The word 'roots', as used in the title of this book, is trite, shopworn, and, worst of all, patronizing. But it does at least have the merit of reminding us that cultural traditions are organic growths. Like plants, they need nourishment from below, and without that nourishment they die.
A worthy truism, one might think. Yet it is astonishing how little use conventional musicology has for roots. Even today, the history of Western classical music is largely a list of famous names. It is true that the list has grown longer. A century ago, almost the only generally recognized influences on the young Beethoven were Haydn and Mozart. Nowadays they have been joined by C. P. E. Bach, J. C. Bach, Baillot, Berton, Catel, Cherubini, Clementi, Dussek, Förster, Gluck, Gossec, Grétry, Kreutzer, Méhul, Viotti, and no doubt many others who have eluded me. This is an improvement, but still a list of names. The great anonymous either receive no mention at all, or merely a passing comment.
To be sure, critics often remark on the popular element in classical music. Here, for instance, is Martin Cooper on Beethoven:
Nobody… has been able to deny the 'Joy' theme [in the finale of the Ninth Symphony]… a
popular character that no subsequent composer has ever quite achieved… We may
explain this in a general sense by the fact that Beethoven himself remained, certainly
physically and in many ways emotionally, an unsophisticated man of the people who knew
by instinct the stimulus to which simple listeners respond.1
And here is Hans Gál on Schubert: 'anyone who is familiar with this down-toearth yet flexible idiom [Viennese German] will detect it, translated into musical terms, in his melody, and not just in dance tunes, whose popular background is obvious, but sometimes in his most sublime utterances'.2 And Jeremy Siepmann on Chopin: 'The near-universal appeal of his music, to listeners ranging from the novice to the near-omniscient, derives in part from a unique combination of sophistication and a deep-rooted, wholly uncondescending sense of the popular.'3
1Beethoven: The Last Decade, 181J–1827,32'].
2Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody, 25.
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Publication information: Book title: Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music. Contributors: Peter Van Der Merwe - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford, England. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 1.
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