Stove on Music history
  • Here is a blog review of A Student's Guide to Music History:

    imagePeople have funny attitudes toward the topic of music, especially serious music. The attitude is that it is like physics or metallurgy or something: you have to be an expert or you dare not speak out on the topic for fear of showing one's ignorance. I can understand this. For non-musicians, musicians seem to speak a foreign language, and they are passionate about disagreements. No one wants to make a misstep for fear of being blasted and humiliated. This is a special problem today since music (again, serious music) is not taught like it once was.

    Well, I'm here to tell you about a fun workaround that I've recently read. It is called A Student's Guide to Music History, by R.J. Stove. The size is great: about 90 pages. The price is right: $8. More than that, I'm amazed at how much content and substance that the author is able to pack into such a small space and not have it read like a series of small biographies and program lists.

    Most music history texts treat pre-Bach music almost as if it is pre-music music. This one is different. A major and very impressive feature is that the author is familiar with Gregorian Chant and the polyphonic tradition, so we get very nice and respectful treats of the lives and works of Palestrina, Josquin, Tallis, Victoria and others. And by the time that we arrive at the Baroque, it is clear that it doesn't emerge out of nowhere: hundreds of years of great development precede.

    The author has the right mix of repertoire, biography (always a fascinating anecdote about each composer!) and any historical data of the time that had an impact. I've learned so much about, e.g. how the Protestant reformation ended up nationalizing music styles, and the impact of the emergence of the nation state on music and culture.

    This is not a religious work, but the author is not shy about telling the reader when a motivation of a performance or composition is religious. So in this way, the book is more complete than others, despite its size.

    Another point about the subject matter: the author is writes unashamedly about Western music. His point is not that there are not great musical traditions that are part of India or China or Japan. There are but to cover all of that in a perfunctory way is more of an insult than a compliment. So he dispense with all the multicultural pieties to write only about Western music. He also avoids the absurd cliche of all art histories in attempting to say that all things culminate in such and such famous guy who is alive today. This book solves the problem completely: he ends in 1945.

    I'm current using the text for a small class for young teenagers, and they love it, even though the prose is actually a serious challenge for them. To me, this is a plus: it never talks down to readers. He offers judgments on the music as he goes along but it is clear that his primary purpose is not to get the reader to believe what he believes; rather he is there to serve the main purpose of the volume, which is to educate.

    While this book won't teach you to read music, it is guaranteed to make you conversant in the topic, so much so that you will be able to enlighten even people who think they are knowledgeable. And you will be better prepared to listen to music of the great composers, and imagine them almost as friends. I hope that some major publisher finds this work and commissions the author to write a large series. Until then, this little gem will serve as an excellent substitute.
  • Jeffrey, sounds like a great resource. I've found that more and more the language of music is completely foreign to students (in music appreciation). I'm curious, how does the book approach musical style without getting into technical matters?
  • This is actually a strength of the book. He tell great stories of the times, the culture, and shares interesting anecdotes about the personalities (Bach in jail, Handel threatening to throw a soprano out the window, Palestrina as holding a boring desk job, etc.). He does have a way of talking about style without too much jargon. How, I'm not sure -- but then I've always been mystified about how people write about music without displaying adjectivitis. Now, as I'm going through this book I've been playing excerpts from each composer and period, which I think is essential. There is not a lot of technical talk but there is great sweep with a high fascination level. I wouldn't say that it is for music students in grad school--though they could learn a thing or two--but it is great for just about everyone else. The author has a great command of the topic, as anyone who writes such a thing must.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Jeffrey,

    How useful is a history of music that avoids "technical talk"? To put it into perspective, how useful would a book about economics be if it avoided the technical? I remember some interesting ancedotes from Milton Friedman's obituary, but they didn't remediate my ignorance of his subject.

    I guess to be of use, a book about a technical subject must assume some specialist knowledge, or be prepared to impart it, and I'm not sure the knowledge required for a useful understanding of music history can be imparted from scratch.

    Regards,

    Ian.
  • Ian, I'm probably not one to judge how non-technical this book is since I can understand it all. It does, however, written with the interested layperson in mind. That doesn't mean that it avoids using words like Concerto or Suite. In the same way, you can talk about the supply of money without going into depth about the velocity of circulation.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Jeffrey,

    You probably approach the nub of the matter when you say I'm probably not one to judge how non-technical this book is since I can understand it all. You don't have an academic background in music (please correct me if I'm wrong), but from what you write here and elsewhere you clearly know enough from your listening, reading and music-making to have an intelligent discussion about music history. That makes you the ideal target audience for a book on the subject that's aimed at the informed layman, rather than undergraduate music students. I guess I'll have to buy the book to understand the level of technical understanding that presupposes.

    ps the "velocity of circulation" - does that have anything to do with the speed with which my salary goes round other others' pockets?
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Right, well, sort of. My formal music training took place in all my years before college, though I had long played for college ensembles. I "burned out" by the age of 17 when I formally entered college and took a different path.

    "Velocity of circulation" as it applies to sacred music means the speed at which money bypasses people with real talent at the parish level. ;)
  • I certainly understand the difficulty of teaching music history to the layperson. I've come up with a whole bag of metaphors and parallels in non-music life. I've always said that teaching music appreciation is my hardest task. It's like teaching American history to Chinese students. There's no common culture to draw on, no expectations of geographical knowledge, and then there's the language. It's like teaching those students English in the first 2 weeks so that you can teach them history. It gets worse every year now that music has been expunged from most secondary schools. But there are people who can do this. I admire them.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    There are some things in this book that make me laugh days later. When he is discussing the childhood of Mozart, he points out that it might be true that his childhood was miserable. Then again, he adds, in those days, everyone's childhood was miserable.
  • Really? I see no where in the conventional literature that Mozart's childhood was miserable. Rather he got to do exactly what he loved doing, playing and composing. Perhaps the only unpleasant aspects of his youth were the jealous remarks by older Italian composers who claimed that Leopold was writing all his music.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Oh the supposed problem is his father, who dragged him from palace to palace to play. pressure, pressure etc. I think that's the popular opion.