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Music of the Spheres. Or, You Know…

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A couple of days ago, one of my cats decided he was still really a tiny little kitten, in spite of weighing nearly thirty pounds, and started bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball in pursuit of…well, who knows what cats are in pursuit of.

What happened was the eventually he toppled one of my TBR piles, and in doing that brought to light a book I didn’t even remember I had.  It’s called Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, by Roger Collins, who is a British academic in one of the Oxbridge universities.  Off the top of my head, O don’t remember which.

For many years, I belonged to the History Book Club, the only book club I ever have belonged to that I thought was really worried.  And it was one of those things, because after I’d been getting books from them for years, I found out my father had also been a member at about the same age.

Anyway, this is the kind of book I tended to buy from that book club, so I would guess I’d had it around, unread, for a good ten years.

Let’s leave aside the thing that annoys me here, which is that, technically, the period between 300 and the absolute collapse of the Roman Empire is not any part of the Middle Ages, not even the early Middle Ages, which lots of us like to call the Dark Ages.  The inclusion of this period in this book is easy to understand when you start reading, so I’ll let that go.

Some people here once asked me for good general books on the Middle Ages, and I think that this would be a good general book on this early period…sort of.  I say sort of, because it concentrates more than I like on the succession of emperors and the fate of the Roman army and the various battles than I like, without doing any of that in serious detail.  And it manages to cover the Arian, Nestorian and Monophysite heresies in a page and a half, which is a good trick.

It also, however, brings up a few interesting points, and ones that do correlate to what is going on now.  So…

The first has to do with a personal matter, one that I’d never really thought through. 

I’m not terribly interested in the cultural history of antiquity–I like a lot of Greek and Roman writers, and I’m interested in their ideas, but I don’t find myself very curious about the day to day life of classical Athens, or the political structure of imperial Rome.

That’s odd, in a way, because I am very interested in those kinds of things in other periods of history–certainly in the history of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and in the history of the Victorian period in England. 

For some reason, I simply can’t wrap my mind around the idea of  the classical period.  On some very basic level, my understanding of it lacks depth.  Or, to put it the way I probably should, I just can’t feel it.

It suddenly struck me, this morning, what the difference is–I know nothing about the music of the period.  Not a thing.

I don’t think this is lack of education on my part.  The impression I get is that nobody knows what the music of this period sounded like.  We have nothing like a Rosetta stone for musical composition, and so we are unable to hear what the classical Athenians or the Republican Romans heard in melody and rhythm.

There are, of course, lots of speculation about what this music sounded like, and even some attempts to recreate it.  Back in the late 1970s, I attended a production of Oedipus Tyrannus at an ancient ruin of a theater in Greece.  The producers had gone out of their way to recreate what they thought the chorus and its accompanying music sounded like.  It was interesting–and later, I’d note that it was a lot like what came to be rap–but the simple fact is that the producers had no idea if what they were doing was accurate to the period.  We don’t know if the music of the period was melodically based or rhythmic, whether it ordinarily had lyrics or leaned heavily to the instrumental.  We know what the lyre is, and we have some idea of the kinds of horns that were popular, but that’s about it.

Plato wanted to ban music from his ideal state because he believed that music played on the emotions and bypassed the mind.  I think Plato had a point, not about the banning (I’ve got Eine Kleine Nachtmusik coming from behind my head), but atout the emotions.

I think music expresses the emotional  reality of a culture, that music is how we enhance and express how we feel, as opposed to how we think.  I think that to the extent that poets were revered as something close to demigods over much of the period from classical Athens to the Romantic period, it was because poetry was in itself a form of music.  Its rhythm and rhyme were, until very recently, closer to lyrics than to anything else.

These days, society is so diverse and fragmented, musical styles and productions provide a range of possible emtional worlds to live in, but even in the Middle Ages there was at least some of that.  There is the music of Hildegarde von Bingen, which is a form of prayer that I have always thought was close to perfect.  It has words, but you don’t need to know what they are to enter into that particular emotional universe and live there for a very long time. 

In the same period, though, there were songs and ballads about romantic and heroic legends, and other songs about love and death, and lots of instrumental music meant to bring on a ‘sweet melancholy’ or to provide the structure for a dance.

I can only assume that all these things were provided by the music of antiquity to the peoples of antiquity.  I just don’t know what that music was.  I have nowhere to go to listen to it.  I can read treatises about it, and speculations in droves about what it sounded like, but I just don’t know.

And that means that the culture of classical Athens and imperial Rome is lost to me in a way that other periods of history are not.  I can read Augustine’s confessions and understand something of the intellectual (especially theological) tenor of the period near the fall of Rome, but I can’t even begin to know what it felt like.

I find myself wondering how much this matters.   How much of our understanding of the historical realities of the period do we lose because we can’t hear the music?  Is it even possible for us to understand what caused the fall of Rome without that information? 

It’s an odd subject, the fall of Rome.  And on that, this book is very enlightening.

Written by janeh

February 4th, 2010 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Music of the Spheres. Or, You Know…'

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  1. Might check Micklos Rozsa. He’s the only man I know to have seriously attempted to rediscover Roman music. As I recall his conclusion was that it was more thoroughly gone than, say, Greek or Jewish music of the same era, but that echoes could be found if you knew where to look–or what to listen to and for. He attempted to work this into some of his film scores, adapted to modern instruments and sensibilities. (Of course, his successors just imitate Rozsa, the way Heyer’s successors don’t research Regency colloquial speech, but imitate Heyer.) Anyway his memoirs or any surviving notes might be helpful.

    But there’s always the trouble of our own perspective. We can do a pretty good job of reconstructing any music since the start of modern musical notation–reconstruct the instruments, measure beat in terms of heartbeats and such, and I suspect probably come pretty close to the actual sound–certainly from about 1850 on. When we began record music, and we had survivors who remembered that far back to critique the recordings.

    Yet I doubt the reconstructed music sounds to me the way it did to its contemporaries, precisely because I’m used to different instruments and a different beat. A “modernized” version of “British Grenadiers” may get the intended emotional response from me more easily than authentic Marlburian. (“Modern” in that sense dating to WWII or thereabouts, and the line of instrumental music which continues from that. I don’t want to know what Beyonce would do with the piece.)

    Best to admit our limits. We can, sometimes, get pretty close to the material life of various times and places. As for the emotional life, some events and institutions have changed less than others and permit better-informed guesses, but guessing is what we’ll be doing throughout.


    4 Feb 10 at 5:57 pm

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