The Concise Oxford History of Music, by Gerald Abraham

October 1, 1980

Concise Oxford History of MusicThe Concise Oxford History of Music, by Gerald Abraham. London, New York and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979. 968 pp. ISBN 0-19-311319-8.

A "concise" history? That might seem an odd designation for this blockbuster volume. Yet compared to the ten-volume New Oxford History of Music it is, indeed, concise. Much has been included; "as we shall see" (as Abraham says, far too often for my taste), much has been omitted, too.

Abraham sets his guidelines in the preface. He wanted to produce "a chronological survey of the whole field in tolerably readable narrative form" which might be useful to "the intelligent layman and nonspecialist." While concentrating mainly on Western music, he has offered brief interludes on music in the Islamic world, the music of India and of eastern Asia, and the music of black Africa and black America. "White" America, it seems, is one of those "peripheral Western countries" whose "high art" Abraham has felt it necessary largely to bypass. In this book you will find nothing about the music of the Moravians. Nineteenth-century American composers are briefly dismissed. Ives is disposed of in a single sentence: "Another variety of pure Americanism, the bizarre unintegrated mixture of daring sophistication and homespun crudity in the music of Charles Ives (1874-1954), remained generally unknown until c. 1930 though his Concord Sonata for piano had been privately printed in 1919 and 114 Songs in 1922." Here Roger Sessions is just a name; George Crumb, Leon Kirchner, Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky do not exist; while the very alive and lively Virgil Thomson will doubtless be astonished to read that he died in 1978! Is Abraham being a bit "colonialist" here, perhaps?

For the most part he has also bypassed folk and popular music. This he acknowledges in his preface; but another interesting omission is not mentioned by him, perhaps because he does not perceive it as such. According to the Book of Abraham only five women composers existed through the ages: Louise Bertin (1805-77), Francesca Caccini (1857-c. 1640), Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (c. 1664-1729), Elisabeth Luytens (born 1906; the only contemporary woman composer so honored), and Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). For information on others of equal or greater importance, too often one must go to tendentious (and sometimes inaccurate) specialist books. Let us hope that in the next fifty years or so of music history writing this will change.

What, then, does Abraham include? A lot! A brief subject outline is appropriate here. Besides the interludes there are the following major sections:

Part I. The Rise of West Asian and East Mediterranean Music. Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Greek contribution, the Hellenistic-Roman world, music in the Christian world.

Part II. The Ascendancy of Western Europe. The beginnings of polyphony, music of the proto-Renaissance, the "new art" of the fourteenth century, the European synthesis, the impact of the Renaissance.

Part III. The Ascendancy of Italy. Reformation and Counter-Reformation music; secular song and instrumental music, c. 1560-1660; the early growth of opera and the development of instrumental and religious music, c. 1610-1660; opera, secular music, religious music and instrumental music, c. 1660-c. 1725; changes in opera, orchestral and chamber music, music for or with keyboard (including songs) and religious music, c. 1725-1790.

Part IV. The Ascendancy of Germany. Opera, orchestral music, chamber music, piano music, solo song and choral music, 1790-1830; orchestral music, opera, choral music and piano music during the piano-dominated period 1830-1893; finally "the decline and fall of Romanticism" (1893-1918).

Part V. The Fragmentation of Tradition. Music between the wars (1919-1945) and cross-currents after 1945.

This scheme of organization may sometimes make it difficult to follow the development of the work of a single composer. Thus the music of Mozart is discussed in several different sections of the book, but not as a continuum. This was Abraham's conscious choice: "Instead of attempting a general valuation of X, I have tried to show what X contributed to the course, and perhaps the evolution, of church music, or orchestral music, or opera. If his creative career falls partly in one period, partly in another, I wish to show each part of his output in the context of that of his contemporaries rather than in that of what he himself had already achieved or was to achieve later." Therefore Abraham's "probable reader—the intelligent layman or student, not the mature musicologist" must make the intellectual effort to bring together the information about a composer's work in various genres.

Sometimes I feel Abraham assumes knowledge which that probable reader might not possess. Will he or she know without further explanation what "the Photian heresy" (offhandedly mentioned on page 66) is? Can every intelligent layman readily translate the many Latin, French, Italian, German and Spanish texts in the vocal examples? (Abraham does give translations of the texts in Slavic languages.)

