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History Of Music

An historic keyboard instrument at Finchcocks - the Latin inscription at the bottom means: "the ears are the doors to the mind" .

Western music derives its basic shape from the Greeks, particularly from fifth century BC thinker Pythagoras. It was Greek musicians who decided on the distances between musical steps, which generally speaking are still in use today. The Greeks also called notes after letters of the alphabet, and had a rudimentary form of notation, using note names above a line of lyrics, with rhythm indicated by various dots and dashes. Fragments of this notation can be seen on a tombstone from Asia Minor - kept at the Copenhagen National Museum - and on some play scripts by Euripides. But with the collapse of classical civilisation this notation system was lost. We know that the Romans enjoyed music - in his Musica romana Gunther Willie quotes 4000 passages from ancient sources that describe contemporary Roman music. Inspite of this widespread use of music, if the Romans ever had a musical notation system it has now disappeared without trace.

 

 

In the early medieval period following the fall of the Roman Empire, music was a handed-down oral tradition. Chants sung by monks formed the main bulk of this unwritten tradition and survive today as Gregorian Chant. There were hundreds of these chants, which used words from passages in the Bible. The seventh century pope, Gregory the Great then demanded a compilation and standardisation of all chants. This meant that over a thousand chants, varying in length from two minutes to five minutes, had to be memorised. Although the words of the text were written down, the music was not and simply had to be remembered. Markings above the words were soon being made to try and aid a singer's memory. This is particularly true when the eighth century emperor Charlemagne commissioned an official collection of chants, suppressing all regional variation. It was now even more important to make sure chants were being sung in the accepted way. Marks, called neumes, began to appear to indicate where the voice should go up or down. But these marks did not indicate at what level a singer was starting from on the ladder of musical sounds. In the case of musical instruments there was a form of notation called tablature, or tabs as this kind of notation is known today. This was a system of marks telling you how to play a note, that is where to put your fingers on an instrument to produce a certain note. A tab would tell you nothing else about the sound that resulted, and was obviously of no use for singers. Clearly both neumes and tabs had their limitations. The breakthrough came when a teacher of choristers at Areazzo, named Guido Monaco, came up with a notation system to help orientate his pupils as they struggled to learn their hundreds of chants. Described in his books Aliae Regulae and Micologus, both published around 1030, Monaco's system began by taking his lead from the Greeks, suggesting that musical notes be named after letters of the alphabet, A,B,C,D,E,F,G. Then a red line was drawn above a line of words to be sung, a line which Monaco declared represented the note middle F, right in the centre of a singer's normal singing range. A small F was written at the beginning of each red line. Then a second yellow line was added to represent the note C. Other notes could then be written above or below these two lines at graduated heights. And reading these notes it was possible for a singer or musician to know exactly which note they had to sing or play. Now it was possible to read music. It was also possible to write music. Until this point music had been an oral tradition with no specific composers, but with Monaco's system it was possible for someone called a composer to start writing down their musical ideas. The first named composer is generally held to be a Frenchman named Perokin, who lived roughly between 1170 and 1236.

 

 

Statue of Gustav Holst in Cheltenham

Until now Western music had been almost entirely the preserve of the Church. Into the age of the composer the Church did all it could to maintain its monopoly. Some pieces, such as Miserere Mei Dues written by Gregorio Allegeri around 1640 were kept literally locked away by religious authorities. Allegeri's piece could only be sung once a year in the Sistine Chapel, and all copies of its sheet music were kept secure in the Vatican vaults. But security could not be maintained indefinitely. In 1770 a young musical genius called Amadeus Mozart heard Miserere Mei Deus, immediately memorised it, took it home in his head and wrote it down. Mozart's musical theft reflected a much wider move of music, and culture generally, away from its Christian confines. Art, music and theatre which all have their roots in the Church were making their escape together. Music and theatre in particular made their escape bid in combination. From the late sixteenth century this can be seen in the plays of Shakespeare, which often use music, and also in the development of opera, which has its origins amongst a group of intellectuals in late sixteenth century Italy. After a tentative start, opera really took off with the work of Monteverdi. Monteverdi made his living writing church music. He also worked on the first operas, which helped music find an enthusiastic secular audience. Monteverdi's first successful opera, called Orfeo, was performed in Mantua in 1607. Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Berlioz all wrote for the Church, and they all also wrote for secular audiences. These composers represented the cross over point as music became an art form in its own right. By the nineteenth century music still had the sense of a link to spirituality, but there were no limitations on what form this spirituality should take. In Britain composers like Edward Elgar might stick with orthodox Christianity in his music, but composers like Gustav Holst could write pieces inspired by Hinduism and astrology!

