Sunday, March 15, 2015

A History of the West in Six Pieces of Music

On the way to and from work, I’ve been listening to A History of the World in Six Glasses. Author Tom Standage runs through this history (primarily a history of the West) by looking at beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. And it’s remarkable how well this gimmick works. I had no idea beer played such a vital role in the beginning of civilization (i.e., humans living in cities): the first writing samples often indicate amounts of beer stored in temples or warehouses and paid to workers, and the world’s first written recipe tells how to make beer. Beer was so much a part of city life, anyone who didn’t drink beer was considered a rude bumpkin. How things have changed!

Similarly, wine contributes to and is emblematic of the Greeks’ ideas of equality and free discourse. The symposium, essentially a Greek dinner party for intellectuals, was named from roots meaning “drinking together.” As it happens, I even blogged just a few weeks ago about Plato’s proposed use of wine drinking in his Laws. After a follow-up on the importance of wine to the Romans and Christians, the “history of the world” then jumps to the Atlantic slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for a look at spirits. But something like continuity returns with the section on coffee: the clarity (or apparent clarity) that comes from drinking this new concoction from Arabia perfectly suited the Enlightenment discussions of eighteenth-century France.

I’ve been thinking about what a parallel book based on music would look like. I first thought of A History of the World in Six Pieces. But then most historical pieces don’t have the long-term social prevalence that Standage’s six drinks do. Gregorian chant and Messiah come to mind as the notable exceptions that prove the rule. So how about A History of the World in Six Genres? I thought about sacred song, the motet, the mass, the opera, the symphony, and the recorded popular song. But if the first idea proved too narrow, this one is way too wide: each of those genres could fill (and has filled many times over) its own large volume of history.

But what about six pieces that represent six genres? I may be on to something. The thread of history would have to weave backwards and forwards rather than being stretched out in one linear path. But the book might look something like this. It could start with Bach’s choral hymn “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). As a representative of sacred song, the section could discuss the Greeks’ religion through the Seikilos hymn, Charlemagne though the unification of Gregorian chant practice, and the Reformation. Machaut’s “Ma fin est mon commencement,” in representing the medieval chanson, could support stories about Frankish barbarians and the rise of nation states and modern languages in the Middle Ages. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro could launch a brief history of opera that would in turn outline the Florentine Renaissance, the English Civil War, absolute monarchies of the seventeenth century, and (through Figaro himself) the downfall of those same absolute monarchs.

Would it feel like cheating to represent the symphony by Dvořák’s New World Symphony? The genre tells the story of the rise of the middle class and Enlightenment thinking, and the Czech’s peculiar work (my least favorite of his, actually) could provide an excuse for covering both the discovery of America and the revolutions and nationalistic movements in nineteenth century Europe. And then how could one responsibly discuss “All You Need Is Love” without covering the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, and postmodernism?

It’s a book I will never write. But after putting this post together, I think it’s a really good book that I will never write.

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