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Language of the Spirit
An Introduction to Classical Music
By Jan Swafford
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For many of us, classical music is something serious — something we study in school, something played by cultivated musicians at fancy gatherings. In Language of the Spirit, renowned music scholar Jan Swafford argues that we have it all wrong: classical music has something for everyone and is accessible to all. Ranging from Gregorian chant to Handel’s Messiah, from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to the postmodern work of Philip Glass, Swafford is an affable and expert guide to the genre. He traces the history of Western music, introduces readers to the most important composers and compositions, and explains the underlying structure and logic of their music.
Language of the Spirit is essential reading for anyone who has ever wished to know more about this sublime art.
This book proposes to do a number of things at once. It is an introduction to what we call classical music and its major figures, forces, and periods. It is intended to be a stimulus toward a better understanding of the music and the people who write and play it; a basic reference for facts and trends; a compendium of small biographies of important composers; and an examination of the presence of universal qualities in music: love, hope, exaltation, pain, and on through the catalog of qualities we experience and expect to be reflected in our art. After all, one of the prime functions of any art is to show ourselves to ourselves in moving and memorable ways.
Unlike my musical biographies, there are no footnotes—this is not a scholarly work. It is founded mainly on a particular motivation, which is the reason I got into classical music in the first place and the reason I'm still at it as a composer and writer: pleasure and emotion. As a teenager I took up this music because it excited me, made me feel more than any other kind of music, more than most other things in my life. It still does.
I got to age twelve in the 1950s listening to Elvis et al., like every other kid. Then I took up playing trombone in the school band and turned out to be good at it, which made music a more or less daily endeavor. Before long I was trying to compose, because listening to classical music gave me an almost painful yearning in the pit of my stomach that was assuaged only when I started writing it myself. In the process I lost interest in being like every other kid. I began to find that a lot of pop tunes I thought I liked got boring after a few listenings, while many classical pieces seemed to open endless vistas of sensation and mystery. So, this book is also a love song to the art I love and to which I have devoted my life. After that, for me, is the fascination of how music is made, in so many times and places. That fascination will be fundamental here, too: how sounds are organized by ear and by rule, how instruments inflect music, how forms shape it, how emotions are portrayed, and so on.
From the book's occasional forays into musical technique I hope the reader will leave with a basic understanding of the mechanics of music, because these play into the artistry. Overall, the book forms a brisk narrative history of the music, providing an introduction for novices and a reference for the familiar repertoire. It will work best when you listen along with the reading. Essentially every work I mention can be found on Spotify or a comparable online music service; the few that aren't there are usually on YouTube (with its generally mediocre fidelity and sometimes scraggly performances). Somebody once said that writing words about music is like dancing about architecture. I think that's about half right, but the words here will at least make better sense when related to the sounds.
There will be a certain irony hanging around these pages, because I look at music with a tincture of irony, likewise the whole of human life and the great globe itself. As a writer on music I've sometimes been accused of irreverence, which I admit, and add that my larger reverence is deep and plainly in view. I believe in genius and greatness, though like love and compassion and God, those are elusive and indefinable qualities. But music is made by and for human beings, and a certain amount of human life appears to me, to put it generously, nuts. Nobody, including great geniuses, is immune to that. To mention a few examples: Isaac Newton, who founded modern science, spent much of his life involved in alchemy. Franz Schubert, one the greatest born talents in music, spent much of his short life writing operas, the one medium he wasn't all that good at. Ludwig van Beethoven, who was reliably brilliant at every aspect of music, including playing and selling it, said accurately of himself: "Outside music everything I do is badly done and stupid."
As you can see, the book will be personal to a degree, but I won't be wallowing in my own presumed wisdom. I've taught music for some thirty-seven years, to students from eleven-year-olds to conservatory grads, and this book is intended to educate. My music biographies come from years of research and thinking; this book comes from decades of teaching. Much of the wisdom here is common wisdom, both that of musicians and of audiences over centuries. I have a certain respect for common wisdom; it never goes far enough, but often it's common for good reason. Likewise, with a given composer most of the pieces I suggest you start with are familiar ones to the initiated. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony may be all too familiar in some respects, but there are reasons it's been loved for a long time. (Besides, as I'll get to, in its day the Fifth was one of the oddest pieces ever written.)
