Strengthening the “History” in “Music History”: An Argument for Broadening the Cross-disciplinary Base in Musicological Studies

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This paper is the result of years of teaching both music history and world history. Formally a musicologist by training, my experience with the world history curriculum has afforded me a broad perspective of Europe’s position in the context of the larger sphere of world history. As a result I have come to view the Western tradition of music history not as a single line of progress that began with the singing of chant in early Christian rites and can be traced to today; but rather, as but one part of the world’s musico-cultural tradition, not being as isolated from other traditions as we have been formerly and formally taught.

This paper examines the points of contact between Western “classical music” and non-Western cultures at the borders of Europe. One of the most extensive of these was between the Muslim world and European civilizations. Most of the eras generally covered in Western music history courses, from the medieval to the modern, coincide with the presence of Islam at the borders of Europe; however, this fact is usually ignored or at best marginalized. Much of this period of world history included the rapid spread of Islam westward and eastward from Arabia from the mid-seventh century onward, the clash of cultures and religions in the wars collectively known as the Crusades, the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the subsequent 400-year presence and at times dominance of the Ottoman Empire in southeastern Europe. Because of the dominant presence of the Muslim world at the very borders of Europe throughout much of its history, this paper targets Islamic influence on Western traditions. My method is to examine three particular topics frequently covered in Western music history courses, each from a different era: the Mozarabic rite in eighth-century Spain; the Florentine Camerata in sixteenth-century Italy, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in early nineteenth-century Austria.

The questions I explore are, first, what effect did the earliest occupation of Arabs have, in their spread of the Muslim faith, on the practice of Christianity in Spain? Second, how did the Florentine Camerata become intrigued with and find source material for ancient Greek musico-dramatic practices? Finally, during the Ottoman reign from 1453 to 1918, how were Islamic musical practices and culture incorporated into the Western tradition? In a particular example, what was Beethoven’s reason for inserting a Turkish march into the finale of his Ninth Symphony? My thesis is that the European music tradition can not be studied as a historical line in itself. It must include an adequate understanding of its general history in relationship to the developments of other peoples within its sphere of contact. Neither in the medieval era nor in any other age was Europe as isolated as we have been led to believe. My method in preparing this study was to compare the discussion of these topics in three college-level textbooks in Western music history survey courses, followed by a comparison of the pertinent general history in three college-level world history textbooks.

I draw first from the Schirmer History of Music, a 1982 publication and the oldest of the textbooks here under consideration. This was published under the general editorship of Léonie Rosenstiel, with detailed sections written by sub-specialists.1 As far as I know, this textbook has not been revised. Second, I refer to the 2006 edition of A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca, a revision of a publication that goes back to 1960. This is the standard textbook for music history courses and is now in its seventh edition. The third textbook is the most recent of these three, now in only its second edition, published in 2006. By Mark Evan Bonds, this is the History of Music in Western Culture. The world history textbooks I reference are Howard Spodek’s The World’s History, published in 1998; Jeremy Bentley’s Traditions and Encounters, 2003 edition; and John McKay’s A History of World Societies, 2007 edition.


Mozarabic Rite

According to Schirmer History of Music, Medieval European music had its origins in three major sources: classical Greek culture, Jewish religious practices, and Byzantine religious rituals. All of these traditions, however, had already greatly declined in influence long before the rise of medieval music. Greek culture had been absorbed by the spreading Roman Republic by 146 BCE; the Jewish diaspora in the Mediterranean had begun as early as 70 CE with the destruction of the Jewish temple at Jerusalem by the Roman army under the leadership of Titus, and the Byzantines had long before reached the height of their influence in western Europe under the reign of Justinian, who temporarily regained Italy and North Africa between 527 and 565 CE. Furthermore, bitter differences between the churches in Rome and in Constantinople, culminating in the schism of 1054 CE, heightened the increasingly separate spheres of the two largest expressions of Christianity at the time. There is not much awareness that in the seventh and eighth centuries the rapid spread of Islam in the Middle East, across North Africa, and into Spain created a much larger, single, and contiguous sphere of influence along much of the borders of Europe than any of the three influences cited in the Schirmer History. This is by no means to argue or doubt the importance of Greek, Jewish, and Byzantine elements in the early Christian rites, but to acknowledge a contemporary, continuous, vibrant, and wide-spread powerful new culture spreading rapidly along Europe’s borders.

