A Journey Through Western Music
Four-volume history charts key developments and offers a remarkable selection of art
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. 4Skip to next paragraph
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Edited by Michael Raeburn and Alan Kendall, New York and London:
Oxford University Press, Complete set, $195
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.