You may find sins of omission or commission here: "How could you have left out [ ]!" Nothing to be done about that. I will say that the recommended composers and pieces do not predictably have to do with my own enthusiasms. I can't say I'm crazy about every one of them (some I used to be crazy about but no more), but there's no piece mentioned in this book that I don't respect. You won't be crazy about them all, either. When I was young I made a point of never disliking anything, but that happy and hippie all-embracingness is long gone. Still, if I'm a bit of a snob it doesn't mean you have to be. I advise you to take in all new composers and works with absolute openness, and wait for your own taste to form as you get deeper into the territory. If something new surprises or shocks or perplexes you, I suggest going back to it. Some of those pieces will turn out to be favorites; some will upgrade your sense of what music is about; some may upgrade your sense of what you are about.
So while here and there I'll present a perhaps offbeat work and composer and point of view, most of the music will be from what we, with a sigh, call the standard repertoire, because many of those pieces are beloved for good reason. It's the word standard that rankles, because it doesn't evoke the excitement in these pieces that was manifest when they were new. A lot of today's standard was yesterday's revolutionary. At the same time, there is a body of works and composers out there who are lesser known but wonderful, and I'll dip into those. As one example, for years I've played for friends the final chorus of the oratorio Jephte by the relatively obscure baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi, and watched their jaws drop, and sometimes their tears flow.
I'll only suggest a few pieces for each composer, a starter package of familiar works, with a few more suggestions at the end of each essay. The idea is that when a piece or a composer grabs you, go out and look for more on your own. The Internet is a tremendous resource for finding information and further listening. If you like a piece I cite here, compare performances of it, and look for more pieces by that composer. On the whole I won't be dealing here with opera, which really requires a book of its own, though there is a chapter on Richard Wagner and his operas because he influenced music across the board. I also will not regularly be citing specific recordings; that would get voluminous, and there's no way to know what recordings will be available years from now. But here and there I will cite a recording for one reason or another, or because I couldn't resist. I also mention recordings sometimes to make you aware to what extent a performance can make or break a piece. Getting choosy about performers is as worthwhile as getting choosy about composers and pieces.
In the end, I believe that music is a language of the spirit—its essence can't be captured in words (though it can be useful to try). I like the conclusion of philosopher Suzanne Langer, who called instrumental music "an unconsummated symbol."
The extent of what Langer means by symbol is too much to get into here, but the basic idea is that a symbol is a story, painting, image, event, and so on, to which we respond in a complex emotional rather than a directly informational way. That's the difference between denotation and connotation. A stop sign at an intersection denotes that we should stop. At the same time, it may represent to us all the damn things in the world that tell us what to do, that get in our way, that mess with our lives. Or, on the other hand, it may elicit a comforting feeling of order, the social contract, the need for caution. In each of these cases we're responding to the stop sign's connotations. In other words, we're responding to it as a symbol.
Langer felt that our response to art and much of the rest of life is a texture of symbols, but that instrumental music, lacking words or clear imagery, is a kind of blank slate that we nonetheless respond to as if it were a tangible symbol. What the symbol is, in any given piece, is largely up to our own responses. So, "an unconsummated symbol."
This is an idea I subscribe to. The thing is, however, that in practice the emotional side of music is much, much more complicated than that. In most vocal music, for example, the words tell us the subject and imply feelings, and most composers want to express the emotional and even physical sense of the words (though sometimes they might write music that inflects or even contradicts the words). In a Schubert song, when the story turns sad, he usually shifts from a major to a minor key; meanwhile he jumps on every image in the text, from a spinning wheel to a tree in the wind, and paints it viscerally in the music.
So, music is expressive of emotion, sometimes in more concrete ways and sometimes in less concrete. Some of that response is cultural, some of it innate. After all, even one-celled animals respond to sound. I suspect that our response to music starts at the cellular level and resonates all the way through our mind up to the higher brain functions. And the most important part of our emotional response is unique to each listener. We can sometimes agree on what a piece expresses, but we'll each fill in the details differently. What we feel from music is like what we feel from a sunset. The sunset contains no emotion; it's a physical phenomenon that has nothing to do with us. Maybe the dinosaurs enjoyed them, too. In any case, the feelings are ours, some of them universal to humans, some individual. In the end, the source of such responses is a matter of magic and mystery, and so music echoes the magic and mystery of the universe.