Burkholder speaks also of the Greek, Jewish, and Byzantine influences on medieval Christian music. In his discussion of European society from 800-1300, he does, however, also acknowledge the influence of a contemporary world outside the realm of Christian Europe. He notes that by the ninth century, in addition to the empires of the Byzantines and of Charlemagne, the former waxing strong and the latter on the wane, “the strongest and most vibrant was the Arab world.” He furthermore states that “European culture owes much to all three empires.” He notes that, among other achievements, the Muslims became prominent patrons of literature, architecture, and “other arts.”2 We can only assume that these other arts, for Burkholder, would include music. In his prelude to the medieval era, Bonds presents a different view. He describes a Europe isolated from the rest of the world primarily due to declining commerce “as Arabic armies conquered North Africa and most of Spain . . . reducing contact between western Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world.”3 Unlike Burkholder, he stresses the limiting factor of the boundary.

The early spread of Christianity to Spain resulted in the development of a regional rite known as Mozarabic. From the seventh to the ninth centuries this rite flourished, and even came under the protection of the expanding Muslims for a time, until it declined under the imposing demands of the more official Roman rite. The Mozarabic practices might provide valuable insight on the possible Arab influences on its music. Schirmer has the most details about this. It speaks of a local Christian liturgy developing in Spain and being codified by the Council of Toledo in 633. This rite was given the name Mozarabic in the eighth century following the Muslim conquest of Spain. The Muslims practiced religious tolerance and thus Mozarabic liturgy was allowed to flourish, not being replaced by the Roman rite until the eleventh century. Evidence shows, even after the replacement, that local usage continued.4 Bonds adds that the Mozarabic rite never disappeared entirely. He concurs that Mozarabic kept its own liturgy and chant repertory even after the Roman rite was imposed on it, noting that for a time the two rites continued side by side and that the Mozarabic practice never disappeared entirely.5

What are the factors that allowed this rite to persist? Turning to the world history textbooks, we can piece together a more detailed picture of the early contact between Muslims and Christians in Spain. This helps us understand how the Mozarabic liturgy might have been preserved and even persist in the face of the imposing Roman rite. McKay gives the most extensive account of the Muslim world. He discusses the spread of Islam into Spain in 711, controlling most of Spain until the thirteenth century. He notes that “from one perspective the history of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages is the account of the coexistence and intermingling of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.”6 Along this line, McKay further discusses social classes within the Muslim world. Christians and Jews were considered as “dhimmies” or protected peoples. In other sources they are referred to with a special as “peoples of the book,” distinguishing these worshippers of one God from those who practice polytheism. They could freely conduct religious services and maintain houses of worship.7 He emphasizes further that Europeans and Muslims were neighbors in a geographical, a historical, and even a spiritual sense. They shared borders and a common cultural heritage from their Judeo-Christian origins. In a particular case study, McKay notes that in the Spanish city of Andalusia between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in close proximity, mentioning that some historians regard this situation as a “remarkable era of interfaith harmony.” Records show that Muslim and Christian young people joined together in “celebrations and merrymaking.” Surely young people making merry must have include shared music. McKay applies the term Mozarab specifically to these “assimilated Christians.”8 Bentley and Spodek concur also that during the early Muslim era, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their own religions.9 Spodek further notes that besides immigration and conquest, there were instances of intermarriage, with many Christians adopting Arabic ways and styles.10

Contact with Muslims took place in other ways as well. The Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries opened up much contact, and provided much subject matter for music, literature, and art. In the late twelfth century, European scholars came into contact with a particularly influential and learned Muslim scholar, a judge of Seville, by the name of Ibn Rushid, known to the West as Averroës. His influence in spreading the teachings of Aristotle to the Latin speaking academic world became an important factor in the rise of scholasticism in European universities during the high Middle Ages.


