A Survey of Music History Texts

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This survey concerns available texts for the college History of Music course and includes only single-volume books in English, dealing with Western music, published or revised after 1950, and comprehensive in scope.

It would be hard to take issue with Jack A. Westrup's description of the obligation of the historian. "The historian tries to treat events in an orderly sequence and see patterns without imposing them, to study causes, results and the interactions of events, and finally to make all this interesting and stimulating."1 In general the authors of the books under consideration have fulfilled these obligations, although success on the last point is unequal.

The methods represented here for the study of the history of Western music are various. Some of the histories are chronological and all-inclusive, while others are chronological but focussed on styles and forms; some authors treat history as a history of Great Men; some include political, economic, social, and cultural events and their effect on music, while others see change as inherent only in the music itself and do not deal with events outside it; some attempt to produce self-sufficient volumes by including numerous musical examples in the text, while others, by providing a mere framework in outline form, imply that the student should do outside reading and listening; some strive for complete objectivity, cautiously avoiding obvious personal bias, while others openly state that they will make their personal assessment of the music known.

The college instructor in music history will choose a text which will best serve the kind of student for whom the course is set up. Is the class intended for music majors? for non-majors who are musicians? for non-majors who have very little background in music? (This survey does not, however, include introduction-to-music or appreciation texts.) Do the students work best when all information is contained in one volume, or do they welcome the challenge of an outline history? (The adequacy of the school music library to supplement the outline study with scores and books is a factor to consider.) Will most of the students go on to graduate work in music, or is this a terminal course for them? Is there a theory prerequisite for the course?

Texts for the music major, for the non-major, and outline histories will be described in that order, and presented in alphabetical order by the author.

There are some fine texts currently available for the music major. Edith Borroff's Music in Europe and the United States, A History (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971) is comprehensive, accurate, and outstanding in many ways. As one gathers from the title, Dr. Borroff includes United States music history, beginning with the European Renaissance period. Other special features are the inclusion of 91 musical examples, 80 of which are complete, and discussions on the "Practicality of History" (chapter 30) and the rise of musicology (chapter 25). The magnificent illustrations are rich in color and pertinent to the text. Instead of a bibliography at the end, Dr. Borroff gives information about her sources in footnotes. Her prose style is full of vitality, precise and accurate. It may be a little disconcerting to some to find the composers relegated to brief small-print paragraphs at the end of each chapter. Those men who influenced the course of music most are bedded with their contemporaries in the same size berth. It seems to this reviewer that they deserve king-size accommodations.

Richard Crocker's History of Musical Style (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966) could certainly be used as the basic text for a history course. It treats the development of Western music chronologically, concentrating on form and style but also including the most important composers of each period. There are 142 musical examples; and, although illustrations of various non-musical events are not presented, these events are described in the text. The book is well-documented, with an excellent annotated bibliography. Dr. Crocker's prose style is terse, colorful and smooth. The analyses of the musical examples are most illuminating; and often give a fresh insight into the works. He speaks of "great rhythmic charm," and says "expressive ornamentation of trills, mordents and appoggiaturas is the French versionless brilliant and passionate, but more refined."

Adopted by 726 schools in 1970 alone, A History of Western Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1960; rev. 1973) by Donald J. Grout probably is best-known to music history instructors. In 1973 it was expanded to 760 pages to include 135 musical examples. It is a most comprehensive general history, and in its revised version incorporates discoveries by musicologists which have been made in the 13 years since the book's original printing. Because of its attention to so many composers, works, and events, it makes an excellent reference and review book for both undergraduate and graduate music majors. The new illustrations in the revised edition concentrate on musical activity rather than on portraying composers. Some personal judgments have been eliminated in the new edition. Phrases from Dr. Grout's first edition such as "monotonous in harmony and almost totally unrelieved by any flash of spontaneous feeling" have been deleted. The bibliography has been augmented to include new publications and to fill in some earlier omissions. The text reads smoothly and clearly, and reflects a contagious enthusiasm for the music on the part of the author.

Man and his Music, The Story of Musical Experience in the West, by Alec Harman with Anthony Milner and Wilfrid Mellers (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962), is intended for "use in schools and universities," and to show music in relation to human culture and activity. Although in a review of another music history book Mr. Harman accused the author of making judgments about composers, he himself states in the preface that he and his co-writers intend "to convey something of the feelings aroused in us by the music we write about." The book is large, originally subdivided but now available in a single volume of 1070 pages of text and with 236 musical examples. The organization is somewhat inconsistent. It begins with chapters given chronological titles and then proceeds to chapters on style. There is a bibliography at the end of each chapter. Baroque performers will be misled by Harman's discussion of ornamentation because he speaks of "upper" and "lower" mordents, and of the "perfectly satisfactory results" obtained by an "occasional trill on long notes." The American reader may be a little incensed by Wilfrid Mellers's arbitrary labeling of some composers in America as "minor." A commendable feature is the inclusion of complete compositions. The text is interesting and stimulating.