All this is by way of putting gas in the tank. Let's get going on what will be an ambitious but distilled historical journey, starting more or less at the beginning.
MUSIC FROM THE BEGINNING
THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES (UP TO 1400)
Wherever and whenever we find people, we find music. Likely an integral part of human life from the beginning, music has left its traces in instruments and in art dating back to the dawning of our species. The oldest instruments found from the cave days are flutes made from mammoth ivory and bird bones, over forty thousand years old. They have four holes, enough to provide a simple scale. Earlier bones with drilled holes that may be flutes date back over eighty thousand years; their makers were Neanderthals.
All the arts have a primeval connection to magic and mystery, and music is no exception. Animals painted on the walls of caves sanctified shrines that were in use sometimes for thousands of years. Whenever music has emerged from the obscurity of time, it has been connected to ritual, to ceremony, to what we call religion, but to ancient humanity was simply the ambience in which they lived. Instruments and song and painting and poetry and dance probably evolved together. All of them were linked to mystery, the uncanny, the holy.
Sumerian artifacts from the third millennium BC include a lyre whose body is the image of a sacred bull in gold and lapis lazuli. The walls of Egyptian tombs are full of music. In paintings and reliefs we see an array of sophisticated Egyptian instruments: harp, lyre, lute, flute, oboe, trumpet, percussion instruments. We see little bands of servants playing harp and lyre and flute for their mistress; men sitting on the ground, their arms raised in supplication, singing to the accompaniment of a harp; naked girls dancing to the music of a double flute. Singers ushered the dead into the afterlife, their lyrics sometimes written on the tomb:
O Royal Seal-bearer, Great Steward, Nebankh!
Yours is the sweet breath of the north wind!
So says his singer who keeps his name alive,
The honorable singer Tjeniaa, whom he loved,
Who sings to his ka every day.
We don't know what the music of ancient Greeks or Romans sounded like, any more than we do Egyptian music, but again we know their instruments and the lyrics of their songs. Singers and players and dancers disport themselves around Greek pottery. Epic poetry, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, was meant to be sung, often accompanied by lyre. Every ceremony from temple to marriage to Olympic games had its music, in the approved scale pattern, using the traditional instruments. The choruses of Greek drama danced and sang their poetry (millennia later, Greek theater inspired the creation of opera). There survives a story of a performer on the aulos, a double-piped oboe, who in an amphitheater played a depiction of a battle so powerful that people were still speaking of it two hundred years later.
The Greeks founded musical theory as it exists to this day. The philosopher Pythagoras was the first person we know of to define musical intervals in terms of mathematical divisions of a string: stop a string in the middle and pluck it, and you have an octave; stop it a third of the way and you have a fifth above that, and so on. In white notes on the piano, starting on C is the major scale and A the minor; modes are scales starting on the other notes. Greek names for various forms of scales are still with us: the Dorian mode, which Plato says inspires bravery in battle; the Phrygian, which inspires peace; the Lydian, which promotes languor so ought to be avoided. The modes, their names and connotations, survived into the sacred music of the medieval and Renaissance periods.
Later in the West, the Christian Church provided the impetus for the systematic development of music. What we call Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory who according to legend codified it in the sixth century, is a pure, unaccompanied repertoire of vocal melody sung in Latin that has graced religious services for over a thousand years. For a sample, look for a chant version of Veni sancte spiritus. (If you hear chords in the background, find another version—authentic chant is unaccompanied.)
In the early history of Western music, there have been two epochal developments whose reverberations continue into the present. The first was the development of the world's first effective system of musical notation. Notes finally could be written down like words, reproduced faithfully, and disseminated widely. Earlier civilizations, including the Greeks, had made efforts at notation, but the notes were skimpy and in any case now indecipherable. Around the eleventh century Christian monks developed the basics of writing down notes and rhythms; over the next centuries that evolved into the system of notation we use today.
