Historical Music Study

By Herbert Antcliffe

You have doubtless, at one time or another, studied the history of music. Perhaps it is a subject in which all your life you have taken a keen interest. You can give the dates of the birth and death of famous composers and executants, and speak with ease and certainty of the great events which have happened in the world of music. You know all about the evolution of the orchestra and the development of musical form. You have no difficulty in tracing the progress of harmony from the crudest organum to the most complex methods of modern composers. You can tell by internal evidence the date of almost any composition set before you. If you have acquired all this, you have a grasp of one side of the history of music. But almost certainly you have missed the most important aspect of such history.

What do you think Bach considered the most important thing; to write music that should be sung at great festivals in the twentieth century or to supply what was required in his own day at Leipzig? Was Handel thinking of posterity when he threatened to throw the prima donna out of the window if she did not sing what he had written; or was he thinking of himself and those who had to listen to her? When Haydn and Mozart wrote for orchestras of various sizes and unusual combinations, were they providing interesting exercises in score reading for students yet to come, or pieces suitable to the bands with which they were associated?

The Right Aspect

The answers to all these questions put is in the right way for seeing historical music study in its right aspect. All these great men, who scarcely knew their own greatness, provided for themselves and their own generations, for the people with whom they had to do. That their work is of the greatest interest a couple of centuries later is almost an accident. They considered their own music in relation to the life of their own days. And we ought to do the same. True historical study is the study of conditions, not of dates and facts, though these help us to grasp them.

Consider this, for instance. There is known to have been in existence early in the thirteenth century a remarkable pieces of music. Sumer is i-cumen in, which is in the form of a Rota or Round. It is quite unique and is a puzzle to all historians, because it came a century before any other piece with which we can compare it. Consequently it is at present of no historical value, and unless and until other pieces of a similar type and the same period are discovered it will remain so. did it shed any light upon the conditions existing at the time it would rise in historical importance according to the assistance it would give in studying the period. As it is its value is that of a rare and agreeable curiosity.

We are often told that music is the most democratic of all the arts; yet we spend most of our time paying homage to its kings, instead of learning to know their kingdoms. The invention of the clarinet in the last decade of the seventeenth century was of far greater importance than the composition of Purcell’s music which was taking place at the same time. It has vitally affected millions who have never heard a note of Purcell’s music and have scarcely heard his name. Yet the period is mentioned more often as that of the compositions than of the invention. Haydn’s arrangement of various Croatian melodies to form the Austrian national anthem arose from certain conditions and gave rise to or strengthened others. Yet much more attention is paid to the dates and facts connected with his oratorio, The Creation, than to those connected with this hymn.

What Makes a Masterpiece Great?

If we try to look at our own day in the same light we shall find things much the same. How often do we acclaim a great modern work without considering what it is that has made the work possible as well as what has made it great? We think of this as the period of Debussy, Elgar, Strauss, Sibelius, or others whose names occur readily to our minds. Much more important than any or all these composers is the fact that it is the period of renewed interest in the orchestra and of wonderful strides in choral singing, that it is the day of club singing and competition festivals and of vastly improved military and brass bands and of the decline of spontaneous and unsophisticated music. These things affect intimately the whole life of the people; the work of a few composers, even of the greatest composers, affects that life only little and indirectly.

Let the reader not misunderstand, however. The intention is far from disparaging the study of the history of great musicians and their great compositions. Especially for those of us who are active musicians it is important we should make this study. But let us add to it a fuller appreciation of their significance by realizing how they found the world, not only the world of music but the world of people, and how they left it. When Palestrina was born and died and by whom he was commissioned to write his great Masses are important facts. Still more important is it to know the general conditions that made them desirable and those which them practicable. From these we can learn a lesson of self control as well as one of artistic development. “The proper study of mankind is Man”, and if the study of music is not part of the study of man it is useless and an encumbrance.