Rooting Out the Music
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
In the 1960s, it seemed as if music were a primal force that could help change the world. Various music festivals embraced the power of music as a means of fostering peace and love, and demonstrators at political rallies swayed to music that united sometimes disparate parties in a common cause. What makes music such a powerful force, and how can we use its energy to understand our own humanity? How did it rise to take center stage in such a fractious time, and is it does it retain such power today? What roles did individual composers and musicians play in elevating music to its new status as the liveliest of all the arts?
Tim Blanning’s The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art is a splendid examination of the evolution of music from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century that attempts to answer these and other questions.
According to Blanning, while music always seduced its listeners—from the ancient balladeers whom Plato condemns and Aristotle celebrates—it came into its own as a singular art form in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when composers rose to fame in much the same way that rock stars rose to fame in the twentieth century. Blanning examines five ways in which music moves from the periphery of the arts to the center. Drawing on examples ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to Bach and Irish rocker Bono, he demonstrates that when the status of the composer and musician changed, when music demonstrated a new purpose, when new places and spaces celebrated music alone, when new technologies allowed musicians to express themselves in new ways, music was liberated from the straightjacket in which society had put it and it rose to prominence in several cultures.
In the early nineteenth-century, for example, Blanning points out the ways that perceptions of music’s purpose had changed. “This period marked a major shift in the way music was regarded. Instead of writing something recognized as ephemeral, to be played once or twice and then discarded, composers aspired to create works that would become a permanent part of the classical repertoire.” By the 1980s, he contends, music had triumphed so successfully that it could be said that “music is the religion of the people.”
Blanning’s superb book joins several others, such as Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, that explore the tremendous influence of music on human nature and society. Blanning’s study conducts everyone whom music touches on a marvelous journey from music’s earliest roots to its central place in contemporary society.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art by Tim Blanning. (Harvard University Press)
The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel Levitin. (Dutton)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.