A Concise History of Western Music

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Engaging, clear and informative, this is the story of western music-of its great composers and also of its performers and listeners, of changing ideas of what music is and what it is for. Paul Griffiths shows how music has evolved through the centuries, and suggests how its evolution has mirrored developments in the human notion of time, from the eternity of heaven to the computer's microsecond. An essential read for students, teachers and classical music lovers alike.

Can be read as an entertaining story of music through the ages, and also used as a reference book.

Technical terms are clearly defined in a glossary.

Includes suggestions for further reading and recommended recordings.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
By "Western music," the title really refers to Western classical music (popular and folk are almost entirely absent) from prehistory to the end of the 20th century. Music critic Griffiths, formerly of The New Yorker and the New York Times, superimposes his own subdivisions on the standard historical periods as a way of concisely identifying trends or common ideas. "The Deaf Man and the Singer," for example, is centered on the late Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert; "Nightfall and Sunrise" is about Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss. Griffiths moves from lofty, hard-to-grasp ideas to fact-filled sentences that continue for half a paragraph. He is at his best when speaking in broad terms and summing up an entire era. Attempts to discuss particular compositions are often confusing and in some cases require an understanding of technical information far beyond that of beginners. The glossary is not helpful, and the bibliography cites highly advanced literature. Not recommended.-Timothy McGee, Hastings, Ont. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Centered on the conceptualization of time in music, Griffiths' precis traces a course of development from ancient Greece and Babylonia to the present...A well-written must for classical-music listeners and teachers."

"One of the UK's most eloquent and intelligent writers on classical music, Griffiths' A Concise History of Western Music (concise maybe, but substantial enough to merit every one of its 350 pages) is a joy."
-The Book Depository

"Hidden behind the deadpan title is an extremely rich and thoughtful text: a concise history, as it says on the tin, but also a warm meditation on the philosophy of music…Each chapter culminates in a subtle cliff-hanger, and the whole thing reads exquisitely."

'Anyone who can write a concise history of music deserves a medal…Paul Griffiths, adept at clear, succinct presentations, manages to reduce the millennia and centuries to just 300 pages; and, to make matters easier, he gives the terms without which the story cannot be told a brisk and lively explanation and encourages the reader to read, listen further and think…an original and a stimulating book."
-Methodist Recorder

"…(an) elegant and highly readable style…thought-provoking, compelling and remarkably comprehensive narrative…this is easily one of the most thought-provoking, enjoyable and stimulating reads on Western music to have been published in the past ten years."
-BBC Music Magazine

"The book is clearly laid out, with page — heading summaries making it valuable for academic study."
-International Record Review

"...attention to the ways of the different musics of the past and present 'proceed through time' is the main novelty of this book...A Concise History of Western Music [is] new and distinctive. This is an adroit and knowing book..."
-Joseph Kerman, The New York Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521842945
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/30/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 358
  • Sales rank: 1,493,202
  • Product dimensions: 5.43 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Griffiths has written extensively on twentieth-century music, particularly on new music and the avant garde, and is one of the most influential music critics of his generation.
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Read an Excerpt

A Concise History of Western Music
Cambridge University Press
0521842948 - A Concise History of Western Music - by Paul Griffiths



Someone, sitting in a cave, punctures holes in a bone drained of marrow, raises it mouthwards, and blows – into a flute. Breath becomes sound, and time, through that sound, is given a shape. Being sound and shaped time, music begins.

It must have begun many times. Almost certainly it began at Geissenklösterle in southwest Germany and Divje Babe in Slovenia – two places where fragments of hollow bone with otherwise inexplicable holes have been found from 45,000–40,000 years ago, close to when our species arrived. No sooner were we here than, in all probability, we were making music. We must have done so on other instruments, which have disintegrated or gone unrecognized, perhaps including reed flutes, log drums, ringing stones and shakers made from seedpods, not to mention stamping feet, slapping or clapping hands, and voices.

