A Journey Through Western Music

Four-volume history charts key developments and offers a remarkable selection of art

By , Longtime Monitor music critic Thor Eckert Jr. is now a free-lance writer.

HERITAGE OF MUSIC Classical Music and its Origins, Vol. 1, The Romantic Era, Vol. 2 The Nineteenth Century Legacy, Vol. 3, Music in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 4

Edited by Michael Raeburn and Alan Kendall, New York and London:

Oxford University Press, Complete set, $195

Recommended: How well do you know opera? Take our quiz!

HAD the Oxford University Press's four-volume ``Heritage of Music'' failed in all other respects, it would still be worth the price just for the remarkable selection and vivid reproduction of the copious artwork. Happily, though, this is, on just about all counts, an impressively executed undertaking.

Unlike those popular one-volume music-history books that are essentially compact, linear histories of the progress of music in the Western world, ``Heritage of Music'' is a luxurious guided tour through this history, with generous stops along the way, called ``interludes,'' to contemplate the giants of music, to explore the progress of such aspects as instruments, the genre of opera, the history of recorded sound, the growth of jazz, the revival of early music, etc. In every way this collection gives a sense of the environment in which the composers and their music functioned.

The four volumes are neatly divided into the basic eras of Western music, from its roots in ``Classical Music and its Origins,'' through ``The Romantic Era,'' on to ``The Nineteenth-Century Legacy,'' and ending with ``Music in the Twentieth Century.'' Each is introduced by superb essays that capture the mood of the period discussed. The list of contributors is strong, as are most of the entries. The major figures of the era are thoroughly dealt with; the lesser ones are grouped together in connective chapters that bridge the time periods between major composers. In each book, important biographical footnotes-in-history are included in a ``Biographical Dictionary of Composers'' just before the index, which, until the final book, is quite complete.

These volumes are at once reference works and musical companions, to be browsed through and explored the way one might explore a great city to really get to know it: The main monuments and streets are there to be appreciated as the achievements they are, and the guided tours are informative and thorough; yet it is the exploration of the byways and dead-end alleys that give the flavor and character and that are the key to true appreciation.

It is rare in a publication about music that the art of the eras involved is so meaningfully presented as graphic counterpoint to the subject. And yet the art is as much a response to the given era as the music - the former visible and representational, the latter abstract. The volumes invite, even demand, frequent exploration. Eventually, a sense of the continuity of music through at least the middle of this current century can be followed quite clearly.

That continuity begins in the quiet realm of the Roman Catholic Church and ends amid the clangorous high-tech vicissitudes of contemporary life. And though historical artifacts suggest that music came into society as far back as 10,000 BC, Western music, as we know it, began effectively in the 12th century AD, in what has become known as the Notre Dame School, under the aegis first of L'eonin and, then, P'erotin. They not only composed polyphonic music but used the then-recently devised system of musical notation to tell future performers the pitches and their durations.

Prior to this, notation gave only rudimentary melodic details without meter, meant to serve as memory-prompts to choirs which had been taught the music by their elders. With L'eonin and P'erotin, however, the notion of repeating a piece of music as it had been conceived entered the Western world. The progression through the Renaissance brought the increasing complexity of rhythm and structure, with a slowly expanding arsenal of instruments.

Once the Catholic church lost its monopoly on artistic impetus to the nobility during the Renaissance, secular music came into its own - gloriously so in the form of the madrigal. And from the madrigal, it was a short step, through the genius of Claudio Monteverdi, into opera. The parallel progress of secular and religious music forged through the Baroque with remarkable vigor, with such luminaries as Johann Sebastian Bach finding his creative outlet in both.

By the Classical era, more music was written for secular presentation than liturgical, because by this time the nobility was being replaced as patron by a growing middle-class of concertgoers and amateur musicians. As the search for increasingly sophisticated ways to express the intangible in music became more probing, more provocative, and more alluring to larger audiences, it forced the further improvement of instruments.

The impact of moving concerts from the court to public halls and opera houses was enormous. The symphony orchestra became a professional ensemble; itinerant superstar virtuosos became an established fact of musical life; opera continued to be the rage, moving out of a few major cities into provincial capitals as well. Above all, novelty was in.

Everything had to be new, and composers knew it. So they took advantage of technical progress to challenge themselves to greater heights of inspiration, because the public was their livelihood. The composer staged his own concerts, conducting first his own music, then the music of his colleagues. At some point, the gaze was turned back beyond the customary five-year life-expectancy of a work. In 1829, Mendelssohn sent shock-waves through Europe with his performance of Bach's ``St. Matthew Passion,'' which introduced this forgotten genius's work to the 19th century. Mendelssohn later became the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. Franz Liszt was as much a conductor as he was a virtuoso and daring composer, but it was his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, who elevated conducting to a star turn, while at the same time showing audiences, who had all but forgotten, that Beethoven was a musical genius.

From Wagner it was a short hop to Gustav Mahler, the last legendary conductor-composer. He set the highest possible standards of the day in matters of orchestral playing, whether at the Vienna State Opera or at New York's Metropolitan Opera or Philharmonic Orchestra. After him, the great conductors were mostly re-creative talents: Those who composed did so almost surreptitiously. Mahler the composer stretched the outer boundaries of form and tonality in his massive symphonies, works that his public simply could not understand, which is why he finally declared, ``My time will come.'' The general public began to appreciate Mahler only in the '60s.

In the second decade of the current century, Mahler's prize pupil, Arnold Schoenberg, broke with tonality altogether, writing music that only trained musicians could fully understand and appreciate. And here is where the parallel of the artwork in these volumes becomes so fascinating. We are able to see artistic vision shift from the liturgical to the secular, from the lofty and idealistic to the graphically realistic, and eventually to the Impressionist, the Cubist, and beyond.

As the simplicity and faith of the artists became increasingly difficult to sustain in a world moving from rural to urban, from agrarian to industrial, the clear waters of purpose and inspiration became muddied. Simple answers were increasingly difficult to find. As a humanistic approach to life gave way to a harsher vision, artists and musicians found their viewpoints increasingly fragmented, and their answer to this creative dilemma was a self-conscious distancing, a turning to the mechanics of form.

Schoenberg's towering influence on this century is just now being fundamentally questioned. And today, where the final volume ends, we remain at a profound crossroads, which ``Music in the Twentieth Century'' reflects: More attention is given to the likes of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Janacek, and Kodaly than would have been the case 10 or 20 years ago because, as the century comes to a close, the music world is not so doctrinaire, not so willing to ridicule composers of melody for not deigning to adopt a Schoenbergian serialist ethic.

Today we hear the Elgars and Rachmaninoffs for the remarkable craftsmen they were, while simultaneously allowing ourselves to be intrigued by the mechanistic intricacies of the other path. And today, composers such as John Adams (who is not even mentioned here) have finally admitted that communication must be a part of music, if serious music is to have any future as a public phenomenon; others such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen have turned wholeheartedly to the world of electronics to create their often enormous clinical constructs.

Where it will all lead is but one of the unanswerable questions that is beyond the scope or even intention of this ``Heritage of Music.'' But by presenting its information so lucidly, informatively, effortlessly, in a fashion that can be taken piece by piece, page by page, or in mighty chunks - the choice is up to the reader - we will be in a better position to monitor the future progress of the art form we have come to know as classical music.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.