Twentieth Century Music: How it Developed, How to Listen to It

By Marion Bauer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
PAST INNOVATIONS AND PREJUDICES

THE twentieth century listener with nineteenth century ears is prone to think that no other generation has had so difficult a problem of adjustment, but history points out his error. When the Chinese scale of five steps (pentatonic) was increased to seven, about 600 B.C., it was thought the final doom of music had been sounded! There have been periods in the history of music, however, in which the New seemed deliberately to break down the Old, when time-honored rule was overthrown, and workers in the creative field of music were revolutionary rather than evolutionary. We are going through such a metamorphosis today. Composers, feeling that everything possible has been said in the diatonic scales, are experimenting with new and ultra-old scale formations. Melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, and musical forms are being subjected to the same revision. The new musical terminology shows that transformations are taking place. What did the nineteenth century know of the whole-tone scale, quarter-tones, musical Impressionism, atonality, polytonality, Scriabin's mystic chord, and dissonant counterpoint?

In the ninth century when Plainsong had reached perfection, it required a high standard of performance and musical sensibility. The traditional interpretation of the chants was handed down orally, with a notation merely as an aid to memory. This notation, called neumes, was a series of signs derived from the Alexandrian Greeks to show the rising and falling of the singing voice in the chants without denoting definite pitch. But when the revolutionary innovation of part-singing appeared, staff notation for indicating the exact pitch relationships became a necessity, and the tradition of the delicate nuances required by the neumes was lost.

"The tenth century was regarded by some historians as a

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