From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
The key to the understanding of social change is the materialist conception of history. Applied to music we find that the changes that have come about in this form of art reflect conditions of different social systems.
Ideas about music being the flower of Western culture have long since faded. Today it is generally accepted that music originated among primitive people, that it is linked to the cultivation of the earth, and that its basis is rhythm. We get the same evidence from China, Africa. India, and all parts of the world. The Hamites of the Nile Valley, for instance, used two joined sticks to chase away pests from their crops. Later these clappers were used to accompany dances to ensure the fertility of the crops and to aid work on the land.
About a thousand years later civilizations entered the valley. A class of priest-kings ruled over a multitude of subjects. Trained musicians in the courts and temples chanted praises to agricultural deities. Isis and Osiris. There were slight changes. New music was brought in when the Hyksos came with their drums and castanets. Other Semitic nomads introduced a form of the lyre.
Similar trends are apparent in the histories of all peoples. Beginning with fertility rites, music undergoes various changes as private property societies develop. It becomes religiously chant-like, a music designed to inspire awe and the acceptance of servitude to a ruling class. In China the starting point of musical theory is the “foundation tone”. It is a sacred, eternal principle, the basis of the state. A note of definite pitch (fa) supposed to give protection against public disorder.
When the Greeks came to the Mediterranean Isles they evolved a system of partially developed maritime commerce based on chattel-slavery. They established a reputation for knowledge and culture. But this was possible only because the vast wealth of the patricians enabled them to lead leisured lives. Beneath all the elegance festered the horrors of slavery. In the proud villas privileged musicians sang to aristocratic families. The teachers of music formulated their doctrine of the “ethos”, their belief in the ethical power of music, its ability to affect character for good or ill. So important did this doctrine become that performances of music were regulated by law.
When Greece became a province of Rome the conquerors adopted Grecian music, but did little to improve on it. The Empire was spread far and wide and there were few periods without war. Consequently the character of music was more martial. Military bands accompanied the army playing brazen wind instruments; the trumpet or clarion for the cavalry, the tuba for the infantry. Massive victory celebrations and gladiatorial combats were orchestrated with suitable sounds.
A few centuries later the Empire began to disintegrate. Rome was torn by class war and many saw salvation in the new religion. Constantine’s Edict of Milan gave Christianity state countenance, but many centuries passed before the new church was firmly established on a new social basis. This was the feudal system, with its hierarchy of power and privilege. The Frankish conquerors— tribal chiefs and petty kings—had castles built; they guaranteed protection (against raiding Vandals) to the freed slaves and others who had acquired a little land. The “protectors” eventually became warrior barons, who often fought one another and even found control by the king irksome. The king himself was continuously at odds with the church.
The earliest forms of western music are closely bound up with the church of Rome. The first forms were taken from ancient Greek songs and the chants of the Hebrew synagogues. Gregorian chant was derived from such sources, and an important factor in the prevalence of this music was the organ. This instrument, a development through various stages of the syrinx, the flute and the bagpipes was put together in Alexandria in the third century. Thus it may be said to have fallen into the lap of the church, and there is nothing surprising in the discovery that the first religious chants reached Rome through the Byzantine church. They were solemn chants in syllables—each syllable having one note. The choirs were not supposed to sing for the sheer love of singing. The expressed ideal was the glory of god.
Whatever this may have meant to the singers there is no doubt about its meaning to the priests. During the middle ages clerical possessions were enormous; churchmen owned at least one quarter of the land.
Towards the end of the middle ages music was still primarily a concern of the musicians employed by the church. However, by the turn of the 14th century composers had the technical means at their disposal to enable them to compose their own works. For a century French and Flemish composers led the way in Europe, and this raises the question why at different periods do some nations appear more musical than others? The answer, so far as the middle ages are concerned, is that the great cities of Flanders enjoyed a prosperity unparalleled in those times. They were great commercial and financial centres. This period in England was a time of disillusionment and disgrace for the established church. The corruption of religious orders was rife. At the same time wealthy merchants endowed large musical establishments, there came a development of instrumental music and practical instructions for the amateurs of the rising middle class. Music was losing its mystery.
