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Book Review

Roots of the Classical

Roots of the Classical
Peter Van der Merwe
New York: Oxford University Press. xvii + 558 pp.
ISBN-10: 0199214743
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-921474-7
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Roots of the Classical by Peter Van der Merwe is in some ways a sequel to his successful Origins of the Popular Style, (also OUP, 1992, ISBN-10: 0198163053. ISBN-13: 978-0198163053). That book looked at the division in the nineteenth century between "classical" and "popular" musical traditions from a musical, rather than a sociological, angle. This latest book describes as "hushed up" those aspects of "classical" music which have their roots in dance, vernacular traditions, ballads and even children's songs – to name but a few of the many genres carefully and entertainingly examined and evaluated in the course of this very approachable and readable 500+ page study. A study that's nevertheless backed at every turn with footnoted references, an extensive bibliography, a comprehensive (15 page) glossary, a separate list of musical examples and an excellent and accurate index.

So it's a well-written, well-argued, well-illustrated and informative book. If you have misgivings, which might range from quizzical indifference to consolidated disgust for commercial "popular music" and/or recent attempts made by people who should know better to try and make out cases for the supposed validity of the form as music, you needn't worry. That isn't Van der Merwe's intention with Roots of the Classical. Rather, he maintains – rightly – that there is something to be gained from a more flexible approach to the boundaries which have always existed between the two disciplines of musicology and ethnomusicology, as they developed – again in the nineteenth century. The former sought to explore "classical" music and the latter to ignore it. Hence the "hushed up" tag. Each discipline stands to gain by listening to the way the other discipline thinks, rather than by re-inforcing a potentially spurious and harmful sense of identity which in the case of the latter "aspires to be a science" [p.2] and in the case of the former "seems more like a form of religious devotion" [p.2].

Nor is it Van der Merwe's intention to flatten the distinction between music designed chiefly for entertainment or lucre, and "high art". Moreover, Van der Merwe is explicit: "Nothing could be further from my intention than to 'debunk' the great masters." Just that "I have come to the conclusion that they have been misunderstood. Their task was not to invent patterns, but to elaborate and combine them…" [p.4]. And such "patterns" are the pre-existing components which have grown and changed outside mainstream "classical" music. This is the key point: independent development.

Van der Merwe is advocating a fresh approach to "classical" music which throws off the "homage" aspect; which engages with the score without treating it as a sacred document, "approached in a spirit of exegetical piety" [p.2]; and which recognizes the complexities bearing on the art form. "Classical" music could not exist, or would be very different, if it had not drawn upon a huge array of valid forms of human expression outside itself. He is also advancing a reasoned, albeit somewhat unorthodox, point of view which implicitly accepts that sources and currents outside this "temple" have legitimately and profoundly influenced developments particularly in music's melodic and harmonic aspects (though also in counterpoint). Significantly, Roots of the Classical successfully rehearses and evaluates with multiple carefully-annotated examples the ways the ways and processes in which this fertilization has happened.

In elaborating such theories, the author is also aware that there are anomalies in the way music works: for all its complexity, music is (apart, perhaps from dance) the most instinctive of the arts. This is a paradox. And one which may account for music's unique receptiveness to, and ultimately dependence on, popular influences. Such an argument is set in the context of an art form whose ebbs and flows, reactions and counter-reactions are always stark… the interplay between simplicity and artifice, between masses of sound and spare texture, even between predominantly vocal, predominantly instrumental and cheerfully mixed forms.

Roots of the Classical is divided into three parts: "The Melodic Foundations", "The Harmonic Revolution" and "The Melodic Counter-Revolution". One of the functions of the chapters in each of these parts is to describe what Van der Merwe sees as fundamental "laws" of music, below which it cannot be further reduced and beyond which it ceases to be what it is. A second is to describe the process by which sources and material outside "classical" music as we generally understand it continuously have found their way inside it. And all this is done without ever the slightest hint at ostentation or learning worn other than lightly and modestly – despite the author's many and wide-ranging examples.

In some ways Van der Merwe simplifies music by suggesting or indicating those ways in which "classical" music uses actually very basic constructions as a result of the sources on which it draws. This is refreshing. He reaches such conclusions in the context of an outline history of the way tonality developed between the 15th and 18th centuries. Then the period from the birth of Beethoven through to the tremendous changes at the turn of the 20th century, the author examines Western music as a whole, inclusive of folk music, "classical" music, popular and dance music etc. His contention – largely sustainable, certainly on the evidence of the multiple carefully-marshaled musical examples presented – is that the same kinds of musical concerns and solutions can be detected in all these types of music. In particular that the folk music of the eastern "fringe" of Europe significantly influenced the musical life of Vienna in those years. Not least because of the city's geographical location as a crossroads, and because so many composers were drawn there.

Such a thesis would be trite or inconsequential, purposeless, or too familiar or insipid for interest, were it not backed up and closely argued as well as it is in Roots of the Classical. On the other hand Van der Merwe does not overstate his case; nor remake it a hundred times in different ways; the arguments which he offers move on and always present something new and different. What's more, however thorough and carefully-researched and presented are Van der Merwe's arguments, they're shot through with a lightness of touch, a detachment and a sprinkling of humor. Those he quotes often wryly or obliquely to help make a point include Kingsley Amis, Noel Coward and Stephen Potter!

So, Yes, there is populism in this book's veins. Jazz and Blues are dealt with. But the substance is as non-judgmental as is needed to encourage a non-specialist or staunch advocate of the values of serious art music to want to keep reading. After all, if such influences are valid components of "classical", then why not acknowledge and know about them? Granted, perhaps "roots" is overstatement. Although a plant can have multiple roots. So here is a lively, scholarly and ultimately very valuable contribution to music history. By reining in and ordering such an extensive set of contributions to our music, Van der Merwe only makes it more resilient. Recommended for music historians, general music lovers and those looking for a new angle on how and why melody and harmony have developed as they have.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey.