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The definitive survey, combining current scholarship with a vibrant narrative. Carefully informed by feedback from dozens of scholars, it remains the book that students and teachers trust to explain what’s important, where it fits, and why it matters. Peter Burkholder weaves a compelling story of people, their choices, and the western musical tradition that emerged. From chant to hip-hop, he connects past to present to create a context for tomorrow’s musicians.
PREFACE TO THE
THE STORY OF A HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC
The science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “The story—from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
A History of Western Music is a story about where music in the Western tradition came from and how it has changed over the centuries from ancient times to the present. The story naturally focuses on the musical works, styles, genres, and ideas that have proven most influential, enduring, and significant. Yet it also encompasses a wide range of music, from religious to secular, from serious to humorous, from art
music to popular music, and from Europe to the Americas. In telling this tale, I have tried to bring several themes to the fore: the people who created, performed, heard, and paid for this music; the choices they made and why they made them; what they valued most in the music; and how these choices reflected both tradition and innovation.
We study music history in part because it gives greater understanding to all music, past and present. It may be surprising to discover how much and how often musicians from ancient times to the present have borrowed from musical traditions of other lands or earlier eras. Repertoires from Gregorian chant to recent vocal and instrumental music represent a fusion of elements from many regions, and musicians in
Europe and the Americas have been trading ideas for more than half a millennium.
Composers from the Renaissance to the twenty-first century have drawn inspiration from ancient Greek music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and many composers living today all borrow ideas from music written long before they were born. It may be even more surprising to learn that jazz artists have used harmonies they heard in music by Debussy and Ravel, or that the multiple simultaneous melodic and textual layers in hip hop were first tried out in the thirteenth-century motet. It is not that there is nothing new under the sun, but that almost anything new is a fresh twist on what has become traditional. Sometimes what seems newest is actually borrowed in part from music of the distant past.
Preface to the Tenth Edition
We may also be surprised to learn that things we take for granted about music have not always been around. Pop music aimed at teenagers first emerged after World War II. Most wind and brass instruments assumed their current form in the mid-nineteenth century or later. Concerts of music from the past, which are standard features of today’s musical life, first appeared in the eighteenth century and were rare before the nineteenth. Tonality, our common musical language of major and minor keys, is not even as old as New York City. Knowing the origins of these and other aspects of musical life increases our understanding.
Many questions about music can only be answered historically. Why do we use a seven-note diatonic scale? Why do we have a notation system with lines, staffs, clefs, and noteheads? Why do operas have recitatives? Why is the music of Haydn and Mozart called “classical”? Why do Bach and Schumann often use the same rhythmic figure in measure after measure, while Mozart and Schoenberg rarely do? How did jazz change from being a popular form of dance music to a kind of art music? None of these has a common-sense answer, but all can be answered by tracing their history.
As a rule, if something does not make sense, there is a historical reason for it, and only knowing its history can explain it.
It is with these themes in mind that I have written the new Tenth Edition of A History of Western Music. The text is structured in short chapters and arranged in six parts corresponding to broad historical periods—The Ancient and Medieval Worlds, The Renaissance, The Seventeenth Century, The Eighteenth Century, The Nineteenth Century, and The Twentieth Century and After. The parts are further divided into subperiods, each treated in one to three chapters. The first chapter in each chronological segment begins with a summary of the times in order to orient you to some of the most important themes of the era. In addition, each chapter starts with an overview of the music that will be discussed and ends with a sketch of its reception and ongoing impact. By structuring the narrative of music history in this
fashion, I have attempted to establish a social and historical context for each repertoire and to suggest its legacy and its significance today. The heart of each chapter explores changing musical styles, the primary composers, genres, and works, and the tension between tradition and innovation, always trying to make clear what is important, where it fits, why it matters, and who cares. Each part, each chapter, and
each section tells a story that is in some ways complete in itself but also connects to all the others, like pearls on a string, to form a single narrative thread rooted in human choices and values.