A thousand generations later (17,000–11,000 years ago), other broken bone flutes represent the music of the Magdalenian, cave-painting people of southern France and Spain, whose contemporaries on the eastern Mediterranean coast were producing bullroarers (objects whirled on strings) and rattles. Whole flutes made from crane wingbones survive from the neolithic village at Jiahu in central China dated to 9,000–8,000 years ago – one in good enough condition to be played, and to suggest its maker knew how to place the holes for a scale of sixnotes to the octave, though beyond that we cannot know what music once came from these flutes.

We can listen, though, to the archaeology in our own bodies, for we are living fossils of the musicians of the Stone Age, with the same lungs, hearts, limbs and rhythms. The actions of singing or flute playing would require periodic pauses for breath, and so suggest phrases lasting no longer than ten seconds or so. Pulse – especially if music went with movement, as it often does in modern cultures – would likely have been in paired beats at around one pair per second (corresponding to the left-right swing of walking pace) or two (for a run or energetic dance). Fast speeds, of two up to three iterations per second, would come near a simple instrument's limits, and suggest the pumping of the heart in excitement – the excitement of hunting, combat or sex, all abiding musical themes. Playing a flute, a musician must also have pondered how to end, and so been faced with questions of finding the properly conclusive note, therefore of harmony, and of accomplishing the transition back to silence, therefore of completion and extinction. These too are matters – formal, structural, expressive, existential – that attached themselves to music permanently.

There is further constancy in the psychology of hearing. The experience of sound is produced by variation in air pressure at the ear. If that variation is irregular, what we hear is a noise: the slam of a car door, the scrunching-up of a piece of paper. But if the pressure variations reach the ear as regular vibrations, the effect is a sound with a distinct pitch, higher or lower depending on the frequency of vibration: a note. The lowest notes (from large drums, for example) correspond to frequencies of about thirty cycles of vibration per second, the highest (whines and whistlings) to several thousand, the range of human voices being in the hundreds. Music is made from notes in combination. All the evidence, whether from laboratory tests or from musical cultures around the globe, shows that the brain is specially responsive to combinations of notes whose frequencies are in simple ratios, the simplest possible being 2:1, which corresponds to the octave. The same broad evidence indicates that combinations of two notes are heard as less pleasant if the gap goes below a sixth of an octave. So the Jiahu flutes represent, right at the start, universals in human music.

Of course, these fixed points of human biology have not prevented abundant change. Cultures through history and around the globe have differed not only in music's sound but in its purpose. Even the definition of music has changed. The term, with equivalents in most European languages, derives from the generic name of the ancient Greek muses, and originally it embraced the full range of poetic and performing arts under their aegis. In many other cultures, too, there is no word for an art of sound divorced from dance, ritual or theatre. Yet equally there is no human culture that has failed to develop what would, in modern western terms, be recognized as music: the chants of the African bush and the European cathedral, the sounds of plucked strings on an Indian sitar or an electric guitar, the tuned breath of Andean panpipes, orchestral flutes or, indeed, the bones of Jiahu. Here is a rainbow of variety, but with a sameness that comes from our physical selves.

Music, so intimately engaged with perception, lights up the mind. Music, being immaterial, touches on the immaterial – on the drift of thought and feeling, on divinity and death. Music, as sound, can represent the auditory world: the moan of wind, the repeated whispers of calm waves, the calls of birds. Music, as idealized voice (even in the almost superhuman range of the Jiahu flutes), can sing or sigh, laugh or weep. Music, as rhythm, can keep pace with our contemplative rest and our racing activity. Music, in proceeding through time, can resemble our lives.


Time whole

Music, being made of time, can travel through it. A performance of, say, a Beethoven symphony will bring a whole structure of time forward from two hundred years ago, so that we may experience it now. And because we cannot see or touch music but only hear it, it reaches us out of its past with an unusual immediacy. Things we see or touch are necessarily outside of us: music, though, seems to be happening inside our heads, imposing itself directly on our minds and feelings. It is right here with us, and yet simultaneously back there in the past in which it was made. It may thereby take us into its past, give us a sense of being in a different era, experiencing time as it was then. Or it may tell us of continuities through time, constancies of thought and feeling.