Florentine Camerata

Moving forward to 1453, Europe experienced another major conquest by Muslims as it had earlier in Spain. This time the location was southeastern Europe. When the Ottoman Turks toppled the failing Byzantine Empire by conquering Constantinople in 1453, a 400-year presence of Muslim rule began from the eastern edge of Europe; one that would spread at its zenith to the borders of Vienna in central Europe. What does this have to do with the history of music in the western tradition? For one thing, when Constantinople finally toppled, many Greek scholars, especially those desiring to preserve the primary source writings of Classical Greece, fled the advancing Turks. Many fled to Italy and brought with them a knowledge of classical Greek thought, drama, art, and music that shaped the direction of European thought from the Renaissance onward. Along with scholars like Averroës, they brought to Europe a first hand knowledge of classical Greece. A revival of interest in primary sources took place. This influenced humanism, which slowly replaced scholasticism. Note, however, that Greek thought was foundational to both.11 Approximately 100 years after the initial Turkish conquest of Constantinople, an influential group of poets, noblemen, and musicians met from 1573 to 1587 in Florence, Italy to discover the secret of Ancient Greek music’s power to move the emotions as reported in those early writings. This group, meeting at the home of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, became the famous Florentine Camerata, to whom musicologists point as the group responsible for the birth of opera.

Although two of the music history texts discuss the origins and contributions of the Florentine Camerata, none discuss the reasons that caused Renaissance Italy to turn its artistic eye towards ancient Greece. Burkholder does, however, acknowledge that some Renaissance writers, such as Girolamo Mei and Vincenzo Galilei, had considered the nature of Greek music, although without pinpointing the revival of interest in ancient Greece. Bonds also points to Galilei and another, Nicola Vicentino, who explored the adaptation of ancient music to modern practice, but also does not mention other factors contributing to this growing interest. Because of gaps in the discourse such as those mentioned above, it is very important to understand what was happening at the so-called border of Europe. The developments in music were very much affected, either directly or indirectly, by the interactions between European and non-European peoples. The knowledge of Europe’s relationship to the rest of the world at this time is of extreme importance in understanding the western musical tradition. Burkholder does mention the fall of Constantinople in 1453 but without any reference to the revival of the ancient Greek writings. In fact, the event does not seem to merit more than passing mention for in the very next sentence he states, “Most significant in the long run was the rise of Europe as a world power.”12 There is no mention of the consequences for Western music of the imminent presence of Turks in a very large sector of southeastern Europe. Again, we need a broad understanding of world history in order to understand the course of events in music history.


Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

In the years after the conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Turks proceeded in their expansion. They quickly took over the Balkans and Greece, took the Italian port of Otranto, and defeated the Hungarians in 1526. During the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Ottomans proved to be an important factor in forming alliances with Protestant German princes, and thus influencing the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which officially recognized Lutheran Protestants. Adding this knowledge to music history, we can see that this alliance indirectly contributed to the development of the great body of Lutheran church music, especially that of Johann Sebastian Bach in the eighteenth century. The Ottomans, and Muslim Arabs as well, also directly influenced musical developments. In musical drama, stereotypes of Turks and Moors colored the subject matter and characters of works such as Mozart’s The Abduction from the Harem and The Magic Flute. The music of janissary troops, the Ottomans’ elite military, became well known and was incorporated into the classical music of Mozart, Beethoven, and others as colorful exoticism. Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca,” in the Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 311, may be the most famous of all, but Beethoven’s insertion of a Turkish march into his finale of the Ninth Symphony, may be the most telling and may offer an extramusical association that requires a broader knowledge of the Ottomans’ position in world history at this time.

Beethoven’s awareness of and passion for politics and world order is well documented in his famous dedication (and its subsequent removal) of his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. Formerly his hero of revolutionary ideals, Napoleon became a curse to Beethoven when he realized that his goals were to rule as a despot of a French Empire that would stretch all across Europe. All three of the music history textbooks point out the famous scribbled out dedication page of the Eroica Symphony, and two of them have illustrations of it, each taking up nearly a half page. The story of the Turkish march in the Ninth Symphony, however, receives much less attention. Consider the following matters, however. First, Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony in his late period, one known for, among other things, intense reflection in his music. Second, the fourth movement of this symphony contains, for the first time in symphonic history, a chorus. The choir sings stanzas from Schiller’s Ode to Joy, a poem about universal love, joy, and brotherhood. This adds an unavoidable extra-musical meaning to the symphony and seems to demand a reading of the musical elements in the light of this text. Third, the Turkish March appears here, in the fourth movement. Although Burkholder states in another place that “Turkish style sounds and instruments were all the rage in the late 1700s,”13 I cannot so easily dismiss its insertion here as colorful exoticism. I do think, based on Beethoven’s passionate repudiation of Napoleon, and the fact that his music of this period shows reflection, that there is a message for mankind here, perhaps based on the theme of the Schiller poem.

Beyond Beethoven, what was Vienna’s position with the Turks in 1824, the year of the Ninth Symphony’s premiere? The Turks had tried to take over Vienna several times, but had failed each time, the last attempt being in 1683. After Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna in 1805 and after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 attempted to erase the marks of the “Corsican upstart” and re-establish a conservative Europe after near destruction by Napoleon’s forces, The Habsburgs renewed their vengeance against all threats to the old regime, denouncing in the same breath the declining Ottoman Empire as the “sick old man of Europe,” urging Christian nations to rid themselves of its presence in Europe. It was in this situation of political retrenchment that Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony. Surely he must have considered the political implications of the janissary insertion. After the movement comes to a particularly glorious cadence, it pauses in complete silence for what seems like a very long time. As the march begins slowly, haltingly, awkwardly, missing the downbeat and sounding only every second measure for the next five measures, what was Beethoven thinking? Am I embracing the Turks in my theme of universal brotherhood, or am I ridiculing them, scorning them as I had done with Napoleon when I discovered that he was a ruthless dictator and not the embodiment of revolutionary ideals that I had originally thought? Was his message one of a love and brotherhood so universal that the Ottomans should be included under its banner? Was it in sympathy with the prevailing feeling that the “sick old man” needs to die, for the music itself can be seen as a stylistic mockery, with its regular rhythms and simple harmonies of the Turkish “band” juxtaposed with the most complex symphonic music European ears had ever heard? Or, was it just one more example of trendy exoticism? For these questions and others like them to become discourse in music history courses, we need the broader context of world history.



To repeat, developments in Western music were greatly affected, either directly or indirectly, by the interactions between European and non-European peoples. The knowledge of Europe’s relationship to the rest of the world at this time is of extreme importance in understanding the western musical tradition. Questions like the ones I have examined through this cross-disciplinary study can be used to generate lively discourse in the classroom, to understand the relevance of historical issues in today’s diverse society, and to encourage students on their own to seek out answers. Based on my findings and past experience, I propose an improvement in the way the Western tradition is taught, one that incorporates an expanded, more accurate view of Europe’s musical traditions in the light of all of the world’s cultures that would have had an impact on its development. I recommend that instructors who are teaching courses in the Western classical tradition be well versed in world history, especially the history that directly affects Europe. Europe was not in a shell or a bubble, or its own microcosm; Europe was and still is part of the world as a whole. I further recommend that music majors take at least a few survey courses in World History and that the curriculum for Music History courses be enlarged to include views of history that provide the context for the music under study. Again, a proper study of the Western tradition in music history must be supported by adequate college level courses in World History and other supporting disciplines.



Bentley, Jeremy, and Herbert Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Bonds, Mark Evan. A History of Music in Western Culture. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2006.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Grout, and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. A History of World Societies. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Rosenstiel, Léonie, ed. Schirmer History of Music. New York: Schirmer, 1982.

Spodek, Howard. The World’s History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1998.



1Charlotte Roederer wrote on the Middle Ages, Lowell Lindgren on the Baroque, and L. Michael Griffel on the Romantic periods. These sections in particular were consulted for this paper.

2Burkholder, A History, 71-72.

3Bonds, A History, 19.

4These include the Muslim cities of Toledo and Salamanca. “A number of manuscripts dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries preserve this repertory, but their musical notation cannot presently be read. Therefore the only Mozarabic melodies currently known are the approximately two dozen transmitted in later concordances.” (See Rosenstiel, ed., Schirmer History, 24.)

5Bonds, A History, 31, 34.

6McKay, A History, 225.

7Ibid., 233.

8Ibid., 251 (all citations)

9Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters, 363; Spodek, The World’s History, 348.

10Spodek, The World’s History, 349.

11Although it seems here that I am no longer arguing for Islamic influence, remember that I am speaking of the Turkish military conquest that caused rippling effects in European culture.

12Burkholder, A History, 149.

13Ibid., 682.

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Last modified on Monday, 01/10/2018

Sandra S. Yang

Dr. Sandra Yang is Associate Professor of Music History at Cedarville University in Southwestern Ohio. Her specialty is twentieth-century French musicology, primarily focusing on the works of Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. Additionally she has done research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning with a special interest in online learning environments and the use of new technologies in pedagogical applications. She is a member of the Colleg Music Society, American Musicological Society, and the Pedagogy Study Group, a sub-group of the AMS. She earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA. 

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