Notation was more than a practical method for preserving an expanding repertoire of music. It changed the nature of the art itself. To write something down means that people far away in space and time can re-create it. At the same time, there are downsides. Written notes freeze the music rather than allowing it to develop in the hands of individuals, and it discourages improvisation. Partly because of notation, modern classical performance lacks the depth of nuance that is part of aural tradition. Before notation arrived, in all history music was largely carried on as an aural tradition. Most world music is still basically aural, including sophisticated musical traditions such as Indian and Balinese. Most jazz musicians can read music but often don't bother, and their art is much involved with improvisation. Many modern pop musicians, one example being Paul McCartney, can't read music at all.
As a young composer I thought about trying to notate the way jazz legend Miles Davis plays a single note: he might fuzz into it with a half-valve attack, bend the note en route, and/or inflect the pitch as a "blue note," and end with a small slide down. Soon I realized that I would need three or four levels of notation to get all that down, and somebody reading it would never have the fluidity that Davis does in playing from his head. Notes are irreplaceable in our music, but at the same time they can be an obstacle.
In the end, though, the invention of a sophisticated musical notation was a unique event in history that fundamentally changed the equation. When the West committed to notation, it made possible another fundamental development in the history of the art: the invention of counterpoint and harmony. These require a little explanation.
The most common way to understand a piece of music is as a melody with some kind of accompaniment: guy singing with a guitar, soprano with an orchestra, a tune in a string quartet, that sort of thing. This covers most of the music we hear, including essentially all popular music. But in fact there are three ways of presenting melody in a piece, and the name for them is textures.
The simplest texture, the kind of music that dominated the world for countless ages and in many places still does, is monophony, meaning a single melodic line with no integral accompaniment. One may add drums or a drone or the like, but no harmonies; the tune is essentially the whole thing. This covers everything from the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, which were sung, to Gregorian chant, including the troubadours of the Middle Ages, most world and folk music from time immemorial, and you singing in the shower (unless you have a guitar in the shower). If the tune's the thing and accompaniment is ad hoc and optional, it's monophony.
When music in more than one part began to happen—which in the West took place around the 800s, because people had only heard monophony, they first developed a new kind of music that was still basically all melody. It happened in stages. Some monasteries began singing monophonic chant in two levels: the same tune sung in parallel lines a fourth or fifth apart. This was called organum. An example of later and more sophisticated organum is the beautiful and otherworldly Winchester Troper, from the eleventh century.
Over the next centuries these added lines gradually grew more independent. Meanwhile the art of notation became steadily more sophisticated to keep up with pieces that were getting too long and complicated to remember. Finally, music arrived at polyphony, meaning two or more melodies that are superimposed, all more or less equally important. The first polyphonic composer whose name we know was a monk named Léonin, who worked in Notre Dame in Paris in the twelfth century. In his Viderunt omnes you'll find simple but lovely proto-polyphony, much of it florid lines written above drones, those drones being stretched-out notes of a Gregorian chant. Mixed in are stretches of traditional monophonic plainchant and also simple two-part polyphony. It appears that Léonin also made some important advances in notating rhythm.
By the next century at Notre Dame, the monk Pérotin was writing elaborate polyphony in four parts. In many ways Pérotin set the pattern for much polyphonic music for centuries to come: you take an existing melody, in his case Gregorian chant, and compose more melodies around it. In Pérotin's case, the chant lines are again stretched out into long drones, over which he wove his voices. (Note that in polyphony each part is called a voice whether it is sung or played on an instrument.)
Like the other arts, Renaissance polyphony flourished in splendid and enormously sophisticated forms. This was the golden age of pure polyphony, most of it composed for church (though there were plenty of secular songs and dances, too).
So, that's polyphony, which is a Western invention and specialty. What, then, is counterpoint? Actually, sort of the same thing. The terms are often used interchangeably, but strictly speaking, polyphony is the name of a musical texture, and counterpoint is the technique of writing polyphony. In practice, many musicians tend to use polyphony to refer to such music written during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and counterpoint for the baroque period and later. That's how I'll use them here.
So, again: monophony is a single melody; polyphony/counterpoint is music made of intertwined melodic lines. The third kind of texture, homophony, is a single melodic line with chordal accompaniment—back to guy with guitar, leading tune in an orchestral piece, and so forth. In other words, most of the music we hear is homophonic: melody and some kind of harmonic accompaniment.
