The Essential Canon of Classical Music

David Dubal

North Point Press

The Essential Canon of Classical Music
We can only speculate about the origins of music, but its seemingly magical qualities must have been apparent early in human prehistory. Primitive music of some sort probably preceded speech by thousands of years. Those with unusual vocal abilities may have used their power in rituals or to convey messages over a distance. These ancient singers, like their brothers the cave painters, may even have been privileged members of the clan. But it was a long time before people started making vocal utterances in intervals, thus creating melodies that could be repeated again and again.
The first musical instrument, if you can call it that, was the pursed lips of a whistler (no doubt first used in an attempt to imitate bird calls). Early peoples thereafter developed banging, twanging, and scraping instruments, most of which were used, with the dance, to practice magical and sexual rites and to worship the sun and the moon. Charles Darwin was convinced "that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex."
As the concept of pitch developed, those with good musical ears could start to imitate sounds. The pitches they heard, however, were not those that we have come to know. Each area of the world developed a different vocabulary of sounds. We do not know who the first musical geniuses were, or when they first organized sound into a musical form. How interesting it would be to go back in time and hear the music used for prehistoric funeral and marital rites, or the humming and singing (if any) that accompanied hunting and gathering!
Our knowledge of music in ancient civilizations is unfortunately scanty. We know very little about Egypt, and only a little more about the strides made inIndia, Persia, and the Far East. The five-tone or pentatonic scale was first developed in China around three thousand years ago. In ancient Greece music was almost held sacred, and the mythological musician Orpheus was feted. Pythagoras realized that music had healing agents, but Plato found it dangerous and enervating. The Greeks made great advances in musical theory, developing scales or modes, but only a few fragments of their music survive. This gifted civilization was probably the most musically expressive up to that time.
It was with the emergence of Christianity that the Western musical tradition began. Gregorian chant, named for Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), had its roots in Jewish liturgical chants. In addition, psalmody, hymns, antiphons, and so forth became part of a common liturgy that spread through the Christian world. For several hundred years after Gregory, theory and practice slowly evolved together (for creativity could not blossom until theoretical problems were solved).
The Middle Ages saw the birth of polyphony, a revolutionary new form of music based on two or more parts, or melodic lines. Polyphony made possible the mass, the chief musical ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. It also saw the birth of a secular musical tradition, alongside the liturgical. Wandering minstrels, known as troubadours, based their popular melodies on poems of courtly love. They made creative use of new musical instruments to accompany their chivalric stanzas, which were usually written in the vernacular languages and not in Latin.
The vernacular was making rapid progress in the other arts, especially after 1300, when both Dante and Petrarch started to write verse in Italian. Their poems expressed emotional states not previously addressed by the arts. (Petrarch, for example, dedicated his sonnets to his lady love, Laura.) Music could not yet rival the flexibility of poetry, but Petrarch's contemporary Guillaume de Machaut brought music to a new rhythmic complexity through syncopation. Like other composers, he worked for the Church, but in his ballades he codified a new type of secular song in courtly language, accompanied by an instrument, with sections of ornamental freedom. The ballade form would retain its popularity for a century.
As it did with the other arts, Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance, developed a flourishing musical culture, especially after 1450. While Giovanni Bellini was painting his incomparable madonnas, Italians were reveling in madrigals, a mostly secular polyphonic form using two to as many as eight vocal parts. In the humanistic Renaissance, as one scholar put it, "music was not a set of compositional techniques but a complex of social conditions, intellectual states of mind, attitudes, aspirations, habits of performers, artistic support systems, intra-culturalcommunication, and many other ingredients which add up to a thriving matrix of musical energy." Beauty in art and craft was a highly valued element of life. The artist of the Renaissance was in fact more integrated into general society than he would ever be again.
Italian and English musicians were artists of the highest cultivation. Performances were constant and lively, and for the first time notated music was published. New instruments were created in abundance and were of exceptional beauty in their ornaments: organs, harpsichords, cornetti, shawms (forerunners of the oboe), sackbuts (early trombones), viols (cousins of the modern violin, cello, and viola), flutes, lutes, and dozens of others. Like many noblemen, Henry VIII of England, who considered himself a fine composer, had a splendid collection of instruments (nearly four hundred by 1530).
By the late sixteenth century, any person of rank or pretension was expected to have musical proficiency. Most were excellent sight-readers. The reign of Elizabeth (1558--1603) was a golden age for the arts, and music thrived in the home, at church, and in the theater. Shakespeare used song prolifically in his plays and showed not only his love for the art but his knowledge of it. He may have played the recorder. In his 128th sonnet, he wrote of "jacks," that part of the virginal (keyboard) action that makes possible the plucking of the strings:
I envy those jacks that nimble leap To kiss the tender inward of thy hand.
In Italy madrigals continued to rule the secular musical scene in the later Renaissance. Both Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo provided greatness to this form. The madrigal is the neglected glory of the Renaissance. Two close contemporaries, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlande de Lassus, were giants: Palestrina's masses, with their beautiful euphony, are among music's purest, most angelic manifestations. The versatile master Lassus fulfilled the motet form, the villanella, and the chanson. These and many composers in other lands--such as the Swiss Ludwig Senfl, the Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria, and the Englishman William Byrd--make the sixteenth century a time of high musical adventurousness. Composers had never had more options in vocal and instrumental expression. During this time, conflicts between polyphony and melody grew. At the end of the sixteenth century, a group of Florentine dilettantes, poets, and musicians plotted the germ of a new art form. They rejected polyphony as unsuited to accompany song in drama. Jacopo Peri's Dafne (1598) may be called the first drama to be completely set to music. It signaled the birth of opera--and of the Baroque era.
(c.1300--1377) France
Machaut was perhaps the most famous composer of the fourteenth century. His music, both secular and religious, has been described as the most fully formed of the period. Ordained a priest, he led an adventurous and dangerous existence as secretary to the warring John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia. Machaut, also a poet, used his own verse in composing secular ballades, rondeaux, and virelais. He has been called a fourteenth-century Romantic and a champion of medieval chivalric ideals. Machaut was one of the first composers to experiment with rhythmic syncopation.
Messe de Nostre Dame (mass) (c.1350)
Hilliard Ensemble, Hillier: Hyperion CDA 66358
Copyright © 2001 by David Dubal