Curt Sachs's Our Musical Heritage, though appearing in a second edition as late as 1955 (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall), does not incorporate results of the latest research, and falls far short of giving a perspective on the contemporary scene in the 1950's. One of his last paragraphs begins: "Chordal harmony returned about 1930, and here and there, as in Stravinsky's C or Hindemith's E-flat Symphony, tonality in the older sense has been restored. Music, no less than other arts, develops in reversals. . . ." The importance of this book, however, lies in the reflection of Sachs's outstanding contributions to history of instruments and of dance, as well as the linking of Western European music to that of other cultures.

One of the newer histories is John D. White's Music in Western Culture, A Short History (Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown, 1972), "designed to meet the needs of undergraduate college and university students of music. . . ." It is concise and comprehensive (363 pages of text). Its brevity is achieved partly by summing up music history before the Middle Ages in a "prologue," by short musical examples, and by omitting documentation. Each of the conventional eras of Western music history are given 60-70 pages, except for "classicism" (33 pages). It includes information provided by recent musicological discovery in the text as well as in the bibliography. There is a nice balance between space for stylistic developments and space for men responsible for them. The book fulfills well the objectives of a concise history.

Histories which are intended for the "intelligent layman," the "general reader," and for popular consumption cannot be as accurate as more lengthy and technical histories. Generalizing always runs the risk of misrepresentation. One older favorite for the non-specialist in Great Britain is H.C. Colles's The Growth of Music, A Study in Musical History (London: Oxford University Press, 1956, 3rd ed.). "This book . . . makes a small selection of a few salient works by a few of the greatest men, and tries to trace the growth of musical technique by means of them." It begins with the troubadours and ends with 24 pages on the twentieth century, naturally dwelling at some length on the British composers.

Alfred Einstein's Short History of Music (New York: Vintage Books, 4th American ed., rev. 1954) takes contemporary developments as far as Bartok. J.A. Westrup writes about this history: "The work of one who was deeply versed in the minutiae of musical scholarship but was at the same time able to take a balanced view of the whole field . . . , it is immensely stimulating to the reader, and often it makes clear in a few sentences matters to which other authors have devoted many pages."2

A Concise History of Music by William Lovelock (New York: Ungar, 1962) is intended "for the beginner." It does not use the chronological divisions of Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc. Its chapter titles are "The Early Development of Counterpoint," "Early Secular Music," etc. There are very few musical examples, and contemporary developments end with Schoenberg. There is no information on American music.

An excellent book for the non-music major at college is Marc Pincherle's Illustrated History of Music, which has 240 fine illustrations and 200 pages of text. A review by Emmanuel Winternitz (Notes, XVIII [1960] pp. 48-50) praises the visual attraction but lists a few errors in identification of instruments.

"The pedagogic aim of this edition . . . is to help prepare the reader to participate more fully in the total musical experience. . . ." This is the stated aim of McKinney and Anderson in their Music in History, The Evolution of an Art (New York: American Book Co., 3rd ed., 1966). The revisions have largely been made by the authors, and the present edition carries contemporary information through the works of Charles Wuorinen. Some blanket statements might cause uneasiness, such as "Fortunately Bach did not write for the moment" (p. 354), and the subsequent description of the composition of his Mass in B Minor, implying that it was composed solely out of admiration for the Roman Mass.

Though the prose style tends to be a little pedantic and lifeless, the work of William L. Smolden, A History of Music (London: H. Jenkins, 1965), covers much detail in its 457 pages of text. It is intended for "students of music and the cultured layman."

A History of Music and Musical Style, by Homer Ulrich and Paul A. Pisk (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), offers the "general reader" a well-written insight into the music primarily and men and events secondarily. There is a bibliography and a long chapter on American music.

Teaching music history by using an outline history has some advantages both to the student and to the teacher. A recent publication, An Outline History of Music by Milo Wold and Edmund Cykler (Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown, 1973), is quite complete, including in the twentieth century some important foreign composers forgotten in American music histories. Explanations are brief, but exact pages are cited in specific texts for additional reading on each topic treated in the outline. A source for score study and a recording are listed for every form described. There are fine illustrations and musical examples, features which are not often included in outlines. Such a book can also serve as an excellent review for graduate students.

The third edition of Hugh M. Miller's History of Music (New York: Barnes & Noble, 3rd ed., 1960) has a tabulated bibliography of standard texts. The list is limited, of course, to texts published before 1960 and, in fact, includes some which are no longer the best reference.

The Columbia University Press publication An Outline of The History of Music by Karl Nef (trans. by Carl Pfatteicher; 8th ed., 1955) includes musical examples, but also some statements that are no longer commonly accepted. It perpetuates some of the myths about Gregory and Gregorian chant, about Palestrina as the consultant for the Council of Trent, about Haydn introducing thematic development, etc.


1J.A. Westrup, An Introduction to Musical History (London, 1963), p. 11.

2An Introduction to Musical History, p. 158.

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