Popolaresco, Peasants and Primitivism

By Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning | Musical Times, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Popolaresco, Peasants and Primitivism


Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, Musical Times


THE FISSION BETWEEN POPULAR AND SERIOUS MUSIC has its roots in the ancient world, at precisely the point when Pythagoras established the mathematical ratios behind the Greek scales. But even as he set up his exact calibrations of the diapason, de pente and diatesseron, music continued to flourish in the hands of the untutored and uninitiated, in work songs hummed behind a spinning wheel or intoned behind a plough, and also in recreational singing and playing. It had another use as well - a quasi-psychological function derived from its dual identity as an art both intellectual and emotive. Western music has always on the one hand been structured by rules as precise and rational as mathematical theorems, and on the other operated as a medium of feeling, able to grasped (in essence at least) without the aid of theory. At the very time that Pythagoras claimed music as an extension of mathematics, the Corybantic priests were turning it into a very different enterprise, and treating 'nervous and hysterical patients by wild pipe music, thus exciting them to the pitch of exhaustion, which was followed in turn by a healthy sleep from which the patient awoke cured'.1 A philosopher displayed music in predictable aural ratios; 'clerics' aroused and quelled disorderly feelings through the catharsis it offered.

Given the fact that music invariably creates a degree of emotional excitement, Plato's misgivings about the art come as no surprise; nor does his banishment of Corybantic pipes from his ideal polis (Socrates observes that 'We aren't really doing anything revolutionary, you know, my dear Glaucon, [...] in preferring Apollo and his instruments to Marsyas and his'2). Not only would wind instruments be proscribed in this utopia (though shepherds receive a patronising exemption from the ban), but so would most of the Greek modes. Since only the Doric and Phrygian conduce to the decorum of an ideal government, music is once again re-invented as something severe and high-flown and intellectual:

'Tell me then - you are a musician - which are the modes suitable for dirges?'

'The Mixed Lydian and the Extreme Lydian and similar modes.'

'Then we can reject them,' I said: 'even women, if they are respectable, have no use for them, let alone men.'

'Quite right.'

'But drunkenness, softness or idleness are also qualities most unsuitable in a Guardian?'

'Of course.'

'What, then, are the relaxing modes and the ones we use for drinking songs?'

'The Ionian and certain Lydian modes, commonly described as "languid".'

'Will they then,' I asked, 'be of any use in training soldiers?'

'None at all,' he replied. 'You seem to be left with the Dorian and die Phrygian.'3

Thus does puritanical logic shrink both the immediacy and the expressive range of art, further rarefying its 'scientific' reconception by Pythagoras, and placing it at a remove from general human experience.

In the course of time, this elitism issued in that most potent PlatonicPythagorean concoction, the 'Music of the Spheres', which Boethius characterised as musica mundana in contrast to the musica humana of everyday life:

For how can it happen that so swift a heavenly machine moves on a mute and silent course? Although that sound does not penetrate our ears - which necessarily happens for many reasons - it is nevertheless impossible that such extremely fast morion of such large bodies should produce absolutely no sound, especially since the courses of the stars are joined by such harmonious union that nothing so perfecdy united, nothing so perfectly fitted together, can be realized.4

Here Boethius reduces 'scientific music' to an abstraction indistinguishable from silence itself - a notional music derived from untested premises of cosmic fitting and jointure, rather than, as we know it now to be, a bang deafeningly loud and chaotic. For centuries the dogma of musica mundana held sway as the rationale underpinning of the art itself, and also of poems in its honour, even though, all the while, peasants sang heartily and 'unscientifically' at their spinning wheels and ploughs, or, having moved into town to forge the beginnings of an urban proletariat, in taverns and stews. …

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