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Book Review

Source Readings in Music History

Source Readings in Music History
W. Oliver Strunk, Leo Treitler (Editors)
W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. ISBN: 0393037525
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This is a classic source and reference book. Every serious music lover who is interested more than empirically in merely the sound of music will benefit from having it to hand. Source Readings in Music History is an annotated, representative selection of writings on music from Ancient Greece to the twentieth century. For its comprehensiveness, careful choice and sensitive contextualising of material it makes both an excellent source book, and a resource pointing to and suggesting directions for further exploration.

Originally published in 1950 (when edited by Strunk), it was revised and expanded into seven separate volumes for seven historical eras by seven period specialists under the general editorship of Leo Treitler. These were gathered into one massive (1550-paged hardback) volume almost ten years ago with the addition of a fair amount of material perviously not included. It is the most recent revision of this superb resource that is here under consideration; note that the seven separate volumes are still also available in paperback. Its contents are rich, apposite, well-chosen and expertly presented and annotated; it can be thoroughly recommended to all Classical Net readers and music lovers with more than a passing interest in the development of western classical music as it is revealed in the always illuminating writings of its practitioners and performers, composers, commentators, observers and theorists.

Of course scholarship advances; perspectives shift; but – short of living next to a specialist music library – it'd be hard to find easier access to the mass of carefully-selected and perfectly-contextualised source material for western music than is readily available in this book. The division into those seven historical periods in this one big volume corresponds to about 7% of the book's substance being devoted to Greek views of music, under the general editorship of Thomas Mathieson; 11% to the early Christian and 'Latin Middle Ages' (James McKinnon); 15% to the Renaissance (Gary Tomlinson); 15% to The Baroque (Margaret Murata); 20% to the late Eighteenth Century (Wye Allanbrook); 15% to The Nineteenth Century (Ruth Solie) and 16% to the Twentieth Century (Robert Morgan). Given the greater preponderance of written materials ('sources') nearer to our own time, this is a remarkably fair and welcome division. It's also encouraging that there is more writing by those who actually know about music, than those who ought to know and/or who are assumed to know about it. That is, Source Readings in Music History is highly practical in that it concentrates on how music has actually worked over the centuries, how it has developed and how been influenced by, and influenced, its societies.

There are further divisions within each section – usually half a dozen or more major areas of concern and development. These are not reflections of what happens to be available to the editor; they are texts which indicate and typify the most telling, prominent or downright important historical and developmental superstructures – either because such currents endured and informed later musical thinking, composition and performance; or because they were restricted to their time and left little or no other trace. It is on this basis (representativeness) the the most suitable sources have been found and edited. This is important: Source Readings in Music History is not a 'reader'. It could indeed be dipped in and out of; but the editors of each earlier volume – and now Leo Treitler – had a wider purpose. As Strunk emphatically constrained his inclusion of texts to 'historical documents as such, excluding the writing of present day historians' [Foreword, first edition], so Treitler recognizes that the meta-knowledge which characterizes contemporary (musical) historical thinking has to inform how we discern all previous trends. But let those earlier writers speak for themselves. Specifically, how we can see certain developments were musical dead-ends and how we can now identify as strong branches what at the time may have appeared only promising shoots. Some – like Schumann's and Liszt's views on criticism in the 'Music Criticism' sub-section, or chapter, of the Nineteenth Century volume (now section) are timeless despite their specificity; and that's what we remember. Hence the trust we rightly place into the way each section is subdivided and what is included – and what is not.

So, for example, in the original Twentieth Century book, the following subdivisions render consideration of music of our time more accessible and better organized: 'Esthetic positions', 'Expanded sonic resources', 'Compositional approaches', 'Music, society. politics', 'Extending western music's boundaries', 'Concert life, reception, and the culture industry' and 'Pluralism'. Each of these broad areas for consideration (analogously, those pertaining to the Baroque under Murata's editorship, for example, consider the role of Ancient and Modern in the seventeenth century, the Profession, Performance principles, Imitation and expression) usually contains half a dozen or so apposite and authoritative, representative (or indeed eminent or noteworthy by virtue of their contrariness!) tracts, essays, manuscripts, manifestos, diary entries, treatises, letters, instructional materials, books, observations, accounts, polemics or other form of commentary.

Each of the seven sections begins with a superb, trenchant essay by the particular editor. These would be good places to start. They do much more than set the scene and provide a solid and well-lit background against which to work your way through the individual sources. The texts themselves are from a couple to a dozen or more pages in length; some have musical notation, diagrams or other schematics; they are serious, upbeat, technical, humorous, wry, proselytizing, analytic, cautious, optimistic, pessimistic, broad, focused. In short, the writings are in almost every tone and with almost every imaginable purpose. But all are illuminating. Each has a usually short and pithy introductory paragraph or two by the editor setting the scene and/or supplying background and pointing up the relevance to the wider picture and to other contributions in the (sub)section.

There are sources from outside music itself, such as Castiglione's celebrated Il Libro del corteggiano, usually translated into English as The Courtier, which describes aspects of the importance of music in the Renaissance (Italian city state) court. You'll find Barthes, Frederick Douglass and Rousseau, Diderot, George Eliot, E.T.A. Hoffman, Jean Cocteau and even Joseph Goebbels as well as the more likely Adorno, Burney and Cage. There are infamous points of view, which nevertheless provide telling insights into what was thought at that time – by some: "To describe the present age in music as one of pastiche… is a generalization with a strong basis in fact" (Lambert, Music Ho!). And Edmund Gurney's view that music – while neither referential nor representational – is concerned with the emotions seems to sum up a very Victorian desire to have your cake and eat it. Good examples of the kind of sources which Source Readings in Music History uses to explain and pick apart trends and currents of opinion in the most helpful way.

Some of these texts are from otherwise obscure authorities – and one wishes there were room for more of what they have to say… the inclusion of Joseph Riepel, whose The Fundamentals of Musical Composition (1752) was more influential (on Koch especially) than eloquent. But as one in the same tradition of Fux (who is not represented) and Kirnberger (who is) his ideas and theories are an interesting precedent to study. Similarly the writings of Berlioz. More prioritizing and ranking of what's important again – in this case the emergence of melody towards the close of the eighteenth century as a concern in its own right. One could go on and pick parallel examples of the way in which sources have been chosen and presented to illustrate the progress music (and our understanding of music) have progressed over 2,500 years.

The index is good, the footnotes invaluable and the layout exemplary. If you want a single volume source-book to use as reference and narrative, this is as good as it gets. By definition no such selection can ever be even close to exhaustive. What recommends such an enterprise is the expertise of the editors in terms of selection, representativeness and contextualization. Source Readings in Music History is the best of its kind and is thoroughly recommended.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Sealey.