Musical Atavism

One area I find endlessly fascinating, but which is impossible to study systematically, is the glimmers or ancient performance traditions that survive, seemingly by chance. Such documentation as does exist for earlier periods is fragmentary and poorly understood, like the old neumatic notation of Christian chant. Was information about speed of performance, quarter-tone inflections, and phrasing really part of the notation? How much simpler plainsong notation and performance made everything…hang it all! What was common knowledge to musicians of 500-1200 C. E.—what were they used to hearing?

Preliterate musician/carnival entertainers—called joglars (Provençal) or jongleurs (French)—were a despised yet necessary class, the ancestors of theater people, and I wish more were known about them. According to the Grout/Palisca music history text (I haven’t checked the newer Grout/Palisca/Burkholder edition), they were “…a class of professional musicians who first appear about the tenth century: men and women wandering singly or in small groups from village to village, from castle to castle, gaining a precarious livelihood by singing, playing, performing tricks, and exhibiting trained animals–social outcasts often denied the protection of the laws and the sacraments of the Church.” The Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch is more supercilious: “People of no great wit, but with amazing memory, very industrious, and impudent beyond measure.”

Singing, playing, performing tricks. Singing and playing what? Being denied Church sacraments meant eternal damnation, of course. What kind of threat did these people present, and how alluring must their entertainments have been? One of my favorite quotations is this one, from the good Honorius d’Autun, a medieval cleric (d. c. 1151): “Do the jongleurs have any hope? None. Because they are from the bottom of their hearts the ministers of Satan.”

Ah! My people. What I was teaching the music history survey I’d dead-eye the class and tell them that the jongleurs were their musical ancestors, no matter how committed some of them might now be to music ministry. Music—going back to Plato—is a threatening, untrustworthy pursuit, and to devote one’s life to it is to get in line with the jongleurs, not with the good Mrs. X twittering through “Oh, Promise Me” at every wedding.

They looked somewhat taken aback, even alarmed. Not for the last time.

I remember that when I took my first music history survey, the teacher contemptuously told us that the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was known to imitate barn animals in his performances, to the audience’s great delight. He is usually presented as both unicum and inspiration for all the Romantic piano composers and virtuosi: Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, etc. What is rarely explained is that Paganini was one of the last of a longstanding tradition of traveling Italian violin hotshots, going back centuries. Locatelli was another one, and the tradition goes back at least to famous composers Vivaldi and Corelli. Antonio Lolli (1730-1802), another of Paganini’s precursors, was known to imitate a lute, a flute, a piano, a lyre, a harp, a jaw harp, bagpipes, cockcrow, a dog’s bark, and birdsong. Obviously, audiences loved this sort of thing, or he would not have been so successful. Did any of us learn about him in music history class? One also finds chicken clucking in the Fandango of Antonio Soler, by the way, so it was a widespread musical joke.

But such unpretentious entertainments survived far longer than we would think. In The Elias Modern Scientific Method, a 1927 treatise by midwestern trumpet virtuoso and pedagogue Fred Elias, we find instructions for producing a horse neigh, a laugh, a baby cry, a cat meow, a dog bark, rooster crow, a sneeze, a bullet whizzing effect, talking, and even a locomotive. Does this not count, somehow, because it doesn’t come out of the Paris Conservatory? Those who know the 1920s Paul Whiteman Orchestra recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, with Gershwin himself as soloist, know that Ross Gorman’s famous opening clarinet lick and its trumpet echo aren’t to be lovely so much as vaudeville cues; the instruments are to be sassy, laughing and chattering. Why don’t we hear this now? ’Tain’t fitten?

These things aren’t totally gone—Ry Cooder’s version of Chuck Berry’s “The Thirteen-Question Method” (on Get Rhythm, 1987) features what might be called an “amorous conversation” (what my father would call he-ing and she-ing), realized on guitar. Of course, this is the stuff of popular music, intended to produce a laugh. I suspect that entertainment music and cultivated music didn’t used to be so far apart, though—composers basing entire formal compositions on Hungarian-Gypsy café music, or Jazz, and performers playing both violin concertos and animal imitations. That is attractive to me, not least because if a conductor said, “play that bit like a baby crying” or “like a dog barking” the musician would have some idea of what to do. (One suspects that many would fly off in a huff today, or call the union.) How many orchestral players (OK, fair enough, or pianists) would have any vocabulary of goofs and effects of this kind? Not me, certainly. Bartok could do insects and frogs by ear, but I can’t.

Then, tantalyzingly, there are the old songs that retain references we no longer understand. Speaking of the Xmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy,” Elizabeth Poston observed, “Who knows from what atavistic race-memory may spring ‘The rising of the sun and the running of the deer’?” Again: it was once common knowledge, like fiddle tricks: what absolutely everyone knew and required no explaining. In a generation or two, though, it is GONE, and if not written down (or, more recently, recorded) is as if it had never been, as with disappearing local dialects, or pidgins like Lingua Franca. Obviously, everyone knew what the “running of the deer” meant at the time—an ancient race-tradition associated with Sol Invictus? Who knows?

For me, one of the most pleasurably unearthly sensations is that of hearing or witnessing something that one would never have imagined to have survived—something, in a sense, one has no business hearing. This is one of the real attractions of the study of historical performance practices, for me at least; one seeks to recapture sounds, techniques, approaches, and even ways of hearing that disappeared long ago. Ultimately, perhaps, it is nothing more than the basic historian’s impulse: There Was Something Worth Knowing Back Then, And We Are Diminished For Having Forgotten It. And here we find ourselves fellow-traveling with, for example, ethnobotanists: we share the simple humanities-based impulse that what was previously known or thought or experienced was of value and is worth preserving, even if the value is now understood differently. It is also where we part company with narrow orthodoxies of whatever kind: religious, political, scientific, which tell us what we do and do not EVER need to know.

Oddly this fear of forgetting, and openness to all kinds of knowledge, makes me feel more secure, not less; more at home, not more unmoored. Must be that humanities background.

So, back to work for me: how did Chopin like his piano tuned?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Musicology, Performance, Performance Practice. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Musical Atavism

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    Lost knowledge is a historian’s curse. For one simple example, the British scholar John Clapham wasted a great deal of time and energy trying to track down something that would have been clear to just about everyone in America in the 1890s. A reference to “Kickapoo Indians” offering a medicine show in Spillville that Dvorak attended in 1893 sent Clapham into all kinds of ethnographic research into the Kickapoos — a small group from Oklahoma — when it would have been obvious at the time that the reference was to a travelling show from the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company that operated out of New Haven. Travelling companies appeared all over the country and were made up of Indians from various areas — those in Spillville were probably Lakota, or Sioux. They all probably performed some kind of commercial pan-Indian nonsense designed to satisfy the white man, rather than anything that we could consider “authentic.”

Comments are closed.