Like many historians, Abraham treats the twentieth century rather sketchily. For example the four decades 1790-1830 are given 90 pages, but the 26 years from 1945 to 1971 (ending with the death of Stravinsky) only 18. This is noticeable but not necessarily regrettable, given Abraham's fossilized attitudes towards the music of our time. Electronic (or "electrophonic") music is, quoth he, "devoid of meaning and incapable of communication." The various forms of serialism are, predictably, "cerebral straightjackets." The reader truly interested in learning more about twentieth-century music will do better to skip these final testy chapters and go directly to the sources listed in Paul Griffiths' basic bibliographies for chapters 38, 40 and 41.

Many music examples have been included and Abraham's effort to avoid over-familiar ones is certainly commendable. It is good to have examples from the Slavic literature; I was especially taken with Example 135, a primitive I-V-I Russian kant celebrating the Russian victory at the battle of Poltava in 1709. Is Abraham playing a little game with the reader—like some Renaissance painter including his self-portrait in a larger canvas—when he devotes all of page 250 to an example from one of Andrea Gabrieli's Concerti with the following text: "sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham, Abraham, Abraham" (thus spake Abraham to our fathers)? Besides the music examples, 64 plates and five maps will certainly add to the reader's understanding and enjoyment.

The chapter bibliographies have been compiled by specialists in particular areas. Abraham himself has listed important comprehensive histories of music, general histories of particular categories (e.g., song, oratorio, sonata) and histories of Western national music. The following specialists (in addition to Griffiths) have contributed bibliographies:

T.C. Mitchell: Mesopotamia
W.V. Davies: Egypt
E.K. Borthwick: Greece and the Hellenistic-Roman world
John Caldwell: music in the Christian world, early polyphony and
the proto-Renaissance, ars nova and the European synthesis
Denis Arnold: the impact of the Renaissance, music of the Reformation
and Counter-Reformation, all genres of music from 1560 to 1725
Owen Wright: music in the Islamic world
Peter Ward Jones: all genres of music from 1725 to 1790
Richard Widdess: the music of India
Laurence Picken: the music of eastern Asia
Leslie Orrey: all genres of music from 1790 to 1830
Hugh MacDonald: all genres of music from 1830 to 1893
David Rycroft: the music of black Africa
Peter Gammond: the music of black America

There is no discography; obviously Abraham counts on his ideal reader's being intelligent enough to go to Schwann (or its British equivalent), a record shop, or a library catalogue and find recordings of the music in which he or she is interested. The footnotes are, blessedly, where they belong, at the bottom of the page. Abbreviations are employed only for the titles of the most commonly used periodicals, anthologies and historical sets—one is not forced to memorize a whole "code book" of them! The index, compiled by Frederick Smyth, is quite thorough, though there are some omissions (e.g., castrati).

Did Abraham succeed in his aim to produce a narrative in "tolerably readable" style? Well, tolerably. Taken in large doses, these information-packed pages can be somewhat soporific. "As we shall see" and "as we have seen" thud upon the page at predictable intervals. Oh for an indefinite moratorium on the use of these academic clichés! (I could do without "as it were," too, though Abraham couldn't.) There is some humor of a sly, if not exactly lightsome, academic sort. As castrati disappear from the vocal scene, we read of the dying-out of "what can hardly be called a breed." And when Carl Loewe ("lion"), master of the narrative ballad, composes an oratorio on the subject of Palestrina, we learn that the music given Palestrina to sing is "infinitely more Leonine than Praenestine."

Abraham's publishers dub this book "the one [among one-volume histories of music] which should be owned and read by everyone who is seriously interested in the subject." Whereupon the question leaps to the mind: What of GROUT? In recent months no music history teacher has been able to escape the fliers touting the New! Improved!! Third Edition of that classic textbook, with an Exclusive Added Feature!!! the two-volume anthology of music examples vouchsafed us by the expertise of Claude Palisca. Surely there will soon be an accompanying set of records including those same examples (in case your music history students can't read music). With this Grout Konvenience-Pak, students and faculty alike may glide through the obligatory music history survey course without ever straining their minds, ears or imaginations in a search for fresh material. Hence it will surely become (if it hasn't already) as common a feature of the American university city as the handy 7-11 store and the nearby McDonald's. Some day, I fear, a music student or faculty member will be able to transfer from college to college, city to city, and never notice the change. Those who are pressing for increasing standardization of college music curricula may welcome this. I deplore it.

The music history teacher looking for something other than a prepackaged course ("nothing to mix or measure") might well consider Abraham's book as a text. In spite of some flaws it belongs in every serious music literature collection, library or personal.

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