Category Archives: History

16th century composers and individuality

I recently had a conversation with a very important scholar regarding the compositions of 16th century composers.

She was working towards new ways of categorizing and identifying 16th century composers. Previously, compositions were published primarily anonymously and in anthologies. With the invention of the printing press, so she claimed, composers began to publish works individually. And she claimed that each composer had a distinct style which could be easily identifiable, at least, by her.

I asked if the composers themselves described the distinct styles of one another. She said “only vaguely.” As in, composers during this time don’t really seem all that interested in naming their styles in contrast to others. This makes me think that individual expression is absolutely not apart of their world. It is apart of ours and we are forcing it upon theirs.

So, based on the readings of my other encounters with the composers of this time, I wondered whether this kind of analysis “defining distinct styles of expression” was a-historical. I didn’t want to push the issue, as the context hardly seemed to call for it.

Encounters like these convince me all the more that I need to do a doctorate in musicology to write a “history of expression in music.”

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Ethical Music and Change

“Plato’s concern that changes in musical conventions threaten anarchy in society has been voiced repeatedly by those who resist change, and it echoes today among those lamenting current tastes in popular music” – A History of Western Music (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca)

So I sold my music history text book in my third year of undergrad; I needed some extra dough. But recently I’ve been wanting an intro text to music history to get some bearings on what the current understanding of the musical canon in history is. So I picked up a used text book for a very fine price. I’m loving it for both it’s simplicity and clarity as well as showing me where I can investigate further details that the text doesn’t have room for.

One interesting fact: “The earliest composer known to us by name is Enheduanna (fl. ca. 2300 B.C.E), an Akkadian high priestess at Ur, who composed hymns (songs to a god) to the moon god Nanna and moon goddess Inanna; their texts, but not their music, survive on cuneifrom tablets.” So that’s awesome. The first composer that we know by name is a woman. Pretty cool.

Back to the first quote. It’s false. The claim that certain kinds of music affect one’s character has indeed been used by many thinkers. However, the authors in the text imply that it is inherently a conservative claim. Luther, and later Mattheson, argued that if music had the power to move people in secular situations, the church should have no reservations in bringing that same music, albeit with different texts, into the liturgical worship of the church. Here, Luther and Mattheson are pushing for change not resisting it, as the textbook claims. Furthermore, there is an implicit suggestion that character and music have absolutely no correlation, which further implies that the culture and situation where the music itself arises is irrelevant. And this is simply not the case.

Textbooks try to be as clear cut as possible so that the reader can nuance their ideas in their later studies. Perhaps this is okay. But I don’t think it’s okay to present an idea as fact if it is opinion.