Printer Friendly

Theories of Musical Texture in Western History.

John White's book inaugurates a new series, edited by Michael Saffle, entitled 'Perspectives in Music Criticism and Theory', which is intended to 'explore how and why music works in and of itself as an art form, as well as how and why it works upon us as human beings' (p. vii). In the current climate of mutual suspicion that exists between theorists and critics, any attempt to foster interactions between their respective disciplines is surely to be welcomed.

Readers expecting a study devoted to musical texture will, if the series editor is to be believed, have to content themselves with a study of three musical 'textures', each one corresponding to a part of the book: 'the first involving scales, tunings, and temperaments; the second involving rhythm, and the third involving polyphony' (p. ix). However, this interpretation of the book's structure is rather misleading. White clearly intends the first two parts of the book to be concerned with textural elements. The task of the final, and most substantial, part of the book is 'to examine the way in which musical textures woven of both pitch and rhythm have evolved from the ninth century to the present' (p. 187). (Fortunately, this last part occupies over half of the book.)

The purpose of a series does not always agree with the purposes of its individual books. White's book has two aims: first, 'to synthesize certain selected theories in the history of Western music', and second, in connection with the history of music theory, 'to fill the need for a concise survey of the subject' (p. xi). It transpires that the omission here of the terms 'criticism' and 'texture' is significant, but this should not detract from the book's many positive contributions to the history of music theory. To survey and synthesize such a vast subject (all 2,500 years of it) is nothing if not ambitious; and if, ultimately, the survey is more successful than the synthesis, White's book still represents a substantial achievement.

Part I provides a comprehensive account of the history of scales, modes and tuning systems: the Pythagorean scale, the tetrachords of ancient Greece, the church modes, the Guidonian hexa-chord system, mean-tone temperament, major and minor modes, chromaticism, and twentieth-century modes and scales. A particularly useful feature of this account is the way in which the evolution of tuning systems is related to both performance practices and compositional techniques. For example, 'the development of mean-tone temperament was a response to the emergence in the fifteenth century of a polyphonic style in which thirds and sixths were viewed as consonances' (p. 61). The Pythagorean tuning system, which preceded mean-tone temperament, led to the major third sounding dissonant. In the new tuning system the major third was an imperfect consonance that could be directly equated with the harmonic series.

The idea of a pure interval (one that can be derived from the harmonic series) underlies a number of White's observations concerning tuning systems, but the potential of this idea as an agent of synthesis - by means of a more universal concept of consonance or dissonance - is not explored. Is it possible that the ambiguity surrounding the consonant or dissonant perception of various intervals could in many cases have been resolved (apart from the perfect fourth), enabling a degree of synthesis between apparently contradictory perceptions? White touches on this idea in his discussions of the major second as a possible consonance (pp. 3-4, 193-4), but such an important idea could have been given a more central role.

The inclusion of twelve-note music in a chapter on twentieth-century modes and scales is questionable, as the author admits (p. 105). However, the issues raised by including it could have been highly instructive with regard to musical textures had they been pursued, since the distinction between melodic and harmonic textual elements is blurred in music based on note rows.

This first part of the book is occasionally marred by technical errors, most of them of a minor nature. On page 20 White claims that 'intensity and amplitude are synonyms', whereas, in fact, intensity is proportional to the square of the amplitude. Other errors are of a mathematical kind. Fig. 9 should read

Harm. Mean = [square root of F1 x F2]

and not

Harm. Mean/[square root of F1 x F2]

and the calculation on page 78 should read

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

and not

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

If the history of scales, tunings and temperaments presented in Part I is intended to show 'how a particular writer fits into the evolution of the history of musical thought' (p. xiii), then I suspect that most historians will want to ask further questions about the dissemination of knowledge, and the opportunities for influence, that are a prerequisite of any 'evolutionary' theory. As the account stands, the reader is presented with a series of chronologically ordered 'snapshots'. Clearly, there is still much research left to do in this area.

The question of influence seems to be even more conspicuous by its absence in Part II of White's book. As one reads the account of the emergence of notated rhythm, one derives the clear sense of its being simply one of a number of different, but equally valid, accounts. For instance, it could be argued that the influence of the Italian Trecento on the French Ars Nova, and vice versa, should be central to the history of mensural notation, but White places the main emphasis on the Ars Nova. Nevertheless, inasmuch as his account gives an overview of the development of rhythmic notation it is a useful introduction to the subject. In summary, this overview begins with a discussion of natural speech-rhythms in Greek music before going on to consider the possible use of rhythmic modes in Gregorian chant, the mensural notation of the Ars Nova composers, the invention of the bar-line and the emergence of time-signatures.

