom he has written a book), Babbitt, Birtwistle, and sundry others of that ilk, to make it pass for mere duty. There are a great many composers that Griffiths could have treated as summarily as he does Horatiu Radulescu: "A Romanian who moved to Paris in 1969 and became something of a wild card in French music, worked with grand pianos that he had retuned to pure frequency ratios and turned on their sides so that their strings could be bowed; he also used whole orchestras of flutes, or other instruments, to create new timbres."

I guess that if "Timber!" can be a warning cry, so can "Timbre!"

To my mind, Griffiths sails most smoothly with music up to and including the classical period; starting with Liszt, he begins to list rather too heavily. With the later 19th century he becomes barely seaworthy. He now places what he considers experimentation and innovation way above intrinsic worth. Thus, for instance, the wonderful Gabriel Fauré gets only one paragraph, and even that he must share with Debussy, who, quite rightly, gets plenty of space of his own.

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.

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