Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music

By Peter Van Der Merwe | Go to book overview
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I have built a House, where I intended but a Lodge: Yet with better
Success than a certain Nobleman, who, beginning with a Dog-kennil
never liv'd to finish the Palace he had contriv'd.

John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern (1700)

I wish I could point to some dramatic originating impulse for this book, some humble equivalent of Newton's apple, Watt's kettle, or those 'barefooted fryars', singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol, who started Gibbon off on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As it is, all I can offer is a question which was already troubling me as a music student in 1967, namely: why does Johann Strauss sound so different from Beethoven? Or, more generally: why does light or popular music sound so different from classical music, even when based on the same patterns? The answer, which I suppose must have been dawning on me by about 1970, was that the patterns are not really the same. I did not know that the task of working out just how different they are would occupy me for the next quarter of a century.

The first fruit of this labour, Origins of the Popular Style (hereinafter Origins), was published in 1989. In it, I attempted to trace the patterns of twentieth-century popular music to their sources. Inevitably, it was mostly concerned with North America, but there was also a substantial section on the light music of nineteenthcentury Europe. This part of the book never quite satisfied me, and it is out of that germ of dissatisfaction that the present volume has grown. At first, I fondly imagined that 20,000 words or so would be enough to plug the gap, but this modest essay relentlessly expanded until it embraced, or at least touched on, almost the entire body of European music from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century.

In going back to the European classics, I was reverting to my earliest intellectual passion. Long before acquiring my first popular music scores, I had possessed a small library of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms, and I can vividly recall the embarrassment that the gaudy covers of the former caused among the sober greys and buffs of the latter, like pornographic magazines in the vestry. Then, for reasons mysterious even to myself, this initially mild interest in popular music grew into an


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