For all this to happen we need to inherit not only music's instruments but also its instructions, which may come down to us orally, through generations of direct transmission, or else in written form, as musical notation. All musical cultures depend on handing information on from generation to generation, no doubt with changes; that is how traditions are made. What sets the tradition of western music apart is its great dependence also on notation, which has several important consequences.

In the first place, notation opens a distinction between composers (who create music that will last) and performers (who recreate that music for the moment). This distinction exists in some other cultures, such as the traditional Chinese, but there is no parallel elsewhere for the western concept of a musical work, such as a Beethoven symphony, which is set out in detail, which can therefore give rise to performances that will be instantly recognized as versions of the same thing, and which may be used in discussions of its composer's style, of the orchestra or, indeed, of the history of music. In music, as in most things, there are no stable certainties, and this idea of the changeless work needs to be modified, to take account of how the meaning of notation may be altered over time or even lost, or of how the difference between performances may seem more important than their sameness. Nevertheless, western classical music is largely defined by its composers and its works. These have given it not only a tradition, changing through time like a weathering landscape, but a history – the possibility, through notation, of glimpsing parts of that landscape in earlier states, even if imperfectly.

We should recognize also how this history itself changes. For instance, a hundred years ago the history of music began, for all practical purposes, with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), the earliest composer whose music was performed with any regularity. Now, with compact discs offering the chance of listening repeatedly to almost anything, compositions from several centuries before Bach are generally available, and music has so much longer a history. That history is also wider, in that the recorded repertory includes a great deal more music of any particular age: virtually all of Bach's output, for example, rather than the tiny fraction by which he was once known, and the works of dozens of his contemporaries. The existence of recordings has also made music's recent history thicker, for not only can we perform music that was notated in, for example, the 1930s, we can also hear music that was recorded then – whether music of the time (Stravinsky, Cole Porter) or earlier (Beethoven as conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler or Arturo Toscanini). A recording may thus present us with three times at once: the now in which we hear it, the then in which it was made, and the further then of when the piece was composed.

Before recording, and before notation, there was only the now. Music could not be fixed. It was like the forest and the sea, always being renewed and always remaining the same. It could last only as long as memory, for memory was the only means of holding onto past time.

For people familiar with memory, and uniquely dependent on it, the past is not strange: it is present, in the mind. Time is whole. Its measures are all in natural observation: the cycles of the day and year, the ageing of people, animals, plants and things, the flowing of water or the burning down of candles.

Music for such people – the music of the most ancient traditions we know, including in western Europe the chant in which church services were delivered – is made to the measure of memory and moves without anxiety through its medium of time. It is not going anywhere. It is there.


From Babylonians to Franks

Notation was invented in several ancient cultures – Babylonian, Greek, Indian, Chinese – but only for very occasional purposes (in theoretical works, or more rarely to set down a melody), and only after a great change in social structure. The new urban civilizations of the fourth and third millennia BC introduced new instruments, especially instruments with plucked strings: harps, lyres and lutes first in Mesopotamia, then in the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa, zithers in China. With these arrived élite music, the music of temples and courts, represented by such spectacular finds as the metre-high gold-covered lyre from a royal tomb of around 2500 BC at Ur. Though Sumerian weavers and builders must have sung, the music most prized (the gold suggests) was that of a new profession – the musician – whose distinction was intensified by a gathering lore of tuning, interval and instrumental practice. Then came composers, of whom the earliest known, around two centuries after the great lyre, was Enheduanna, high priestess of the moon god at Ur.

In tuning and playing their new instruments the Mesopotamians and Chinese discovered the relationship between the length of a string and the note produced by plucking it – a relationship holding because a string's length determines its frequency of vibration (all other things being equal), the shorter the faster. If a string is stopped at half its length, it will vibrate twice as fast and so give a note an octave higher, and so on. This gave musicians a way of prescribing notes and therefore scales, of which there are examples given on a Mesopotamian tablet of around 1800 BC – seven-note scales that much later were adopted in Greece.