 

The escape of music from the Church also coincided with a slow escape from a limited range of harmony. Medieval music would have found singing two or three different notes together daring. But from the early fifteenth century composers were experimenting with more complex harmonies. Complex harmonies were not an easy task to produce. To get harmonies to sound right for certain combinations of notes, meant careful retuning of notes in that combination. This re tuning would then put other combinations out of tune. To play all harmonies in tune meant constant pauses as instruments were re tuned accordingly. In 1722 the head of music at Cothan Castle in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach, devised a solution. Bach worked out a way of tuning a harpsichord so that all harmonies in any key could be played in one sitting without re tuning. Bach called this tuning "equal temperament," and described it in his book The Well Tempered Clavier of 1722, a landmark in music history. Bach achieved equal temperament by re tuning every note so that, bizarre as it may seem, each one was imperceptibly out of tune. In this way Bach found a very delicate compromise which allowed every combination of harmony to work. Incredible precision was necessary. In fact each note had to be re tuned to 1.059463094 times the frequency value of the note below to reach equal temperament. Bach's achievement with his carefully tuned harpsichord was a near miracle of individual tuning. For equal temperament to become standard, machine tools were needed to produce instruments built precisely enough to achieve the level of tuning required. The machine tools that would eventually make this possible were actually first developed by clock makers such as Juanelo Torriano of Cremona in the sixteenth century. From this beginning the use of machine tools became more widespread. A crucial moment as far as music is concerned occurred in 1800 when Henry Maudsley developed a metal lathe for use in the production of pianos. Maudsley's lathe allowed the calibration of tuning in assembly line pianos with great accuracy, and these equal temperament assembly line pianos were produced by John Broadwood and Sons. John Broadwood pianos of this period can be seen at the Finchcocks museum near Goudhurst in Kent. The same precision engineering was then applied to all other modern musical instruments. It was now possible to bore woodwind or brass instruments with pin point accuracy and produce precisely engineered valves. It is ironic that people tend to look down on mass production as lowering standards when the techniques involved actually created music as we know it today. There is still a mystique surrounding the production of musical instruments. Violins are still presented as being made by old expert craftsmen who lovingly hand build their instruments. But the reality of musical instrument manufacture is mass production of a precise piece of equipment at a reasonable price. This allowed democratic access to music, so different to the original monopoly held over music by the Church. This sense of democratic access was given a vital boost by the instrument on which equal temperament first reached a mass audience, the piano. The piano was designed by Bartholomew Cristofori. This man was hired by Ferdinado de Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, to look after his huge collection of musical instruments and try to develop new ones. Building his first piano in 1700, Cristofori created an instrument which rapidly became widely popular. It was immediately used by classical musicians. As an instrument which was ideal for accompanying the voice, the piano also developed as an instrument of popular music. It put a whole orchestra of harmonic sounds into the reach of an individual, and mass production kept the purchase price down. In America African and missionary music was feeding into the new popular music boom. In 1899 Scott Joplin, who made his living playing piano in brothels, published Maple Leaf Rag and from this point on the piano became the basic instrument of popular music, among rag time and jazz musicians in America.

 

 

Abbey Road Studios

 

And just as music was being made by more people, it was also being listened to by a much larger audience. By the 1850s the Crystal Palace in Sydenham was staging Britain's first regular series of popular concerts for large audiences. The Royal Albert Hall which opened in 1871 could hold 7000 people. Into the twentieth century the audience for music became so big that it didn't even have to be confined to a concert hall. With the advent of recorded music, and then radio, music was available virtually anywhere. Thomas Edison patented his Phonograph in 1877, and the successors of this machine eventually made the career of the world's first recording superstar, Enrico Caruso, who made two recordings in 1902 and 1907 of the aria Vesti la giubba from an opera by Leoncavello. These sold millions. Then during the First World War portable record players were first introduced by Decca for use by troops. The records played on these portable machines at first could hold only relatively short pieces of music. The first records were made from shellac, derived from Malaysian beetles, and this material would only support a relatively large groove, which meant that not much material could go on each record. But then a shortage of shellac during World War Two led to the American company Columbia introducing a plastic material called vinyl. Vinyl supported a smaller groove than shellac, which could be played at a slower speed, 33.5 rpm. Records could, therefore, hold more material. The Long Player resulted. At first the LP was the preserve of classical music, with its tradition of longer pieces. But pop music was eventually to produce it own LP masterpieces. It is perhaps with the most revered pop LPs of modern times, by, for example, the Beatles, that we finally bring the story back to its beginnings. Pop music classics are revered by their fans, and pop audiences can be hysterical in their adoration of their idols. It should be remembered that modern music developed from religion. As Howard Goodall says in his book on the history of music: "At the very source of the rivers Pop, Rock and Soul lies the 12-bar blues, whose chord patterns... derive in roughly equal measure from African tribal call-and-response chants and the simple triadic chords of missionary hymns" (Big Bangs P240). It is also the case that modern popular music in its verse - chorus - verse - chorus (repeated) - coda pattern was something that people at the original cross over point from church to secular music, Mozart or Schubert for example, would have been at home with. Pop music is also closely related to the tradition of poetry. Poetry is in effect a survival from the old oral traditions which used patterns and rhythm in words to aid recall in a society in which there was no writing. Vital information was recorded in this way, and poetry came to be revered as something special. Gregorian chant was in effect the use of musical patterns to help a largely illiterate audience recall large sections of the Bible. In many ways the best of modern pop is in the tradition of Gregorian Chant, an oral tradition which people treated with great reverence. The difference is that the modern take on Gregorian Chant is open to everyone. The Beatles grew out of skiffle, where virtually anyone could have a go, using cheap guitars, and even household items like tea chests and broom handles. As music reprises its themes it also moves into new developments.

 

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