A note-worthy era for composers

Sheet music opened a still-wide rift between popular tunes and scholarly works.

Music and dance are born into humans. One of the earliest and most natural forms of expression in children are the primal sounds, rhythms, and movements that form the building blocks of music.

Somewhere along the way most of us lose this natural tendency to express our emotions through song and dance. The process either becomes formalized or inhibited entirely.

Over the last millennium in Western civilization, a duality has sprung up between the "performing arts" as a spectator event and the arts as something we do.

For the vast majority, a large portion of serious music changed from being a normal part of civilized life to being a fringe interest.

And that is where we stand today. As we work our way into the new millennium, the performing arts are fighting hard not to be marginalized on the edges of people's consciousness.

In many other cultures, the rift between serious and popular art forms is significantly less, or even nonexistent, especially cultures in which there is a history of passing artistic traditions down from generation to generation.

Music has been used as a form of communication over long distances. Even in non-Western cultures and when study and preparation are required to be an artistic performer, the product is geared toward the common man and woman. In China, for example, skilled actors train for years in opera, yet the performance itself is considered entertainment for the masses.

So what happened in Western music to create such a great chasm between the serious and popular arts forms?

Arguably the most important development in music over the past 1,000 years has been the standardization of proportional musical notation, allowing complex musical works to be passed on in a visual form.

The earliest system began in the 7th century, but it wasn't until the turn of the millennium that proportional notation, allowing for specific pitch and duration, developed. This opened up the possibility of creating music of greater intricacy and texture. It opened the way for compositions using more than one voice at a time (harmony and counterpoint) and spawned the development of new instruments to play what the voice could not sing.

It also meant that music could travel the world via sheets of paper, providing composers in Italy access to work being created in England.

When the millennium began, halfway through the Middle Ages, it was a repressive time when the Roman Catholic Church claimed absolute power as Europe's governing body.

The church was the employer of nearly all professional musicians and composers, with the dictum that music's highest mission was to glorify God. Compositions tended to be simple and followed strict forms. Most were choral works.

Then came the Renaissance, which started around 1400 and ushered in two centuries of cultural awakening. With the invention of the printing press, music, art, and literature began to blossom with innovation.

When Martin Luther's "95 Theses" (1517) helped codify the unrest in the Catholic Church, precipitating the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism, music began to appear prominently outside the strictures of religious occasions. The wealthy often employed their own resident composers and orchestras.

With the printing of music came a definitive split between music in the oral folk tradition and more scholarly music that required study to write and play. This may have contributed to the notion that it also took study to appreciate this music, that it was for the more learned aristocracy.

Composers began to write music for instruments, often basing compositions on well-known dance forms from the courts.

In an attempt to re-create Greek tragedies, which had been frowned upon during the Dark Ages and gloomy Middle Ages, opera was born out of lavish entertainment spectacles commissioned by wealthy Italian families.

All this was music for the nobility - there was no middle class - and the peasantry only heard simpler fare from wandering troubadours.

From here, music began to take on greater freedom, complexity, and startling expressivity. The refinement of the organ - with its chromatic keyboard - and the development of smaller, more portable and accessible instruments, gave the power of playing multiple voices to the individual, and during the Baroque era (1600-1750) counterpoint became the reigning style, allowing more than one melodic voice to exist at the same time.

Though religion was still a driving force in music, it was no longer the sole patron. New compositions by giants such as Handel and Bach were commissioned by the wealthy for the wealthy.

The spare, more-controlled music of the Classical Period (from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s) was in part a reaction to the florid ornateness of Baroque music. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were the kings of music that was characterized by grace and refinement.

Beethoven almost singlehandedly took classical music into the Romantic era, in which expressivity of emotion became the ruling aesthetic (again, a pendulum swing in reaction to the style that had come before).

Composers such as Chopin, Shubert, Schumann, and Berlioz created music with stunning emotionalism and vibrant, colorful orchestration and less-formalized structures.

Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler took this romantic style into the next musical progression by expanding the major-minor tonality, opening the gates for the 20th century's embrace of atonality.

For most of the past 100 years, as composers began breaking every conceivable musical rule, the flood gates have been open to accept and embrace a range of music - from tonal to atonal, acoustic to electric.

This rule-breaking has perhaps alienated more music lovers than it has converted. However, the modern music world's acceptance of a wide range of styles and influences has meant that the lines between "high art" and "popular art" have become blurred, with composers of concert music drawing from influences as diverse as Balinese gamelan and rock 'n' roll.

Conversely, popular artists are pulling music from academic climes into mainstream entertainment. The crossover effect is bringing the elite and the masses closer together.

Today, more music is available to more people in more ways than ever before. We have only to take advantage of it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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