Choral Music: A Symposium, edited by Arthur Jacobs

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Choral Music: A Symposium. Edited by Arthur Jacobs. Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1963. [444 p., 16mo; $1.85]


As the foregoing pages show, the choral repertory is both older and broader than that of the symphony orchestra or opera house. For most purposes we date the modern symphonic repertory from Haydn, the modern operatic repertory from Gluck. But two centuries before Gluck's Orpheus (1787), Palestrina in Rome and Byrd in London were composing their masterpieces. Three centuries earlier still, an English monk wrote for choral performance the round which we know as Sumer is icumen in. A continuity of seven centuries was shown when the melody of this round was incorporated in Benjamin Britten's Spring Symphony (1949). It was incorporated chorally, the medieval melody cutting in on boys' voices through Britten's own polyphonic web. The idea of thus combining disparate musical strands, one of them not the composer's own, would not have surprised Machaut, Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, or Mahler. I name only five of Britten's predecessors among the great masters of choral writing.

Thus does Arthur Jacobs begin his "Postscript" and his summing up of certain conclusions drawn from the preceding twenty-one chapters which comprise this exceptional symposium on choral music.

Designed as a companion for all those interested in choral music, this pocket book places the heritage of choral music in both an historical and aesthetic perspective in the expressed hope that by so doing some contribution may be made toward re-establishing the dominance of this medium of musical expression.

Handsomely printed with text and musical examples which are extremely easy on the eyes, Choral Music is divided into twenty-two chapters, each written by an expert in the field.1

The contributors were asked not to adopt identical methods of treatment, but rather only to give a general outline of the music falling within the indicated dates, plus a treatment in some detail of a few selected major works. Most importantly, perhaps, each contributor was asked to indicate the relationship of the music under study to the general social life of its time. If such an indication is necessary for a truly historical treatment of any musical phenomenon, it is particularly necessary in treating choral music—bound up as it has been with the ritual of the churches and with the developing relationship between professional and amateur musicians.

The challenge presented to each of these contributors has, in almost every case, been most successfully met. Both erudition and humanity make this book exceptionally valuable as a text and/or as a handy reference.

The term "choral music" has been interpreted to include madrigals, part-songs, and other "vocal chamber music" where such music has entered the repertory of choral groups today. But, especially in the later periods, emphasis has naturally been placed on the music for larger choral forces.

A successful effort has been made to avoid the parochial outlook so often associated with choral music in the allotment of space to composers. For example, Stainer's Crucifixion is dealt with in one sentence, Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum in three pages.

It is particularly refreshing to see this side of the Atlantic so well represented as contributors (Messrs. Titcomb, Knapp, Goldman, Finney, and Sabin, and Miss Newlin) to a British publication. And editor Jacobs has adopted what he calls a "mid-Atlantic vocabulary," choosing, for example, the American "quarter-notes" and "eighth-notes" rather than the British "crotchets" and "quavers," but retaining such British usages as "twelve-note" (not twelve-tone) and "leading-note" (not leading-tone). He has also used English rather than foreign-language titles of works whenever possible.

At the end of the main text are lists of recommended books and musical editions by the authors of the individual chapters. In addition, Dr. Stanley Sadie has prepared an excellent discography which lists recordings available (as of mid-1962) of works referred to in the text. These appendices are especially helpful and make the book well suited for use as a text. For a book of this size (444 p.) there are amazingly few typographical errors, and the Index is soundly put together.

It seems to this reviewer that the historical-cultural approach of Choral Music has been eminently successful. From "Choir and People in the Later Middle Ages" (F. Ll. Harrison) to "Twentieth-century Americans" (Robert Sabin) is a fascinating adventure in musical ideas. In both style criticism and historical chronology, Professor Harrison's discourse makes patently clear much of medieval music that tends to be blurred in general music history books. Similarly, Elizabeth Cole, writing about Tudor England, says:

The most important single event in the first half of the sixteenth century, as regards music, politics, and social life in England, was the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539-40. Thousands of choristers were turned out of the friaries and monasteries, and obliged to look for other work in what must have seemed to them an alien world. "The loss to music," so the textbooks tell us, "was incalculable." Nothing could be further from the truth. Forcibly scattered throughout the country, the church musicians with their knowledge and discipline were directly responsible for the flowering of secular music in the succeeding Elizabethan age.