Another tablet, from the ancient city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra, in Syria, near the Mediterranean coast) and about four centuries more recent, is inscribed with the earliest notated music so far discovered: a hymn to the moon goddess. However, since the notation is rudimentary, and the all-important tradition of interpreting it long lost, this prototypical score can offer no more than a faint echo. Other echoes, from around the same time, come from the bronze and silver trumpets laid in the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen (c. 1325 BC), from the praise of music in the earliest hymns of India and from the bells of Shang dynasty China.

In the next millennium, as instruments and theory developed in tandem, philosophers tried to guide them. Confucius (551–479 BC) distinguished wholesome from unwholesome music, the former productive of harmony within the individual and order within the state. His views were seconded by Plato (c. 429–347 BC), one of the earliest Greeks to write about music; Aristoxenus, two generations younger, concerned himself with the theory of intervals, scales and melodic composition. Melodies were being notated in Greece by this time, with letters representing notes, though nothing survives before some fragments of the third century BC, and nothing complete before two hymns inscribed at Delphi in the late second century BC. Melodic notation was simultaneously evolving in China, though again little has come down to us.

Written evidence shows that the singing of psalms was well established in Christian lands by the fourth century AD. One witness, St John Chrysostom (c. 345–407), followed Plato in distinguishing between good and harmful music: ‘Lest demons introducing lascivious songs should overthrow everything, God established the psalms, in order that they might provide both pleasure and profit.’ Other theologians of the time, such as St Jerome (c. 340–420), found Biblical support for Plato's doctrine in the story of David at his lyre calming Saul, while the Roman philosopher Boethius (c. 480 – c. 524) concurred with Plato in his statements not only of music's power – ‘Nothing is more characteristic of human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites’ – but also of its essence, writing that ‘the soul of the universe is united by musical concord’ and describing three levels of music: that of heavenly bodies in rotation (the music of the spheres, which, according to later theorists, we cannot hear because it is always there), that of the human being (the concord of body and soul) and that of instruments. These ideas, and a detailed account of Greek musical theory, made Boethius's treatise De institutione musica (Fundamentals of Music) the principal authority for medieval musicians.

By his time, across Eurasia from France to Japan, people were finding better ways to write music down. Once more the region around Mesopotamia led the way: Christians there applied signs to Bible texts to show how they should be chanted. These signs can no longer be interpreted, but in their time they spread westwards to Jews, Byzantines and the Latin church, and perhaps eastwards to Tibet. Meanwhile, an entirely different system of notation – tablature, which provides instrumentalists with diagrammatic instructions – was developing in China and Japan. Where the music

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Pt. I Time whole 5
1 From Babylonians to Franks 8
Pt. II Time measured 1100-1400 19
2 Troubadours and organists 22
3 Ars nova and Narcissus's clock 32
Pt. III Time sensed 1400-1630 43
4 Harmony, the light of time 47
5 The radiance of the high Renaissance 57
6 Reformation and heartache 68
7 To speak in music 81
Pt. IV Time known 1630-1770 95
8 Baroque mornings 98
9 Fugue, concerto and operatic passion 111
10 Rococo and reform 123
Pt. V Time embraced 1770-1815 135
11 Sonata as comedy 138
12 Revolution's momentum 150
Pt. VI Time escaping 1815-1907 163
13 The deaf man and the singer 166
14 Angels and other prodigies 177
15 New Germans and old Vienna 190
16 Romantic evenings 202
17 Nightfall and sunrise 215
Pt. VII Time tangled 1908-1975 227
18 To begin again 231
19 Forwards and backwards, and sideways 244
20 The people's needs 258
21 To begin again again 270
22 Whirlwind 286
Pt. VIII Time lost 1975- 299
23 Echoes in the labyrinth 303
24 Interlude 314
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