Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Monody Argument

Monody: "all styles of accompanied solo singing practiced in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (as distinct from monophony, which is unaccompanied melody)." (A History of Western Music, B., G., P., pg. 312)

The Argument: that the harmonic direction of Classical music was a direct consequence of Monody and the Florentine Camerata.

(a) founded for "the purpose of rediscovering the manner in which the Greeks had used music with the drama". (A History of Music, Finney, 228)
(b) "The sense of the drama depended upon the words being audible to the hearers, and the early experiments of the Camerata were directed toward the discovery of a style of music which would make that possible." (ibid.)

Consequently, "these men began by discarding the whole polyphonic method" because
(a) "Only a solo melody, [G. Mei] said, could enhance the natural speech inflections of a good orator or actor." (A History of Western Music, B., G., P., pg. 311)
(b) "When several voices simultaneously sang different melodies and words, in different rhythms and registers, some low and some high, some rising and others descending, some in slow notes and others in fast [i.e. polyphony], the resulting chaos of contradictory impressions could never deliver the emotional message of the text." (ibid.)

The Monody Argument asserts that this establishment of melody and accompaniment directed the course of this style of music [i.e. Classical music] towards a primacy of harmony because

(a) harmonic interest is a necessity of the dry recitative
(b) harmonic interest necessity of the primacy of emotion (at least in the mind of the monodists and consequently in the mind of Classical music)

1 comment:

Nate said...

This development of Classical music from Monody and Camerata is interesting and I assume true.

But is G. Mei accurately describing the widespread sentiment of the late pre-Classical period? That only solo melody enhances natural speech? This seems a very large generalization.

And when he continues to describe polyphony as "chaos," it seems more a testament to either his personal distaste with or misunderstanding of the genre.

Finally the "delivery of the emotional message of the text": he would have a more easily defensible position if he said that the verbal message of the text was obstructed by such "chaos," but emotional? Even if I myself despised polyphony and worshipped solo melody, I would have to admit that such a position, as stated, is the product of mere opinion.

It seems that G. Mei sees music as a means to initially communicate a message. But what if that message is already known, as in liturgical music? Then, with polyphony, the several simultaneous voices, the "different rhythms and registers," the fast and slow notes rather serve to enhance that already-known message. Far from worries about "audibility" (and I think he really means intelligibility), the resulting complexity (far different from chaos) adorns the words -- and with a surprising effect on the emotions as well.

I'm not trying to side with polyphony vs. solo. I just don't like the argument G. Mei gives.