In Theory Only

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

In Theory Only


Williams, Peter, Musical Times


In theory only

PETER WILLIAMS Reading Renaissance music theory: hearing with the eyes Cristle Collins Judd Cambridge Studies in Music Theory and Analysis Camrbridge UP (Camrbridge, 200); xxiii, 339pp; L45. ISBN 0 521 77144 7

Music theory in seventeenth-century England Rebecca Herissone Oxford Monographs on Music Oxford UP (Oxford, 2000); xvi, 316pp; L45. ISBN 019 816700 8.

Wondering if 'reading' in the first title was the modish 1980s litcrit term - meaning not merely 'reading' (heaven forbid) but`engaging with hermeneutics so as to deconstruct the agenda informing the signified/signifier' (or some such) - I thought of that fine moment in Our mutual friend (1864-65) when the supercilious Wrayburn plays literary theorist:

your Reading of my weaknesses... an actress's Reading of a chambermaid, a dancer's Reading of a hornpipe, a singer's Reading of a song, a marine painter's Reading of the sea, the kettle-- drum's Reading of an instrumental passage, are phrases ever youthful and delightful.

Situating, mapping, reflexive, intuit, praxis, hermeneutic analysis, verbal discourse (all found in the present author's blurb and general editor's foreward) are other terms, and I wish Dickens or Swift or some other great English debunker had had the chance to work on them. Some MT readers might like to know what I for one do about words like epistemology, epistemic, ontological, heuristics, diachronic reciprocals: Ignore them! More often than not you can simply omit them in the sentence you are reading and still get its point, which, stripped of such embellishment, is by no means guaranteed to be saying anything new.

Now this is a bit hard on Ms Judd's book, for after one has negotiated the first thirty pages on a Theory of Exemplarity (i.e. what it is you do when you give a music example to illustrate a point) in fact it turns out to be a very useful summary and reference-source for important writers of the sixteenth century and what they wrote, including Gafurius, Glarean and Zarlino. The generous amount of illustration musical and otherwise is of permanent value in itself, and the scholarly presentation is to a high standard. Six grants are listed in support of a work that will be of great help in being a kind of detailed, careful, descriptive bibliography of sixteenth-century theory-books, chiefly Italian and some German, with ample discussion of music by Josquin, Obrecht, Ockeghem, de Rore and Willaert as it relates to or can be used by such theorists.

That writers depend in varying degrees on other writers is no new discovery, of course (think of the Gospels!), but the book's ferreting out of so many details will be valuable for anyone working in these areas. Perhaps that is enough, and one should not mind when a topic of great interest in practical music (such as Zarlino's `On the modes') is discussed in terms less of what musicians actually did than of what writers then and since have said. Theory so understood is a form of scholasticism, and so the Germans discussed in the book have a place. But theory understood as observed practice leads to other emphases in which a bit of actual music is not merely `an example' but the thing in itself. Since many theorists were only pressing their face to the windows to look in on this soundthing called music created not in theory but in practice, a writer today, basing herself on what theorists wrote, will have to work hard to cover a topic like `motif expansion' that is a commonplace to anyone who has studied and written a lot of counterpoint.

Whether there is such a thing as Music Theory - as distinct from Observed Practice - is a question raised for me by such a book and, I think, lurks in the foggy foreword to this, the fourteenth number of Studies in Music Theory and Analysis. On modes, for instance: why is it that modal theory was often unclear at this period? Is it because there never was a true `theory of modes' (in the sense that there isa-Theory of Relativity) but only a series of attempts made by relatively minor composers, over the centuries from the Greeks onwards, to generalise a few things about how the best musicians of the-time were handling the notes of music?

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