Sunday, March 9, 2008

133. Music of the Great Tradition -- 33:Monks and Missionaries

At this point it's probably a good idea for me to explain once more what I mean by the "Great Tradition." In my "Echoes" essay, and many of my earlier posts to this blog, I was mainly concerned with tracking a distinctive "African signature" roughly along the path of the hypothetical "Out of Africa" migration. This represented an attempt to explore the possibility that certain important traces of early African musical culture (what I've called P/B, or Pygmy/Bushmen, style) survived into the Twentieth Century, among certain indigenous and "folk" societies in various parts of the world. What concerns me most in this regard is the question of whether such traditions could represent survivals from the Paleolithic era.

When speaking of the "Great Tradition," however, I am attempting to move on, beyond that point, to a consideration of a more speculative, and even radical, possibility: the notion that certain mainstream musical traditions of today could be rooted in the same Paleolithic practices -- and that the connections between "then" and "now" can actually be traced. By mainstream I mean the "classical" and also the "popular" music of "The West," both traditional and modern (including but not limited to jazz, gospel, country, rock and even rap). (Certain non-Western "mainstream" practices are also relevant here -- I have already examined the complex and sophisticated multi-layered Indonesian gamelan tradition in posts 107-116.)

Thus, for me the Great Tradition could represent something truly unique, and also, indeed, "Great," if in fact it would be possible to accept that certain aspects of the value system and cultural practice of our oldest fully human ancestors may have continued down through the eons as part of a tradition that has persisted, and even in a sense flourished, to the present day.

Over the course of a great many posts (all the way back to number 99), I have gradually been putting various pieces of this idea together -- and now, finally, I am ready to consider what has too often been regarded as an unbridgeable chasm -- the gulf between the so-called "folk" or "ethnic" traditions of the world and the allegedly self-contained, self-engendered "art" music of "The West." I can do no better at this point than quote once again from Joseph Jordania's remarkable study of the European polyphonic traditions:

The time when music historians believed that polyphony was invented by the medieval monks and actually were trying to explain the presence of vocal polyphony in traditional music of people from different parts of the world as a result of the influence of European missionaries has long since gone.
Siegfried Nadel and particularly Marius Schneider were among the first musicologists who reversed our understanding of the origins of European polyphony and wrote that the historical process of the influence between professional and traditional polyphonies must be reversed; it is not the medieval European professional polyphony that influenced the emergence of polyphony in traditional cultures via missionaries, but, on the contrary, it was traditional polyphony that had a crucial influence on the emergence of medieval European professional polyphony [p. 207].

Already in 1940, no less an authority than the noted musicologist Manfred Bukofzer pointed to a great many "popular" practices that could well be related to some of the earliest manifestations of polyphony in the Medieval monastery and church. He points, for example, to the traditional Tvisongvar of Iceland. "These duets are still sung, and they differ very little externally from primitive organum in fifths. . . The Tvisongvar are performed very slowly, as the Musica Enchiriadis tells us organum was sung" ("Popular Polyphony in the Middle Ages," The Musical Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, 1940, p. 32).

Bukofzer refers in the same essay to the remarkable "popular" canon, "Sumer is icumen in," notated in a document dating from about 1240, "which consists of a two voice ostinato or pes with a four-voice canon above it; the whole thus being in six parts. That is, for the period, an unheard of number of voices . . . It might seem remarkable that such a complicated form as canon should be connected with popular music. We know, however, that successive entrances of the same melody in different voices occur in primitive non-European polyphony" (p. 34). Indeed they do!

Bukofzer cites other forms of "popular polyphony" such as the Gymel, the Ductia, the Chanson de Geste, the polyphonic Rondeau, the practice of fauxborden, and, of special interest from our perspective: the "hocket" (I'll have a lot more to say on this connection in future posts). "From the hocket combined with the canon, which we have already encountered as a popular type, there developed the so-called chace (or Italian caccia), a kind of program music, the texts of which describe hunting scenes and other scenes in daily life" (p. 41).

He continues, considering one of the most common elements of "Old European" polyphony, as elucidated by Jordania: the drone. "We do not know the manner and place of origin of the drone, which exists in the Orient as well as the Occident. . . . The vocal drones of the yodels in the Canton of Appenzell (Switzerland) are examples of great antiquity. That yodels of some sort were sung in the early Middle Ages is attested by a 4th century chronicle, which describes how a missionary was killed and how the ringing of many cowbells and the sound of the Alpine horn and yodels accompanied the ceremony of execution" (p. 48).

Despite all the many examples offered by Bukofzer, he remains skeptical regarding the touchy matter of popular influence on "artistic" forms. For example, he views the chace, "in spite of this popular background . . . [as] musically a very stylized and purely artistic form. It might well be cited as evidence that something may at first appear to us to be popular, but in reality not be so at all" (p. 41). He concludes his essay by asserting "that this popular polyphony was not such as might have sprung up at any time and any place among the folk, but was something that, influenced by the art music which it reciprocally affected, could have flourished only in the Europe of the Middle Ages" (p. 49). As has already been demonstrated in so many of my previous posts, and especially the very detailed and meticulously researched reports in Jordania's book, Bukofzer was almost certainly wrong.

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