Period Piece

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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Period Piece

Williams, Peter, Musical Times

Period piece


Music of the baroque David Shulenberg Oxford UP (New York & Oxford, 2001); xiv, 349pp; L25. ISBN 0 19 512232 1.

Music of the baroque: an anthology of scores David Schulenberg Oxford UP (New York & Oxford, 2001); x, 370pp; L22.50 pbk. ISBN 0 19 512233 X.

This is one of a large number of books currently being produced by the world's bigger publishers for the highereducation market: textbooks `designed for undergraduate and graduate students' (can they be both?) and, I earnestly hope, subsidising the important monographs of permanent value that university presses once regarded as their prime concern. There is a large number of potential authors for such books, specialists only too happy with commissions of this kind, which can be fun to write, allow one to contribute to the advancement of the young, and bring in bigger royalties or fees than half a dozen scholarly monographs.

The most blatant textbooks in this last respect are those for `Music 101', the `Introduction to Western Music' courses of American liberal arts colleges, lucrative course-books complete with recordings students can play in their own dorm, laying out for them the conventional lines of music history. Quite what is `music history' and how really valid is the idea that it has `lines of development', with 'masterworks' and `transitional figures', can be no more than touched upon, of course. The most lastingly valuable textbooks in my experience are those focusing on technical areas, guide-books for acquiring skills (such as figured-bass playing) and requiring you to do something for yourself. A textbook for a history period such as the so-called baroque, comes somewhere between these two kinds, and its value hangs on the particular author's apercus.

I say `so-called baroque' because as soon as you use this word - which, as a matter of fact is meaningless, a mistake of nineteenth-century German Musikwissenchaft (musicology) as it attempted to imitate German Kunstwissenschaft (art-history) - you signal an approach both to 'history' and to 'music', and there is nothing for it but to go through the 'periods' and their 'masterworks' from Monteverdi-and-a-bit-before to Bachand-a-bit-after, making a `balanced selection' to show the `main lines of development' even though some of the best pieces of the period will have had no influence whatever on music history or its lines of development. And there must be a nod to New Musicology with some obligatory criticism of racial stereotyping or a few spotlights on women composers. Undergraduates who don't know music from the inside or haven't been shown how to integrate their playing with their thinking can gain a lot from such a book, but one has to recognise the snags.

Since there are so many terms to explain and background facts to get over it will be hard to avoid inculcating pre-set ideas of history on the reader. This is one of the snags: it will be only a part-history, and whole areas of very active music-making - unwritten street-- music, popular song, hymns, 'vernacular' instrumental music, music societies, cathedral evensongs - will barely

feature if at all, despite the fact that most musical experiences of most people will have been in these categories.

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