Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Concise History of Western Music

This post represents two firsts for me. This is the first book review requested by a publisher specifically for my blog. I haven't been receiving lots of swag like other bloggers, so this feels noteworthy. The second first is being hounded by the author to write the review.

This book is indeed a concise history. Clocking in at 316 pages (not including appendices), Griffiths' coverage of 4500 years of music (45,000 years if you include his Chapter 0) has to be brief. To save room, Griffiths does not give detailed biographies of major composers, and nonmusical history is very sparse (though more is included in the chapters on the Twentieth Century). There is also no world music, and not much popular music, essentially a history of Western Art Music.

Griffiths takes a mostly chronological approach, organizing music history into eight periods. These periods are defined by how the composers conceive of or use time. Each period is described in a brief introduction before longer chapters delve into the details. The first period, "Time whole," deals with music before notation was developed. This short section (necessarily brief as the lack of notation limits our knowledge of what the music sounded like) is followed by the first uses of music notation, "Time measured 1100-1400". I found the descriptions of the theory and the historical developments interesting, but the attempts to describe the emotional content of the music by Leonin and Perotin were not convincing. This lack of aesthetic enthusiasm stands in stark contrast to the excitement Griffiths is able to engender in later works. But many important theorists and treatises are mentioned as well as composers and aesthetic movements, and the descriptions of Machaut's works are excellent.

Griffiths calls the Renaissance "Time sensed 1400-1630." He clearly has an enthusiasm for DuFay, devoting several pages to his life and music. But I was also enticed by the descriptions of Obrecht. Throughout the book, Griffiths does a great job emphasizing how various eras of music were lost and rediscovered, sometimes very late. In the case of Obrecht (1457/8-1505), he "was forgotten soon after his death, and his music was little known until scholars and performers began bringing back into circulation in the 1990s." (p. 62)

The Baroque (through to Rococo) is "Time known 1630-1770." The Classical era was "Time Embraced 1770-1815", the Romantic saw "Time escaping 1815-1907" before it was tangled from 1908-1975. The last section, "Time lost 1975-," is all too short after the seventy pages devoted to the bulk of the Twentieth century. And in those seventy pages Griffiths saw fit to give four pages to Jean BarraquƩ [who?] while never mentioning George Crumb once. The Romantic era was swamped with names and dates, losing the fine narrative focus of the other sections. But in the last three sections much more social context is given, especially on the interactions of the composers and society.

Forms and structures are described by their emotional or dramatic effects, such as "Sonata as comedy" (chapter 11) or the development of basso continuo to offer flexibility in both instrumentation and tempo as a means of allowing the singer to portray joy and pain in Italian madrigals. (p. 84)

At the end of the book Griffiths includes recommendations for further reading and listening, organized by chapter. The listening recommendations are particularly useful, as I think the primary audience for this book will be listeners looking to expand their repertoires. Students could find it handy when preparing for graduate entrance exams, and I appreciated getting a review of topics that had grown dusty in my noggin. There is also a glossary of terms for the layperson and an index.

Overall, this is a very good book. I will leave any critiques of the musicological research to those more qualified, like Charles T. Downey or Dial 'M', and leave it that I found no glaring errors from my own understandings and found many good insights on connections between composers or genres. It is much better than the Concise Oxford History of Music, which I used to prepare for grad school, and less intimidating than the Grout/Palisca/Burkholder/hut hut hike.

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