As soon as polyphony developed, composers realized that you can't just slap tunes together; the results have to sound good, the melodies complementing one another instead of getting in one another's way. Musicians began to develop rules about what kinds of sounds were desirable—in our terms, rules about harmony. In the West, at first, harmony was seen as an incidental effect of polyphony. It was hundreds of years before the kind of harmony we're familiar with had evolved. Early polyphony has an exotic, visceral sound with delicious harmonic clashes that would later be banned. For a sample, try the Sederunt principes of the aforementioned twelfth-century monk Pérotin. (One of my favorite versions is one from 1976 by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London.) Note that this kind of polyphony, long pieces with thousands of notes, would have been impossible to realize or even conceive of without notation. Here is sacred music joyous and dancing, as if exulting in the boundless potentials of a newly redefined art. Music has been exploring those possibilities ever since.
Again partly thanks to notation, the ensuing music of the medieval period saw an expanding repertoire, much of it with an experimental cast as composers explored techniques of organizing and rationalizing the new polyphony. One early and lasting device was canon, meaning a single melody sung or played in staggered entrances, so it makes polyphony with itself. Call canon a kind of grown-up round, such as "Frère Jacques": one voice sings a melody, soon another voice starts the same melody, and in the overlap the single melody makes harmony with itself. A canon does the same thing, but without going around and around. Here's a diagram of a three-voice canon:
This is a straightforward canon, but there are many possible variations. The echoing entries of the melody can start on the same note or on a different degree of the scale. Among the more arcane types are the inversion canon, which has the melody alternating right-side up and upside down. There is the odd beast called the crab canon, in which the second entry of the melody is backward. (For a composer, this is absurdly difficult to do well.) There are puzzle canons, in which a single melody is written out and you have to figure out for yourself where the later entries of the melody start, and/or on what degrees of the scale. In all cases, the result has to make coherent harmony. There are more arcana involved, but let's leave it at that.
The Middle Ages have a reputation for general dreariness and violence, and to be sure, there was a lot of that around. If you were a serf in the fields, life could be pretty nasty, but even serfs had their bagpipes and dancing on feast days. Those with money and position, however, knew how to have a splashier good time, and music was inevitably involved. This was the time of troubadours and minstrels, wandering singers who made the rounds of town and castle and were vital to any proper whoop-de-do. We know some of their songs and dances because sometimes a monk liked one enough to write it down.
It was in the poetry and song of the Middle Ages that the modern Western idea of love developed, an almost mystical union of two lovers that came to be called courtly love. The highest expression of courtly love was in poetry and music. We've been singing about this stuff ever since.
It was in the context of courtly love that the greatest composer of the Middle Ages emerged: Guillaume de Machaut, who was born around 1300 and died much celebrated in Reims in 1377. He was a musician and composer, poet, priest, and courtier; served as secretary and chaplain for the king of Bohemia; and became canon of Reims cathedral. Machaut wrote the first integrated polyphonic setting of the Catholic Mass. My favorite performances of the result, the Messe de Nostre Dame are sung in a bright, natural style aiming at how the old monks might have sounded. (The Taverner Consort recording is in that direction, and there's a nicely reedy version by the Ensemble Organum.)
Machaut is most admired for his secular love songs both monophonic (in one voice) and polyphonic. Of his monophonic songs in the troubadour tradition, most famous is the lilting "Douce dame jolie" (Fair sweet lady), one of the hits of the era. Fluent in the stylized passion of courtly love poetry, Machaut was also a vital experimenter with technique, including the complex arcana of polyphony. His polyphonic music, far from the tamer and more rule-bound harmony of later centuries, sounds exotic to our ears. The text of his celebrated "Ma fin est mon commencement" begins, "My end is my beginning, and my beginning is my end." And indeed one of the parts is a palindrome, in which one voice goes halfway and then reverses course backward to its beginning. This kind of game is plenty hard to master, but to make it elegant and attractive, as Machaut does, is far harder. Rather than recommend particular pieces for this prolific composer, I suggest trying several recordings of his work and looking for the liveliest, most colorful, most beautiful-sounding renditions you can find. One starting place could be his enchanting collection of love songs and poems Le remède de fortune (The Cure of Ill Fortune).
