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Archive for November, 2009

Taruskin is a rhetorician of unsurpassed ability, and logical reasoning (in the classical sense) is always at the forefront of his assessments and critiques. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that he is so adept at pointing out fallacies in the way we think about music history. Below is a list of the fallacies gleaned from the first 500 pages of Vol.I. We will be adding to it as we move forward, I’m sure.

The Fallacy of “Essentialism”: This lapse in thinking occurs when we conceptualize any trait as the essence of something. For example: “Black musicians don’t have the same restrictive mind/body dualism as white musicians” (essentializes black musicians as not adhering to the mind/body split and white musicians as adhering to it. The essentialization here occurs on the grounds of race.); “Medieval music is harmonically simple while Renaissance music is more harmonically complex” (ascribes essential qualities – harmonic simplicity and complexity – to music from different eras which, as we have seen, are arbitrary constructions anyways.) For more, see p.381.

The Pathetic Fallacy: We commit this fallacy when we ascribe agency to music itself, not to the people creating it. Thus: “English descant delights in parallel thirds” (the music doesn’t “delight” in anything; the composers/performers did.); “The leading tone likes to resolve to the tonic” (leading tones don’t “like” to do anything other that what they are instructed to do by composers on a page and by singers in the throat.) See p.221.

The Organic Fallacy: This line of reasoning has been addressed frequently on the blog. The central assumption is that music grows and evolves just like a living creature. There is also the presupposition that music grows more complex with time, which is a misreading of evolutionary theory. For instance: “Beethoven was way ahead of his time when he wrote his Grosse Fuge” (one cannot be “ahead” or “behind” one’s time; one is  simply in one’s time.); “Debussy’s use of non-functional harmony led to a total breakdown in the tonal language that reached its climax in Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique” (Debussy did not develop into Schoenberg; atonality was not the natural byproduct of a process of organic development – it was its own culturally and temporally embedded musical process.) See all over the place, but especially p.142.

The Genetic Fallacy: We stumble into this fallacy when we equate origins with essence. Thus: “A drinking song could never be a national anthem” (a drinking song is a drinking song, thus not a national anthem, goes the argument – of course, any piece of music can be anything.); “Rock ‘n’ Roll is really just a latter-day development of the blues” (while blues may be an ancestor in rock’s family tree, rock came to occupy a different meaning and position in our culture.) See pp.221 and 472.

The Poietic Fallacy: This one mistakes music (and music history) for composition. Thus, the history of music is the history of what composer’s write. For example: “The music of the Trecento is filled with Landini cadences” (of course, only notated, composed music can be said to have this feature; everything that happened in the oral tradition is gone to us.). This one hasn’t come up yet in the OHWM, but I just encountered it in RT’s review of Susan McClary’s Festschrift.

If readers can think of any other Taruskinian fallacies, please submit them in the comments box and I’ll add them to the post. I’m sure I must have missed something..

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AMS Blogging

What do you get when you put 700 musicologists in the same room?

I guess we’ll find out, because beginning today and running through Sunday, the American Musicological Society will be hosting their annual mega-conference, this year in Philadelphia. Neither Mark nor I will be able to make it, but we’d love to hear your impressions if you happen to attend the musicological circus. No doubt Richard Taruskin will play a role in the proceedings..

Our friends over at amusicology will be hosting a “no-host” reception tonight, and we hope that available conference-goers will try to make it to connect with some top-notch music bloggers. (amusicology’s Drew Massey posted his preview of the conference here.) Phil Gentry keeps us in the know with a practical guide to Philly; on Sunday, he’ll be presenting his paper “Crying in the Chapel: Religiosity and Masculinity in Early Doo-Wop.”

Have a great time and let us know how it goes – we wish we could be there too!

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Last week we crossed the channel to listen in on the music of the British Isles.

This Week in Blogging: The week began with a change of header art that brought us into the 15th century. Throughout the week, we tried to get the English sound in our ears by posting an audio clip of Beata viscera, and Zach found a recording of Dunstable’s seminal, euphonious Quam pulchra es. And in the only mini-essay of the week, Zach guided us through the bog-ridden terrain of trying to determine cultural and musical influence in history.

