This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on plainsong and the creation of Europe. It is adapted from Beethoven’s Anvil, pp. 247-249.
During the 19th century Europe’s formal, learned artistic tradition embraced the idea of the “noble savage,” a descendant of the earlier notion of the Wild Man living in a state of natural purity untainted by civilization. It is through that lens that European high culture saw the hybrid vernacular music that had arisen in American through the misogynating rhythms of West Africa and European peasant culture. We can see noble savagery at work in the famous remarks that the conductor Ernst Ansermet made when we first heard Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra on tour in Europe in 1919:
The blues occurs when the Negro is sad, when he is far from home, his mammy, or his sweetheart. Then, he thinks of a motif or a preferred rhythm, and takes his trombone, or his violin, or his banjo, or his clarinet, or his drum, or else he sings, or simply dances. And on the chosen motif, he plumbs the depths of his imagination. This makes his sadness pass away,—it is the Blues.
Ansermet goes on to single out one musician for special praise:
There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I’ve heard two of them which he had elaborated at great length ... they gave the idea of a style, and their form was gripping, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet. When one has tried so often to rediscover in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the advance of our art ... what a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead ... but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his “own way,” and when one thinks that his “own way” is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.
Taken together, these passages reveal an astounding blend of admiration and condescension. Ansermet recognizes the power of the music he heard and the extraordinary skill of one musician, whom he compared to one of the canonical figures of his own tradition. Yet it is quite clear that Ansermet considers himself superior to both the music and the musician.
Such was the attitude of the cultivated European at the end of the 19th century. Europe’s colonies and ex-colonies spanned the globe; its museums displayed artifacts from an extraordinary range of cultures. Its scholars were writing ethnographic studies of primitives the world over while Freud was theorizing about the primitive impulses in the minds of proper Viennese gentlefolk. The triumph of reason over emotion was seen as the hallmark of the civilized.
Throughout most of the 19th century romanticism thrived in music, and with it the notion of the romantic genius—an idea clearly conflated with that of the noble savage in Ansermet’s account of Bechet. Romanticism, in turn, produced nationalistic music, in which composers sought out and incorporated folk tunes and dances into their works. With composers such as Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian school was one of the most prominent among the nationalists. Igor Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous student and his early ballets, Firebird, Petruska, and Le sacre du printemps, were in the nationalist tradition, making extensive use of folk songs and dances. Of these, Le sacre, with a scene in which an adolescent girl dances herself to death in a pagan celebration of spring, represents the strongest break from previous tradition. The insistent rhythms shattered the Gregorian aesthetic contract in which music was inscribed in a world were the mind and heart were divorced from the body.
That contract had been eroding from some time. For example, the rolling rhythms of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, seem to presage boogie-woogie piano figures, Chopin’s dance-inflected polyrhythms threaten the conventions of Western meter, and the waltz was raising temperatures in ballrooms across Europe. Yet these and other works only challenged the Gregorian contract. Stravinsky shattered it.
The 1913 premier of Le sacre was a scandal, one of the most notorious in the history of Western music. The scandal was relatively short-lived, and Stravinsky’s place in 20th century Western classical music was readily secured. But the place of that body of music in Western concert halls has never been secure. Classical concerts would continue to be dominated by works that adhered to the Gregorian contract. Those who sought music outside the bounds of that contract looked to a different musical tradition, the one Ansermet observed in the playing of Sidney Bechet.
As Ansermet foresaw, that is indeed the highway—though railway would be a better metaphor—along which the world was to swing. Across the Atlantic, in North America, new music was brewing, not romantic, even in the sense of Nietzsche’s Dionysian tragedians. Rather, Africa and Europe had been coupling and that coupling bore fruit in various musics: spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and hiphop.
Those various musics have circled the globe and created new hybrids wherever they’ve taken root, including in Africa. All the world dances to the grooves that have come from this interaction. Whether or not this will prove to be the foundation of a new transnational culture, or family of cultures, that’s an interesting question. I have no way of speculating about that, nor even any sense of whether or not that would a good thing.
Only time will tell.
But then that’s what music does, gives a voice to time.
A rather more tangible question is this: Just what cultural function does this funky music serve? Why is it so very attractive that every culture that encounters it, creates a version it’s own?