Chapter 5 -- The Origins of Western...
Transcript of Chapter 5 -- The Origins of Western...
Chapter 5 -- The Origins of WesternMusic
As we saw a little earlier, trying to find the origins of something that began long ago when there were no witnesses around (or at least any witnesses able to document the story) is a challenging task.
One must examine clues or leftover evidence very carefully and be prepared to raise more questions than one answers.
The history of Western music—fortunately—is a little kinder to historians. We only needto dig back about 1500 years.
Illustration 1: Manuscript page on vellum; the introit"Eduxit eos" for the Friday following Easter; copiedby hand and large enough for at least a dozen singers
to read from
But, seeing as the essay on the origins of music noted that music, art, and speech/literature are often closely linked together, how is that this seems to contradict that scenario? And, doesn't this also contradict the assertion that where there are humans there is music?
History is a study of a series of events that are either repeating patterns in a series or onetime occurrences. An important part of understanding history is being able to look at events and distinguish between them.
When we talk about Western thought, we are referring to something that may begin as early as the 10th century BC.
For that, we can thank Classical Greece.
Our philosophy, our window of looking on things, our system of trying to understand and explain the universe around us is drastically different from other thought systems, especially Eastern cultures. Its roots run deep into Classical Greece.
Study art history and you will study the proportions of the architecture, sculpture, and paintings of Classical Greece (and if you study state of the art digital photography, you will be learning some of the same principles). Study a history of drama and you will study the works of Aeschylus, Euripedes, and Sophocles among others. Study philosophy and you will study Plato and Socrates. Study political history, and you will quickly find that the word “democracy” is of Greek origin.
This is where our own era (and numerous earlier movements in art and music) found inspiration in balance and proportion and in logical structure.
So then, why do we not study Classical Greek music as the foundation of Western music? Eastern music can trace its traditions well past 1000 BC.
There is a simple answer in this case—there was nothing to study.
Of the patterns vs. singularities of historical events, this one represents a singularity. Unfortunately, it illustrates how a breakdown in our information storage system can have catastrophic consequences.
The reason that a study of Western music begins in the Medieval Era ca 500 C.E. is that the music from Classical Greece was destroyed.
From contemporary writings that survived, we know that there was a great deal of it and that it must have been quite remarkable. There were a number of modesi of music that had different characters. Plato believed that men must listen to a balance of them; too much of one, and the young men may grow up too aggressive and warlike; too much of another and the men may grow up passive and effeminate.
Following the collapse of the Ancient Greek civilization, the music manuscripts made their way to the library at Alexandria, Egypt. Along with the music, many other writings were stored, including much fairly advanced writings of astronomy, science, mathematics. We know of a mechanical genius by the name of Hero who lived in Alexandria in the first century C.E. who built machines using advanced principles of hydraulics, physics, magnetism, etc.
In the early centuries C.E., the library was ransacked numerous times by invaders, including Moslem and Christian armies. Some of these priceless manuscripts were burned to heat the water in the public baths.
Eventually almost everything including the library was destroyed. In a recent article in Wired magazine, a writer stated it as basically the destruction of all recorded information.
That's not much of an exaggeration.
There were a few manuscripts that survived: copies of these had been taken to various parts of Europe, but the sum total of the music that survives from Classical Greece (as well as the sole fragment from Imperial Rome) fits onto one CD. Even more problematicis that information on how to tune the instruments and perform the music was also lost. One ensemble that recorded this sadly admits that what they are doing is only an educated guess as to how the music would sound.
One can look at this and say, “So, the music was destroyed—while it's an important part of society, it probably doesn't represent anything catastrophic. The lack of music wouldn't cause a collapse of society.”
This is where music serves as a barometer of larger trends. Unfortunately, pretty much everything else was gone; the culture, the science, the math, the philosophy also took giant steps backwards. When there is nothing left to read (and simple survival became sodifficult that anything beyond that had to take a back seat), there is no need for literacy.When literacy collapses, the legal system, the system of governance, the system of storing scientific information also collapses. Generations are doomed to (figuratively) reinvent the wheel for themselves. In an earlier essay, we looked at a Beethoven symphony as being the highest rung on a very high ladder.
Without a system of learning, of storing information and being able to reference it, of being able to build on knowledge and discoveries made by previous generations, Europebecame doomed to reach only the bottom rungs of the ladder.
Following the collapse of the Roman empire and the culture and government it brought with it, Europe was plunged into what is aptly described as the Dark Ages.
Music in Europeii began to reassemble itself by the 7th century courtesy of the most powerful central authority at the time: the Roman Catholic Church.
Our music, more or less, had to start from scratch. But then. . . if it had to start from scratch, wouldn't it have been like the first music ever created by humans?
More on that later, but if you're impatient, ask one of Arthur's knights by the name of Percival.
Illustration 2: Again, Eduxit eos from "Liber Usualis", a very thick modernbook containing the entire set of music for the Roman Catholic Masses,
i Modes are similar to scales (the major scale is equivalent to the Ionian mode, the minor equivalent to the Aeolian mode), but there were more of them. It's important to note that the Medieval modes were related to the Greek modes in name only—it was a feeble attempt to have some kind of historical roots in Medieval music.
ii While this text clearly devotes itself to Western culture, we need to keep in mind that cultures in therest of the world suffered no such catastrophe and continued on an uninterrupted path. Neither did they evolve things like Stradivari violins, orchestras, or symphonies.
Material copyright 2016 by Gary Daum, all rights reserved. All photos and illustrations by Gary Daum unless otherwisenoted. Unlimited use granted to current members of the Georgetown Prep community.