  • Viking Harmony (392): Where did the English preference for thirds come from? From Scandanavian lands perhaps. Based on a lone musical example from Sweden, the hymn Nobilis, humilis, which shares the tendency for harmonization in thirds; and on the political presence of Nordic peoples on the British Isles from 875, Taruskin posits a possible connection between the two cultures.
  • England and the Continent: Though the English were much touted as having a “new,” “sweet” style all their own according to chroniclers of the early 14th century, they were by no means isolated from the continent or its trends: the Normans invaded in 1066; England and France were engaged in a (more than) Hundred Years War, after which Northern French lands were occupied by the English; and intellectuals from England studied in French universities (witness our old friend Anonymous IV).
  • Nationalism? (403) and “English Descant” (406): The English style of descant is considered by some historians to be more homogeneous than other nations during the same time, and therefore “may suggest the beginnings of something comparable to what we now call nationalism” (405), though nationalism at this point was not connected to ethnicity but to the crown. The quintessential style can be found in the opening measures of Beata viscera (a conductus/motet): an 8/5 “chord”*, proceeding to a string of 6/3 “chords” moving in parallel motion, and cadencing on (or passing through) 8/5. This musical profile is also traditionally what music historians consider to be the definition of “contonance angloise,” (as RT puts it, “that English something-or-other”).
  • Old Hall and Roy Henry (409): The Old Hall Manuscript is a treasure for its collection of polyphonic mass movements, many with attributions of composers. It also contains the attribution of two pieces by “Roy Henry,” or King Henry, which could have been Henry IV or Henry V.
  • John Dunstable and the “New” Music: John Dunstable, an English composer, became, in his day and in successive generations, the fountainhead of the English style to continental composers.
  • Faburden, the English procedure of improvising harmony over a pre-existing monophonic melody (à la English descant), had a continental counterpart in fauxbourdon. The latter was often used by such composers as Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles Binchois, who used it as a compositional technique rather than an extemporizing procedure.

*Numbers represent intervals above the lowest note of the texture, from top to bottom. For example, “8/5” denotes an octave and a fifth above the lowest note. “Chord” is in quotes to denote that I am using a modern term.

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“Quam pulchra es” (Dunstable)

Composer John Dunstable (c. 1390 – 1453) was instrumental in exporting and popularizing the English sound, and listening to this lush setting of the Song of Songs, it’s easy to see why la contenance angloise (“that English something-or-other”) really took off among continental composers. “Quam pulchra es” is remarkable for its extreme control of dissonance – Dunstable allows only nine dissonant notes in the whole piece, and these are treated with textbook exactitude. However, despite the prohibition of spicy notes, the piece never succumbs to blandness. Its sonorous, rich textures – once again rife with major thirds – are striking, especially when compared to earlier music that was both more harmonically austere and looser with its treatment of dissonance. But let us not forget the text: this Song of Song setting is essentially an erotic poem, and Dunstable’s sensuous musical language is up to the task. Here’s the translated (from Latin) text:

Male: How beautiful thou art, and how graceful, my dearest in delights. / Your stature I would compare to a palm tree, and your breasts to clusters of grapes. / Your head is like Mount Carmel, your neck just like a tower of ivory.

Female: Come my love, let us go into the field, and see whether the flowers have yielded fruit, and whether the apples of Tyre are in bloom. / There will I give my breasts to you.

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Assessing the earliest stirring of the English style can be a perilous endeavor. It is true that a set of distinct features – parallel thirds, voice-exchange, a repeated pattern in the low voice, or pes – came to play a prominent role in English composition in the years following the Notre Dame School. These techniques eventually went on to exert a demonstrable influence on continental musical styles – they were not simply isolated in England. However, beyond these simple facts, our understanding of how this style developed and spread can be quite elusive.

First of all, England was hardly as isolated as we might like to believe. (Taruskin speaks of this interpretation of the English sound as the equivalent of “insular fauna – musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses.”) The Norman conquest, which began in 1066, established French culture, courts, and language on the island; a couple of hundred years later, the English returned the favor, invading and occupying much of northern France. With all these invasions and counter-invasions came whole armies of noblemen and clergy, each with their own traveling retinue of musicians. The English and the French – often at the point of a knife – shared a good deal of music between each other during these hundreds of years of strife.