And Denis Arnold makes his point straightforwardly: "Gesualdo's music could only have been written by an amateur, that of Monteverdi only by a professional."

Professor Westrup writes with his usual authority concerning "Church and State in England, c. 1625-c. 1715," but it is Walter Emery's remarks concerning "Bach and his Time" which will probably provide musicologists with a great deal of fuel for future conversations. Two short quotations will suffice here:

For instance, Bach is said to have used a whole system of "motives," standing for grief, joy, and other abstractions. This notion might have been acceptable if Bach had used his motives fairly consistently, as Wagner used his. In fact, he did not. Chromaticism is not always associated with grief. The so-called "Joy Motive" is also associated with shouts of "Crucify Him!" Most of these abstract motives are simply stock rhythms, or stock melodic figures, or stock harmonic progressions. They make their musical effect; beyond that, they have no definite meaning. A list of Wagner's motives is worth learning; a list of Bach's abstract motives is not even worth looking at. . . .

. . . . . .

In recent years, commentators on Bach's period have written a great deal about number-symbolism. This is a reasonable device, so far as it is pictorial. It is natural that a single voice should sing of someone who is walking all alone, and that when the person walking is joined by others, other voices should join in. It is not unnatural that a fugue concerned with the Ten Commandments should contain ten entries of the subject; though one may doubt whether anyone but a modern commentator would have bothered to count the entries, and suspect the composer of a pious joke. No doubt there are many genuine examples of pictorial number-symbolism; but some of those that appear in books on Bach prove only that twentieth-century numerologists cannot count.

Chapters 8 through 13 trace the development of choral music in various well-chosen categories of time, place, and genre: "England in the Age of Handel" (Arthur Jacobs); the "Viennese Classical Period" (Roger Fiske); "After Handel—in Britain and America" (Richard Franko Goldman); "The French Revolution: Beethoven and Berlioz" (J.H. Elliot); "The Oratorio and Cantata Market: Britain, Germany, America" (Theodore M. Finney); and "The Mass—from Rossini to Dvorak" (Mosco Carner).

With the exception of Mr. Goldman's contribution, which is both perfunctory and short-sighted—especially in dealing with American music—the writing in these chapters is always solid and sometimes brilliant. Surely the most intriguing reference given is to a book entitled A Short History of Cheap Music (by Joseph Bennett; London, 1887) which deals with the activities of Alfred Novello and Henry Littleton.

The final eight chapters continue a thoroughly common sense approach which is such an important feature of the entire book. Choral conductors, especially, will find a great deal of material which is perhaps unfamiliar to them—material which, it is to be hoped, will find its way into rehearsal and performance. Of especial interest is the contribution of Gerald Seaman dealing with "Slavonic Nationalism from Dvorak to the Soviets," as well as Dika Newlin's essay on "Four Revolutionaries" (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartok), and Peter Pirie's "A Mixed Modern Group."

This then is a book of uncommon value for all musicians. Through the efforts of his contributors, Mr. Jacobs has put together a thoroughly brilliant symposium which fills a very significant need and which most probably will become a standard work in its field.

1F. Ll. Harrison, Caldwell Titcomb, Elizabeth Cole, J. Merrill Knapp, Denis Arnold, Sir Jack Westrup, Walter Emery, Roger Fiske, Richard Franko Goldman, J.H. Elliot, Theodore M. Finney, Mosco Carner, Deryck Cooke, Charles Reid, Dika Newlin, Gerald Seaman, Ernest Bradbury, Rollo H. Myers, Peter J. Pirie, and Robert Sabin.

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