How to summarize medieval music as a whole? While a crucial moment in the evolution of classical music, medieval music is much more than a stepping stone to bigger and better pieces. Whether sacred or worldly, the music has a distinctive archaic timbre, often kind of hollow in sound—in many ways the musical equivalent of medieval painting, with its stylized saints and Madonnas in primal colors. It often uses modes rather than our major and minor scales. You'll find Renaissance music richer in sound and more familiar in its harmonies, but if you can get on the wavelength of medieval music, it's as compelling as any—and the dances are robust and irresistible.
"Language of the Spirit includes an array of unpretentious, charming anecdotes, stories once universally known but (Mr. Swafford suspects) now need retelling. His book is perfect for people who are curious about classical music but feel somewhat intimidated by it."
—Wall Street Journal
"This book distils [Jan Swafford's] experience of passing on his knowledge and experience to others, and making it enjoyable for them.... Between the stories of the composers, Mr. Swafford slips in many interesting digressions.... Mr. Swafford entertains as he informs. But in the end, music to him is a thing unto itself, "'a language of the spirit--its essence can't be captured in words.'"
"A compact, reader-friendly volume... Swafford is a witty and impassioned guide to the great composers and the great masterpieces... Equally important for an introductory audience, he is intimately familiar with the rich layer of anecdotes that envelops the lives of the composers and enlivens every effective music history course... an upbeat, uninhibited romp through the repertoire."
- "In this delightful primer to classical music, composer and music scholar Swafford (The Vintage Guide to Classical Music) conducts us breathlessly on a tour of the highlights of the history of classical music, from the beginnings of music up through the present....Swafford provides excellent suggestions for listening at the end of each chapter, and his entertaining and instructive book encourages us to listen to the breadth and depth of classical music for delight and pleasure."—Publishers Weekly
"A workable foundation from which readers can more deeply and broadly explore the music."
"In Language of the Spirit, Jan Swafford achieves something very difficult: he captures the spirit of music in words. His series of short sketches of composers and their works ring true, and, more importantly, send you running to listen to the music for yourself."
—Emanuel Ax, Pianist
"The genuine love of music is at the core of Jan Swafford's latest book. Unlike his previous works, which are primarily biographies, Language of the Spirit is a glimpse into Swafford's life. His is a journey into what music means on a highly personal level. It reminds those of us in the profession why we became musicians in the first place."
—Leonard Slatkin, Conductor and Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
"Humbly and with great generosity of spirit, Jan Swafford opens the door to the world of classical music and encourages us to experience it through the emotions it evokes. He makes us realize that we are all equipped to approach this greatest of the arts, and helpfully gets us started off in the right direction."
—Ted Libbey, author of The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music
"A perfect, lean compendium from a scintillating writer who knows profoundly where music comes from, and the geniuses who've made it best in the Western tradition. Composer and biographer on the grand scale, Jan Swafford has given us the last music book we'll ever need. The rest is listening!"
—Chris Lydon, host of Radio Open Source
"Once again Jan Swafford's engaging enthusiasm for classical music has produced a book which will enhance his reputation and bring much enjoyment to all who read it. As an introduction to classical music this is a book that should be read by all, young and old, who have a curiosity about classical music but who were never fortunate enough to meet a mentor such as Professor Swafford. It should be required reading in all schools!"
—John O'Conor, award-winning pianist and former Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music
"Reading Jan's Swafford's Language of the Spirit is like taking a road trip through the land of classical music with your wickedly smart but charmingly self-deprecating best friend in charge of the map, stopping by must-see landmarks and hidden by-ways that are clearly personal favorites. Music to Swafford is not a dry, intellectual exercise, but rather an emotional experience touching on the full range of feeling of which humans are capable. Slip a copy of Language of the Spirit into your pocket the next time you attend a symphony performance and consult it before the lights dim-Swafford will help you hear all the richness and depth of the music he so loves."
—Elizabeth Lunday, author of Secret Lives of Great Composers
- On Sale
- Apr 11, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Basic Books