• Chapter 1 •
Music is a work of human imagination. It is also invisible. Experienced through time, it must be allowed to take its time in order for it to be understood. It is protean, since its outlines can be recognized and repeated but it can never be exactly the same twice. That’s because no two performances of the same piece of music—given the myriad choices made at every moment in performing it—can be exactly the same; and you, the listener, are never the same, even when you replay a favorite recording. You are in “a different place,” as the common phrase goes, and that place has to do with time and experience.
We surely will never get to the bottom of why we make music, even if we look for similarities in other life forms, like the “songs” of whales and birds. But it is worth considering that music is a uniquely human creation, and its function does not make any sense in terms of Darwinian hypotheses of species survival and natural selection. We cannot derive food from it. We cannot protect our family with it. Perhaps its magnificence can be traced to its persistence in spite of its seemingly inexplicable uselessness.
Since we are considering a certain kind of music, we should define our terms.
What Is Western Music?
The term “Western music” refers to music that was first described by the foundational fathers of what has been called “Western culture”—the Greeks. This title should probably be banished, since it implies a fundamental boundary that was invented by scholars to differentiate Europe from Asia and Africa. “West of what?” might be a question we should ask. Indeed, many Greek texts would otherwise have been lost were it not for Arab translations and commentaries emanating from the medieval Islamic world. That said, I will continue to occasionally use the phrase to mean music that has developed from the Greek descriptions of a specific kind of music.
The Greeks organized music by modes (we call them scales today), and those modes were called by the names of their various indigenous tribes, including Dorians, Aeolians, and Lydians. Music in the Phrygian mode, for example, was believed to represent the characteristics of the Phrygian people who lived in the mountainous region in what is now western Turkey. They also believed that if you played music in the Phrygian mode, it would make you behave as if you actually were a Phrygian—i.e., unruly and passionate. Music controlled behavior through description and by creating an environment that transcended and transformed the tangible world around us.
For the Greeks music also governed the functioning of the cosmos—the physics of what we saw and felt, translated into what we heard. Indeed, they believed there is an ur-music we cannot perceive as humans, the exquisite cosmic music that Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–50 ad) said Moses heard when he received the tablets on Mount Sinai, and which St. Augustine believed was heard by us mortals only at the moment of our death. Our earthly music is a subset of the Music of the Spheres. This is the heart and soul of Western music and its language. Based on a concept of a home key (its mode or scale) and the perception that faster vibrations are literally higher (as in physically higher) than slower ones, the distance between notes in a melody signifies important emotional information that the populace intrinsically understands. This is the core of a descriptive language, simple in its basics and astonishingly varied in its application when creating new music.
The Romans carried the music of the Greeks throughout the world and found that the indigenous music of the peoples it subsumed into their empire could be enfolded into Greco-Roman music’s basic language. As the centuries passed, Western music—acquisitive, adaptive, omnivorous—continued to develop and embrace a world of gestures and colors, always founded on the laws of nature (the physics of a vibrating string or the air passing through a hollow tube) and the observations of the ancient Greeks. Pythagoras showed how mathematics (proportions and ratios) and music are intertwined, and how the movements of the stars and planets, as well as the notes that emanated from their panpipes and lyres, all behaved according to the same principles.
An octave, for example, can be achieved by shortening a vibrating string to half its length. The same thing happens when you cut hollow reeds and blow across the top. A reed that is half as long as another will sound an octave higher than the longer one. Nature and the cosmos itself were all music. The movement of the stars, it was said, produces harmony. For the founders of Greco-Roman civilization, music was included in what became known as the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and together with the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) comprised the seven liberal arts. Music also controlled the function of the human body. In other words, music was understood to describe and control just about everything inside and surrounding us. No wonder there are people who do not think of our species as Homo sapiens, wise hominids, but rather Homo narcissus. It is always about us.
With these unprecedented concepts—that music is the engine that operates the entire universe, from the atomic level to the celestial; that music has the capacity to describe the characteristics of people and places; and that it can transform our behavior—the Greeks established what is known as Western music. To honor them we use their word for it—mousiki. It is the word for this miraculous invention in English, Swahili, Arabic, Uzbek, Ukrainian, Russian, Danish, German, Basque, Latin, and all the Romance languages.
Western music is the foundational language of Bach, Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Verdi, Gershwin, the waltz, rock and roll, and jazz.
What Do We Mean by the Term “Classical Music”?
Musicologists have a fairly narrow definition of what constitutes classical music, but the general public does not. The term itself was not used until the early nineteenth century. Technically all music that predates 500 ad is called ancient music. What followed is early music, the first music in history that we can attempt to replicate by performing it using notational systems we can decipher. Thus, early music is the music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early baroque (up to about 1710).
When you consider that humans have inhabited the earth for some 200,000 years, we have a very small understanding of what our first music was, how it developed and what it sounded like. There are no images on a cave wall for music and just a few artifacts of what we think are instruments. The further we probe back in time toward the year 500 the more controversy there is as to what the written symbols representing music actually meant, assuming there are any. For many centuries music was passed on through repetition and imitation, not from reading notes on a page. How it developed and morphed during that time is therefore impossible to determine.
With the exception of music from the Catholic Church, most of this early music had simply disappeared from performance and had to be revived, if at all possible, through scholarship—much of which happened in the twentieth century. What the public considers classical music—as shall we—begins in the first decades of the eighteenth century, what historians call the high baroque era. They will refer to the next period (the music of Haydn and Mozart) as classical, followed by the Romantic era (Beethoven and Schubert in the early 1800s and stretching into the last years of the nineteenth century), which is followed by the modern era (itself often broken into categories like impressionism, expressionism, experimental, and the current postmodern era, which includes minimalism).
Eras do not start and stop on specific days or in specific years. The concept of classical music, as generally understood by the public, means the music we hear played in chamber-music concerts, opera houses, and symphony orchestras, and includes not only the music played on modern instruments but also on replicas of instruments that fell into disuse and had to be re-created for music from earlier eras, i.e., early music and certain baroque works. However, the classical music canon—the central repertory—begins when modern instruments are used to play music, even though instruments continued to be developed during subsequent centuries. You are as likely to hear Handel’s Messiah played by a contemporary baroque ensemble using replicas of old instruments as you are the London Symphony Orchestra playing on modern ones.
All art can be defined as the result of the human need to organize the chaos of sensory input through mimicry and symbolism. For sight, it is painting. For the olfactory, it is cuisine and perfumes. For hearing, it is music. Art endeavors to stop time (portraiture, sculpture). It attempts to learn/teach lessons from the past (drama, literature). It creates supersaturated solutions of words and thoughts in poetry. It coalesces ideas in philosophy and politics. And it is pleasurable.
Psychologists are divided on whether all pleasure is the same thing. Brain scans show that pleasure, no matter what the source, registers similarly, but different kinds of pleasurable input activate additional neural systems. These relate to memory, reasoning, and a sense of self. In that way, scientists believe, not all pleasure is the same.
Unlike music, paintings pose the challenge of making something inert—an object hanging on a wall—into something interactive. Like music, art is perceived through time, but your eye will determine how it journeys into the frame, and your brain’s pleasure centers will determine just how much real time you give to the work.
Attending a play will be pleasurable when you lose yourself in its nonreality (accepting an actor as being Julius Caesar) and the techniques of stagecraft—what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called in 1817 “the willing suspension of disbelief . . . or poetic faith.” It is not just willingness, mind you—humans seem to crave illusion and enjoy “pretend.” When a talking portrait of the long-dead wizard Albus Dumbledore says to a grown-up Harry Potter, “I am paint and memory,” the words might be summing up the arts in general. However, the paint does not always stick to every surface, and so it is with the arts, and music specifically.
But if drama is pretend, music is metaphor.
One of the basic elements of classical music is that it acts as a descriptive and narrative language of vibrations, organized by scales and harmonies that are chosen to act as symbolic of how we humans experience the universe around us.
Classical music takes the legacy of music that has emerged over the centuries—the dances, the songs, and the sounds we hear—and manipulates them into something bigger and more meaningful. The elements of classical music are derived from two sources: the twelve notes that divide up the octave and supply the source of its melodies, and the pulses that inform the melodies and support them in a series of accented and unaccented beats, usually repeating in patterns of twos, threes, and fours. These are the meters and the rhythms. And from these two simple ingredients gigantic edifices of time can be constructed. Some classical compositions are intimate, involving one or two performers, and some are quite short, like a song by Schubert. What these works share with the mighty operas of Wagner and the enormous symphonies of Mahler is the application of genius to make something inevitable and profound out of something so naively simple.
I firmly believe, and hope to explain, how classical music communicates through distillation and form a sense of proportion and order, all delivered through a series of metaphors for life experiences: emotional, spiritual, and reasonable. We musicians tell our stories through this extraordinary invisible medium. That makes it easier for you to relate to the story, because you, the listener, ultimately make it about yourself, and—this is the personal part—you get to finish the story. Delivering it to you, if you accept the gift, it becomes yours. It is not too much of a stretch, therefore, to say that the classical music you come to embrace ultimately becomes part of your autobiography.
• Chapter 2 •
The Heart of the Matter
Classical music—a subsection of “Western music,” which is a subsection of world music—has another unique component: at its heart it is demarcated by a fairly short chronological period, something less than 250 years. It is not that there wasn’t classical music before 1700, or that composers weren’t—and aren’t—writing it after 1940. What is odd is what the public has come to embrace, and therefore what it has rejected. During the sixty years I have been attending and performing classical music, the standard repertory—the works you are most likely to hear in a concert—has hardly changed.
These works constitute the core of the vast majority of concerts and operas given throughout the world, sometimes referred to as the “canon,” a word that appropriately comes from the Greek, meaning “rule.” Thus, in religious studies, the canon is a collection of sacred texts that are deemed to be genuine. In other words, this is the music you are going to hear whenever or wherever you attend a classical music performance.
Only one composer, the proto-cinematic Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), went from a marginal figure in the first half of the twentieth century to become part of the central symphonic repertory in the 1960s. Similarly, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), who was always being performed but was often dismissed as a lightweight composer of old-fashioned Russian Romanticism, is now accepted as a serious composer. To this, we can add one opera—Puccini’s last (and unfinished) Turandot, premiered in 1926, which is now a staple in operatic repertory due to the confluence of (1) the emergence of a great dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson, to sing the difficult title role with (2) the development of high-fidelity stereo recording techniques that made it a sonic blockbuster in the 1960s. While Turandot had never completely disappeared after its world premiere, it was hardly the central work it has become, additionally aided by the phenomenal popularity of its act-three aria “Nessun Dorma!” after Luciano Pavarotti sang it at the 1990 World Cup on global television. No other operas can claim this new centrality, even though the magnificent operas of Berg, Britten, and Janáček have appeared with a certain regularity in major opera houses during the past half century. Indeed, new operas are being produced with regularity and with success. It remains to be seen if any of the most recent works will have the staying power of the central works—and, indeed, if “staying power” is even a viable criterion.
There are, needless to say, passionate supporters of classical music on either “side” of what one might call its Golden Age, but all the proselytizing and arguments cannot seem to widen the embrace of the canonic works, also known as the standard repertory. This is not true of visual art, literature, dance, or theater, including musical theater. A new musical play like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 Hamilton can attract hundreds of thousands of people who will pay enormous sums of money to see it and simultaneously can garner such prestigious awards as the Pulitzer Prize.
Copyright © 2019 by John Mauceri. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.