Evidence of the French-English musical connection are abundant. While not primarily associated with the French in musicological circles, the English sound (thirds, voice-exchange, etc.) can be found both in French music and in music by “English” composers with suspiciously French-sounding names (Pycard, for instance). Our English sound, it turns out, is not as easily catergorizable as we might have originally thought.

A major historiographical problem that arises from this confluence has to do with the idea of influence. Music historians spend a lot of time searching for continuity between traditions, composers, and techniques; indeed, the paradigm of “slow, continuous change” is a major conceptual vantage point from which musicologists conduct their research. Although the discipline is so fractured now that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce any single scholarly perspective to be axiomatic, musicology traditionally approaches its subjects diachronically (concerned with how something changes through time). The concept of influence, then, is often a critical tool in establishing lineages. Thus the standard narrative: Composer (or group) A came up with innovation B, which then spread to country C and influenced the musical language of composers D, E, and F. Influence in popular music studies is just as pronounced: ragtimers influenced the development of jazz, which then influenced the development of soul, which went on to influence disco, then hip-hop, etc. It is easy to view historical processes through the lens of influence, where isolated developments are picked up, virus-like, by musicians and carried far and wide.

In this particular case, there are a number of theories accounting for the English sound. Some claim that the English exerted an influence over French university musicians, who happily picked up the sweet new style. Others contend that certain French techniques appealed to English musicians because of their resemblance to oral practices up on the island – when they returned home after university training, they brought these French styles with them. And as Taruskin wryly observes: “Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans.)” This touches on the issue of nationalism, which will undoubtedly come up again, but it also exemplifies a problem with the concept of influence itself. As a tool for establishing links between separate phenomenon, the notion of influence has the disadvantage of being decidedly linear. It doesn’t really account for the contentious, complex, messy situation that often accompanies the transmission and cross-fertilization of musical styles. It essentializes. (I’m engaging another text right now that does a superb job of addressing the perils of the influence concept, Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll. The black/white racial dynamic in the story of American pop music parallels this English/French dilemma in fascinating ways.) Influence is fundamentally a one-way stream, with the “influencer” on one side and the “influencee” on the other. Clinging too dogmatically to this concept when viewing historical processes can blind one to the myriad other ways developments can spread. Perhaps the English sound is a mash-up of two traditions, a sonic portrait of cultural enmeshment? Perhaps these little stylistic tricks were – dare I say it – developed independently on the island and the continent. This sort of synchronic reading is possible to put forth as well, but to what end? Ultimately, the problem with pure influence is that it fails to truly elucidate. There’s a futility to trying to determine linear relationships between social phenomenon, music or otherwise. Once again, I’ll close with RT (I decided not to employ scare quotes around my usages of the word “influence”):

Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?

That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. (I, 399)

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That English Sound

One of England’s greatest contributions to the burgeoning transnational musical language at this time was the liberation of the major 3rd as a consonant interval. Grant it, the major 3rd wasn’t afforded full rights as a member of the consonant club – cadences and finals still consisted of perfect 5ths only – but it functioned prominently in the “English Descant” texture. Indeed, if a music history 101 student is given a listening example from the 13th century and it’s chocked full of MA 3rds, it’s a safe bet that it’s English (or English inspired).

This snippet (recorded in Finale) is the first 13 measures of the English conductus/motet “Beata viscera,” from the Worchester fragments. (This source is regrettably one of our only documents preserving the English descant style due to the wholesale purging of all “popish ditties” over the course of the Anglican reformation.) Listen for all the parallel 3rds and 6ths. It’s a texture quite unlike anything we’ve encountered so far. Note too the way these sweet harmonies give way to steely, open 5ths at points of cadence. It would be a while yet before the 3rd would earn this privilege.

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Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Our new header image is a detail of a detail. This sumptuous scene is tempera and gold on panel, by Fra Angelico, c. 1435. The lower image is of the entire scene, with the Virgin Mary being crowned in the high center. Angels herald the moment with playing of trumpets, lutes, and harps. At the lower center of this heavenly scene (note that they all sit or stand upon clouds), a lone angel plays obeisantly on a portative organ.

The upper image is a detail of the group of angels over the shoulder of the Virgin, and the header image is a horizontal slice of the same.

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