The Origin and Function of Music – Part II

October 5, 2006

Of the music of primeval man we can form an estimate from the music of still existing uncivilized races. As the vocabulary of their speech is limited, so the notes of their music are few, but expressive gestures and modulations of the voice supplement both. With advancing civilization the emotions of which the human heart are capable become more complex and demand larger means of expression. Some belief in the healing, helpful, uplifting power of music has always prevailed. It remains for independent, practical, modern man to present the art to the world as a thing of law and order, whose ineffable beauty and beneficence may reach the lives of the average man and woman.

Without the growth of the individual, music cannot grow; without freedom of thought, neither the language of tones nor that of words can gain full, free utterance. Freedom is essential to the life of the indwelling spirit. Wherever the flow of thought and fancy is impeded, or the energies of the individual held in check, there music is cramped. In China, where conditions have crushed spiritual and intellectual liberty, the art remains to this day in a crude rhythmical or percussion state, although it was early honored as the gift of superior beings. The Chinese philosopher detected a grand world music in the harmonious order of the heavens and the earth, and wrote voluminous works on musical theory. When it came to putting this into practice tones were combined in a pedantic fashion.

In all ages and climes music has ministered to religion and education. The sacred Vedas bear testimony to the high place it held in Hindu worship and life. Proud records of stone reveal its dignified rôle in the civilization of Egypt, where Plato stated there had existed ten thousand years before his day music that could only have emanated from gods or godlike men. The art was taught by the temple priests, and the education of no young person was complete without a knowledge of it.

Egyptian musical culture impressed itself on the Greeks, and also on the Israelites, whose tone-language gained warmth and coloring from various Oriental sources. Hebrew scriptures abound in tributes to the worth of music which was intimately related to the political life, mental consciousness and national sentiment of the Children of Israel. Through music they approached the unseen King of kings with the plaintive outpourings of their grief-laden hearts and with their joyful hymns of raise and thanksgiving.

From the polished Greeks we gained a basis for the scientific laws governing our musical art. The splendid music of which we read in ancient writings has for the most part vanished with the lives it enriched. Relegated to the guardianship of  exclusive classes its most sacred secrets were kept from the people, and it could not possibly have attained the expansion we know.

Music has been called the handmaiden of Christianity, but may more appropriately be designated its loyal helpmeet. Whatever synagogue or other melodies may have first served to voice the sentiments kindled by the Gospel of Glad Tidings it was inevitable that the new religious thought should seek and find new musical expression. In shaping a ritual for general use, an accompaniment of suitable music had to be considered. The fathers of the church constituted themselves also the guides of music. Those forms which give symmetry and proportion to the outward structure of the tonal art were pruned and polished under ecclesiastical surveillance until spontaneity was endangered. Happily in the
spirit of Christianity is that which ever proves a remedy for the mistakes of law-givers. The religion that inculcates respect for the individual has furthered the advance of music and of spirituality.

Beyond the confines of the church was another musical growth, springing up by the wayside and in remote places. Folk-music it is called, and it gives untrammeled utterance to human longings, human grief and despair, and human wondering over the mysteries of life, death and the great Beyond. Untutored people had always found vent in this kind of music for pent-up feelings, and the folk-music of the Christian world, during the Crusades, gained a new element in the fragments of Oriental melody transplanted into its midst. In time, through the combined wisdom of gifted composers and large-minded ecclesiastical
rulers, the music of the church and the music of the people became united, and modern music was born.

Architecture, painting, sculpture and poetry possess practical proofs of their past achievements and on these their present endeavors are builded. Modern music has been compelled to be the architect of its own fortunes. It is the one new art of our era, and, as the youngest in the family of arts, it has but recently reached a high state of development.

During those eleven Christian centuries, from the latter part of the fourth century, when the corner-stone for our musical system was laid, until the wonderful exploration period of the fifteenth was well advanced, the masters of music were absorbed in controlling the elements of their art. Since then event has crowded upon event with rapidly increasing ratio. During the past two centuries the progress of the art has been like a tale in fairyland. We now possess a magnificent musical vocabulary, a splendid musical literature, yet so accustomed are we to grand treasure-troves we perhaps prize them no more than the meagre stores of the past were prized.


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