Book review: A Concise History of Western Music by Paul Griffiths

A Concise History of Western Music by Paul Griffiths (Cambridge University Press, 2006). 348 pages including glossary, suggested further reading and listening, index.

With this book one of new music’s most prolific commentators has expanded his remit to include all Western music since, literally, the dawn of time. It is a powerful manifesto for music’s central and enduring humanism, written at a time when concert music of all periods (despite some evidence to the contrary) is under apparently continual condemnation as an irrelevant and outmoded corner of contemporary culture. Griffiths could not disagree more with this assessment, and this book — accessible to readers of all levels of fore-knowledge — is a convincing exposition of 1,001 reasons why this should be so. Nowhere, in fact, is Griffiths’s advocacy for classical music more striking than in describing the music everyone loves to hate, integral serialism: “Every instant involved a dialogue between determination (following the highly elaborated serial plan) and choice. … The work that most thoroughly conveys the desperation of a locked but feeling consciousness is Barraqué’s forty-minute, single movement Piano Sonata.” (p.276)

Present on every page is evidence of Griffiths’s skill for crystallising the impact on music’s development of external social and political change. One remarkable instance of this occurs as he introduces his readers to the Baroque:

… a period when time itself was becoming more cognisable. The pendulum clock — proposed by Galileo in 1641 and fully realized in 1657 thanks to the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens — gave people a measure of time accurate to within a few seconds in the day. Time was now as absolute and knowable as space. And it was to this absolute, knowable time — this clockwork time — that the music of the next century and more fixed itself. The great age of clock-making, up to the last of John Harrison’s marine chronometers (1770), was also the era of music that proceeded through time with a mechanical elegance and constancy, and yet that found — in these same phenomena of harmony and rhythm that made continuous flow possible — the means for expressing anew divine grandeur and human joy and poignancy. (pp.96–7)

Although such a habit for grand conclusions might lessen the strict academic credentials of the book, it ensures it packs a narrative punch as great as any history of its type. And this is not a book for academics (although many students might benefit from some of its enthusiasm), as a peculiar glossary that includes everything from ‘ricercare’ to ‘volume’ might indicate.

As the paragraph above might suggest, the central theme of Griffiths’s history is of music as “sound and shaped time” (p.1). Each musical period is revealed through its newly developed approaches to the handling of time — Time Measured, Time Known, Time Tangled, etc. This gives the book an angle that is novel and coherent, and its readers an attractive, lifelike map by which to navigate unfamiliar territory.

One of Griffiths’s favoured devices is to emphasise the present-ness of so much early music — “With the exception of chant, Western music before around 1550 was engulfed by time to lie unheard until the twentieth century, n many cases until the very late twentieth century. To that extent, all older music is new.” (p.68) The outcome of Griffiths’s historical switchbacks is a Pärt-ish postmodernism in which the new and the early have equal currency and, as Pärt found, this proves a rich perspective on both the modern and the early. For Griffiths, however, it comes with a corresponding drop in narrative momentum carrying us through the intervening centuries.

I can’t pretend to be fully qualified to critique Griffiths’s history before 1900, but his writing is compelling enough to require one urgently to hear again each new work he introduces. In the history of 20th century music, with which I am most familiar, there are, however, some curious gaps. On the whole, Griffiths is assiduous at introducing every major composer and work, enfolding them all with ease into the story he wants to tell; it is strange therefore to note some of the notable omissions from Griffiths’s own speciality area — these include Wolfgang Rihm, Henryk Górecki, Tristan Murail (although spectralism is covered), Louis Andriessen and all of Cage’s circle including, most surprisingly of all, Morton Feldman.

Although most major movements since the war are mentioned, it is a feature of Griffiths’s narrative that minimalism is granted only a minor role, interacting with other movements in the 1960s, but then all but departing the stage. This oversight is striking because, in terms of its wider cultural impact, to say nothing of the continuing vitality of form and expression composers draw from it, minimalism in one variety or another must be the most significant of all modes of concert music being composed today. The following summary paragraph towards the end of the book illustrates Griffiths’s position:

In the confusion that has certainly not abated since 1975, composition has seen no startling innovation other than the absence of innovation. Many composers have ably and imaginatively continued with the language of modernism as it existed in the works Stravinsky, Messiaen, Carter, Babbitt, Nono, Boulez, Barraqué and Stockhausen produced in the 1950s and 1960s. Others, however, have revived earlier languages, such as those of English music in the early twentieth century or Russian in the late nineteenth. Still others have crisscrossed the labyrinthine past. All that must be asked, wherever they go, is that they find something hitherto unheard. (p.301)

The first sentence of this revealing paragraph may be more or less true, but what follows shows how we must understand its truth. In ultimately failing to detach his narrative from a single (albeit two-way) historical line in which composers must look to either the future or the past, Griffiths sidelines such movements as minimalism, improv, experimentalism, electronica and their many interrelated offshoots that have their origins in the 1960s but have been pursued with tremendous effect through to the present day by composers who care little for looking at history either forward or back. This is not a fatal problem. Griffiths’s book is one good story but, as he himself would no doubt wish to stress, it is ultimately only one among many.

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