At the end of the middle ages we see the more profound effects of the Renaissance on music. Printing had bloomed into established publishing houses, and this increased the chances of musicians. Their works were less anonymous and more correctly performed, and they felt free to borrow from predecessors. New manufactures included the clavichord and the harpsichord. The period is full of such changes. The bourgeoisie had not yet attained political power, but their commerce and wealth grew rapidly and they gained the interested patronage of the king, who soon commanded greater wealth than the merchants. One result of this was the royal patronage of the arts and sciences; another was the Civil War. In the not so distant future lay the Industrial Revolution. But the struggle between religious and secular ideas lasted at least for another century.
The distinction between religious and secular music settled for a period in the baroque, the balancing of contrasting forms. The church leaders saw the propaganda value of the new style. Its most successful form was the fugue. Three or four melodic lines were commonly used, and the main melody subjected to all the tricks of innovation known to the old composers. The king of this style was J. S. Bach. He invented no new forms himself, but used the method of imitative counterpoint. or taking a theme and changing it by adding or subtracting notes . . . He permitted himself almost anything. It was the most inventive form of musical imitation devised. His output was enormous. Handel wras another master of this style.
But it was the 17th and 18th centuries that saw the rise and culmination of the revolution in social and cultural thinking in Europe. The “Enlightenment” was the outgrowth of the continued rise of the bourgeoisie, an attack on established religion, feudal forms of political power, etc.
In music the demand was for ‘naturalness' and a more direct appeal to the emotions. This was the Romantic challenge to Classical music, which had ruled the roost from about 1750 to the first decades of the nineteenth century. Broadly, the Classical stood for political absolutism. the rule of order, nobility and sophistication. The feted composers worked in the employ of kings and wealthy aristocrats, who desired a style that would reflect the grace and beauty of their lives and the permanence of their rule. Haydn's and Mozart’s works were examples of the classical ideals of balance and beauty. Beethoven inherited the forms from them, but he expanded and developed them with skill and energy.
The Romantic movement swelled up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, and the wars that followed. It expressed the ideals of the middle class in the final days of feudalism; of “liberty, individualism, and nationalism”. The rising class took over the power of the aristocracy, became the ruling class. Among other acts they set up their own establishments, including new schools of music and concert halls.
The flow of romantic music had various national flavours as the bourgeois of Europe sought to follow in the footsteps of France. Strangely enough England seems to have been largely unaffected by this movement. But the explanation is quite natural. The England capitalists, having won power a century earlier, were currently enjoying economic growth and prosperity. They were in no need or mood for revolution.
Music has been called an international language. Yet the links with Nationalism still survive, because the national state is a bourgeois structure. It is constructive to read how such a ‘musical heritage' was built up in the United States. Very large sums of money were outlayed on musical colleges, institutes and orchestras, which are now in full bloom. A vast library of American folksongs was collected, mainly Anglo-Celtic in origin. Even Negro spirituals, with words and tunes adapted from Scottish and Irish melodies, were included. The claim is made that it all has an American flavour. The idea is to establish a separate musical identity, something they can make the public believe “this is ours”.
Nationalism as a cultural force certainly fell in influence after the Second World War. Some say this was due to the bourgeois sense of guilt. Enthusiasm for Wagner seemed to have dimmed among the intellectuals. And traditional concepts came under strong attack. Especially is this so in Latin America where musical nationalism has been pushed into the background. On the other hand Russian composers have had to toe the nationalist line. Shostakovich, for example, being bullied into the linking his works with the “achievements” of the USSR.
Of the future of music a fear has been floated that atonality, electronic sound and computerization will destroy the art of music. Will it matter? The pioneers in these fields have expressed the view that all sounds should be at the disposal of all who would like to compose. Such freedom would not be at variance with a socialist society.