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

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By JOHN SIMON
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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."