Part II concludes with a chapter on twentieth-century rhythm. As with the final chapter in Part I, the variety and complexity of twentieth-century music make it impossible to provide more than a hint of the many new techniques developed during this century. However, White does point the way to some of the most important rhythmic developments, such as Elliott Carter's 'metric modulation', Messiaen's 'additive rhythms' and the influential innovations of his Mode de valeurs et d'intensities.

Once again, many of the rhythmic developments of this second section are linked with performance practices and compositional techniques. The invention of the metronome, for example, is linked with 'the emancipation from the tyranny of the bar line' (p. 163) in the Classical and Romantic periods.

The final part of the book attempts to draw together the components of pitch and rhythm. Since it does so under the umbrella heading 'Theories of Polypbony', most readers will stop hoping for a general discussion of musical texture at this point (polypbony is, after all, only one kind of texture). What White provides instead is a reasonably thorough introduction to the history of music theory and analysis. True, this history is presented in a way that emphasizes cadential patterns, the treatment of consonance and dissonance, and texture (p. 189), but these emphases simply help to focus the unfolding discourse.

The format for the remainder of the book is essentially a series of reviews of major theoretical and analytical treatises written over the last 1,100 years or so, beginning with Musica enchiriadis, dating from c.900, and the Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae of Guido d'Arezzo, dating from the eleventh century. Some of the most important writers on pre-twentieth-century music he also discusses include Marchetto of Padua, Paumann, Tinctoris, Zarlino, Rameau, Fux, Mattheson, Kirnberger, Koch, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Schenker. The omission of both Albrechtsberger (who taught Beethoven for over a year) and Adolf Bernhard Marx will be a surprise to many readers.

Only White's less than favourable assessment of Schenker - stretching to nearly twenty pages - is likely to prove at all controversial. But few, if any, of his criticisms will be new to most scholars and theorists. He makes his position clear when he claims that 'Schenker has been treated like the musical Messiah he affected to be by many contemporary theorists, especially in the United States. Yet many European scholars are puzzled by what they perceive as the undue attention his writings have received by American theorists of the past thirty years' (p. 354). If the English can be included among the Europeans (admittedly, this is a very big 'if'), then White's earlier gibe at the English is in danger of undermining the force of his rhetoric. Commenting on Morley's description of the trochee as 'a measure which the learned call trochaicam rationem' - a statement which, according to White, may 'provide clues to typically English attitudes, even of today' - White detects 'a veiled contempt for the professional scholar . . . which is in keeping with the British celebration of the amateur artist and scholar' (pp. 154-5). As part of a series on music theory and criticism, we celebrants of amateurism have come to expect a little more critical depth. Fortunately, White's analytical engagement with Schenker is much more persuasive. He successfully undermines Schenker's analysis of the second song of Schumann's Dichterliebe, demonstrating that when heard in the context of the first two songs it begins in F sharp minor and not A major as Schenker's graph suggests (pp. 355-62).

Despite the rapid approach of the next millennium it is surely too soon to attempt a history of music theory and analysis as it relates to twentieth-century music, particularly since, as White often reminds us, 'the time lag for theoretical writings to catch up with actual musical practice is a recurring phenomenon in the history of music' (p. 228). It should be no surprise, then, that it is again the chapter on twentieth-century developments that is the most incomplete. Although the compositional techniques and writings of Messiaen and Xenakis are discussed, other composer - theorists are inexplicably omitted. I am perhaps being hopelessly European, but the inclusion of Robert Erickson in a chapter on twentieth-century music when Pierre Boulez does not even get a mention seems more than a little quirky (whatever one might think about Boulez's music). Other writers discussed include Allen Forte, Rudolph Reti (who 'has not received the attention he deserves'; p. 385), Lejaren A. Hiller and Leonard M. Isaacson (the inclusion of the last two is particularly difficult to understand).

Saffle's original doubts about the use of the word 'texture' become clear after one has put the book down. This is a good book on the history of music theory and analysis, but the discussion of texture tends to be, at best, rather oblique. Readers left with a yearning for knowledge of musical textures could do much worse than study David Huron's Voice Segregation in Selected Polyphonic Keyboard Music by J. S. Bach (unpublished dissertation, University of Nottingham, 1989). It is not a history of the subject, but it is a compelling study of one particular textural type.

On balance, White's book deserves to be widely read by all those interested in the history of music theory. It provides an excellent overview of the subject (as far as the twentieth century, at least). If the final product falls short of its author's intentions, this is largely because of the magnitude of the project undertaken and certainly not a reflection on the achievement represented by this book.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Borthwick, Alastair
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Previous Article:Percy Grainger and the revival of early English polyphony: the Anselm Hughes correspondence.
Next Article:Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |