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Book Review

The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory

Cambridge History of Western Music Theory by Christensen
Thomas Christensen (Editor)
Cambridge University Press 2002 ISBN: 0521623715
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The dust jacket claims that The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory is the first comprehensive history of Western music theory to be published in English. Even if it isn't (it seems likely to be so), this thousand page book is certainly comprehensive, current and authoritative. The editor's aim has been to provide as full and well-organized a single volume tackling all (major) issues of music theory from the Greeks to the present. He has succeeded. In 31 well-indexed and clearly-annotated chapters, each with its own bibliography, different experts in each field examine the key issues within either a restricted time period (diachronic), along thematic lines across epochs (synchronic), or both. Although not an encyclopedia, the breadth of The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory is encyclopedic and the book's essays may be consulted for answers, perspectives and elucidation on such priorities as notation, temperament, harmonics, acoustics, scale and mode theory, tonality, counterpoint, rhythm and rhetoric as well as read as a straight narrative. It's important to note, though, that the book is more of a resource for students and scholars than a source in its own right. To that end, authors have kept their examples to a minimum and discursiveness has been discouraged. This is not to the book's detriment: cross-referencing has been handled particularly well with the result that the book has more the feel of a treasury than a series of papers.

The book is divided into four overarching parts, 'Disciplining Music Theory' (just under 10% of the book's substance); 'Speculative Traditions' (just under 25%); 'Regulative Traditions' (over 50%) and 'Descriptive Traditions' (15%). Naturally, there is greater emphasis on periods (and themes) when change was greatest. Sensibly enough, the consummate introduction by Christensen sets out some ground rules. He suggests that music Theory first began as a series of answers to the question Why, while the issues and study of Practice revolve around What is made of that theory. Music theory is far from a rarified discipline irrelevant to the average music lover. Rather, if understood and aided by the likes of this book, it can specifically explain music from more angles than any other aspect of musical experience. Moving from Aristotelian metaphysics, Christensen insists early on that "…music theory is not concerned with formal or efficient causes (how a piece of music is composed or performed). Instead theory is to concern itself with the basic ontological questions: what is the essential nature of music?" (Emphasis added.)

The bugbear of music theorists, and one with which nearly all the contributors to this book (must) wrestle in one way or another, is this: music itself has changed so much that those aspects of theories used to describe, analyze and explain it which are pertinent, say, in the seventeenth century (tuning, for example) may well not be of comparably major concern in the twenty-first; similarly acoustics was of greater interest and more of an issue, worthy of more exposition, in the first half of the twentieth century than during the fifteenth. As a result of this non-linearity in what constitutes valid material in any one age's theoretical corpus, Christensen commends the work of Carl Dahlhaus who proposed a flexible network of meanings for music theory. These include distinct traditions, 'speculative', 'regulatory' and 'analytic'. Indeed it is this tripartite division of Dahlhaus which is followed in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory as it aims – in scholarly fashion – to offer a reading (or rather, a series of readings) which are both comprehensive and intellectually rigorous, and necessarily sympathetic to the general music enthusiast.

Musical theory in the middle ages built on Boethius' and Guido d'Arezzo's trenchant structures, managed the passage from purely vocal to instrumental music and – by the time of Renaissance (with its preoccupation with tuning) – acknowledged the establishment of a close relationship between theory and practice, which has never been lost. By the eighteenth century the theories of Forkel established another new strand, which is still pre-eminent, music criticism as a discipline in its own right. It seems the tenet of the authors contributing to The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, though, that analysis of such elusive aspects as the 'inner character' of a musical work were always implicit in music theory. It took the Enlightenment (and, provocatively, science perhaps?) to render them explicit. Against the nineteenth century's pedagogical preoccupations based on 'the work' in and of itself, the great theorists of the twentieth century (as rich a period as any for five hundred years) reacted and developed the last major trend identified by Christensen and his authors here, the greater professionalization of music theory and musicologists.

The first chapter proper is devoted to Mapping the Terrain; this sets out, really, what to expect in the rest of the book, and why. Other chapters in this first section cover music theory as pedagogy and epistemologies of music theory, where performance (as the act which brings music to life) is emphasized. Significantly they also work with the meta-narrative already referred to which attempts to define why and how (and when) music theory has changed over time. This may be the most abstract portion of the book but it will pay even the general reader to come to grips with its conclusions – or at least with its questions!

Part II ('Speculative Traditions') concentrates on those developments from original Greek musical ontology which so heavily influenced music making and composition in the (early) middle ages. Speculative, too, in the sense that music mirrors society and contemporary thought. Bower's essay, 'The transmission of ancient music theory into the middle ages' [pp 136 – 167], is of particular importance in this section and should not be skipped. The contribution of the Scientific Revolution, covered in Penelope Gouk's chapter, is likely to be familiar and makes particularly interesting reading.

Part III – by far the weightiest – deals with the tradition of 'Regulative' theory, particular attention being given to questions of tonality. Note that this brings up again the issue alluded to earlier: if the very nature of music changes as it does and modal, scale and tonal developments occur, how can we expect to formulate satisfactory theories to describe their underlying principles? Answers to this major issue are correspondingly well provided by a selection of authors in this part of the book. They examine, digest and ultimately synthesize a multiplicity of complex threads very well. Section IIIB offers five case studies from organum to serialism. They too clarify – as does the material on tonality (with all its 'baggage' and rhetoric) covered in IIID. Analogously (though less fraught) musical time is considered in Section IIIC.

The final Part might seem at first the most relevant to Classical Net readers; it deals with 'Analytics': how does the essence, the structure of music determine our reception (and perhaps our liking) of it? This includes the psychology of music and there is a very readable and comprehensive essay by Gjerdingen [pp 956 – 981] on that subject, which alone will bring the reader up to date with the most important current theories in this area. But – in that even this area cannot be understood without a grip on the tension between theory and practice – it cannot be read in isolation.

Indeed this is a book into which you could dip. You could certainly concentrate on the areas that interest you most; even the essays based in the periods of musical of which you are fondest, or with which you want to become more familiar. But there is an explicit theoretical narrative, albeit a rich and inclusive one, underpinning the architecture of the book as a whole. It'd thus be as well to respect that and work through the book consistently.

This is not a book of music theory per se. Rather, it covers – in splendid detail – how music theory has developed; what the major issues are, and how they have been posited; how orthodoxies have arisen, held sway and then declined in acceptance; how thinkers, philosophers, musicians, composers and performers from the Greeks to the twenty-first century have used, contributed to and brought music alive in practice as a result of familiarity with theories; the role of psychology; key figures like Rameau, Schenker, Fux, Schoenberg to Babbitt; thematics; mathematics and music etc. There isn't an area relevant to the composition and execution of western art music that isn't covered in appropriate detail and with ample, well-presented illustrations, graphs, tables, extracts, engravings and diagrams. And the book does have a 'message'; well… several: firstly that questions are more important than answers. Then that musical theory has an intricate, changing and perhaps ultimately elusive relationship with musical practice. If it answers any one question – or, better, frames any one conundrum, The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory leads the reader through the complex issues exposed by Johann Kessel (1766 – 1823), who wrote, "Since music itself is always changing and will continue to change, so must from time to time new theories of composition be developed that can explain and justify these new changes… Whoever wishes to penetrate the spirit of an entire nation and an age or the history of mankind [sic] should perhaps give attention to musical artworks and their theories in order to gain deeper understanding…" It's a small step from there to the many reasons, perhaps, why we find ourselves involved in music at all.

If you approach this book with a view to obtaining (or deepening) such an understanding as one of your goals, you will not be disappointed. Thoroughly recommended.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Sealey.