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European classical music is both a topic of research and a source of ideas for social science. It can be studied as a set of specialized professions, an economic system, or an example of small-group interaction processes. As a source of ideas it helps social scientists reconsider classical socialscience theories of culture types and the rise and fall of civilizations that have fallen out of favor but have much to contribute.
As Europe developed, technologically and socially, to become the dominant civilization in the world, its music also developed, embodying many of the same cultural tendencies that led to the spectacular success of this small region. One can chart the developments in complex vocal and orchestral music from roughly 1600, when a late–Italian Renaissance attempt to revive ancient Greek music drama led to the creation of grand opera, or starting as early as 1200, when music began to express European nationalism. An example is the 1228 “Palestina Song” by Walther von der Vogelweide, celebrating the Sixth Crusade’s capture of Jerusalem.
For centuries, among the most complex machines were European musical instruments: church organs, harpsichords, and pianos. Among the most complex civilian activities on earth were performances of major European musical works, such as Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B-minor completed in 1749, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1824 Ninth Symphony. Coordination of such complex social activities required a system of musical notation far more advanced than possessed by any other civilization, division of labor among many highly skilled professionals, development of musical theory tied to mathematics and aesthetics, and strict discipline within a social system that rewarded individual achievements by composers, conductors, and soloists.
From the Crusades until World War I, European music evolved in a rather linear direction, for example, first gradually rationalizing musical scales until the time of Bach, and then progressively exploiting the chromatic possibilities of the well-tempered scale, notably in Richard Wagner’s 1859 Tristan and Isolde. These were made possible by technological developments, such as from increasingly complex harpsichords to the powerful eighty-eightkey modern piano and the addition of valves to brass instruments. Serious music had reached the limits of progress in this direction in Arnold Schoenberg’s ponderous oratorio Gurre-Lieder, first performed in 1913, the same year that Igor Stravinsky’s dynamic Rite of Spring sought to revive the European spirit through an influx of primitivism. To a very real extent, war brought an end to the European dream in 1914. Schoenberg’s response was to develop a system of atonal composition that was either a rejection of the European sense of melody or the fulfillment of the European evolution toward chromaticism in harmony. His mathematical twelve-tone method based a piece on a tone row, a series of the twelve tones of the octave, not repeating one until the other eleven had been played. He attempted to compose an entire religious opera, Moses und Aron, based on a single tone row representing God’s law. Schoenberg was unable to finish this work, and although many composers adopted his system, Stravinsky among them, it marked the effective end of European classical music rather than a new beginning.
European classical music illustrates the theory of Oswald Spengler, who argued that each great civilization begins with a unified set of ideas, builds on them, and attains their logical conclusion, at which point the civilization collapses. Pitirim Sorokin described this cycle of birth and death as a gradual shift from the original set of ideas that flourish in the civilization’s ideational or growth phase, to the gradual loss of faith that comes in the sensate or decline phase, which could be followed by another ideational phase.
Crosscutting these cyclical theories was Friedrich Nietzsche’s explicitly music-based theory of competition between Apollonian and Dionysian styles—roughly intellectual versus intuitive, or what Curt Sachs called ethos and pathos—as in the difference between Bach and Wagner. Following an information-theory approach, Leonard Meyer has argued that listeners develop expectations about what is to come next in music, both in a single work and within a broad tradition, and creativity violates these expectations. Thus, novelty gradually expanded the scope of European music, often by alternating between Apollonian and Dionysian extremes, leading in the twentieth century either to collapse or to a fluctuating stasis. The fact that every feature of European music differs from other traditions, such as the Arabic or Chinese, dovetails with Samuel Huntington’s theory that the world is not converging on one “modern” culture but faces a clash of civilizations.
- Bainbridge, William Sims. 1985. Cultural Genetics. In Religious Movements, ed. Rodney Stark, 157–198. New York: Paragon.
- Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1966. Serial Composition. London and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca. 2006. A History of Western Music, 7th ed. New York: Norton.
- Hubbard, Frank. 1965. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Lorraine, Renee Cox. 2001. Music, Tendencies, and Inhibitions: Reflections on a Theory of Leonard Meyer. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
- Meyer, Leonard B. 1994. Music, the Arts, and Ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1872. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage, 1967.
- Pollens, Stewart. 1995. The Early Pianoforte. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Sachs, Curt. 1946. The Commonwealth of Art: Style in the Fine Arts, Music, and the Dance. New York: Norton.
- Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1941. Social and Cultural Dynamics. New York: American Book Company.
- Spengler, Oswald. 1918. The Decline of the West. 2 vols. New York: Knopf, 1945.
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