Music – The Beginnings Of Music In Song And Dance

THE two primitive forms of musical expression are Song and Dance—music used as the medium for the emotional expression of thought, and music used as the foundation for emotional expression through bodily movement. The one is primarily Melodic, the other primarily Rhythmic. You can, if you wish, express emotional thought without any rigidly fixed rhythm at all, as here.

There is rhythm in that—but it is prose rhythm, not poetic (i. e. metrical) rhythm. It is, roughly speaking, the kind of rhythm you find in

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands, not the kind you find in- All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.

Song music, of course, quickly tends to become metrically rhythmic, especially if it is taken up by large masses of people for corporate singing. But the rhythmic element is not so pronouncedly essential as the well-ordered rise and fall of the voice. In Dance, on the other hand, rhythm is almost everything. In default of a better instrument you could dance to the note of a solo drum, but you would not like to sing, or be sung to, for a quarter of an hour on one note. Look through Cecil Sharp’s collection of folk-songs and you will find a good many with very free rhythms (rhythms still further varied, probably by the same singer on different occasions).

Look through his folk-dances and you will find them all four-square and clean-cut.

To put it fairly—the tendency of song is to melodic beauty and melodic expression ; the tendency of dance to rhythmic vitality and rhythmic expression.

All Music derives from Song or Dance

Now the influences of Song and Dance, these two primitive means of musical expression, run through all music, even the most modern. A Bach Suite is a development of the Dance, a Bach Fugue (as will shortly be seen) of the Song, a Beethoven Slow Movement of the Song, a Beethoven Scherzo of the Dance. The opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a development of the Song element

In a page or two, however, Stravinsky plunges us into a development of Dance -

In much music the elements are to be found combined. They were actually combined in the primitive Carol and the Elizabethan ‘Ballet’, which were intended to be simultaneously sung and danced, and the combination of their influences is to be found in many a piece of symphonic music.

Amongst different nations (nations ethnologically differently predisposed, and subjected to different conditions of climate and of mode of life) different forms and flavours of Song evolve, and different styles of Dance.

The Harmonic Idea

So far all the music we are considering is Melodic or Rhythmic or a combination of the two. We have not, as yet in this chapter, taken any account of Harmonie Music. European music began to emerge from its purely Melodic-Rhythmic phase only about the year 600, and did not develop the Harmonic in any very artistic way until (say) 1400-1500. Adam and Eve’s love-songs were Melodic, so were Antony and Cleopatra’s. The troops of Julius Caesar marched to Rhythmic or Rhythmic-Melodic music. So, most likely, did those of William the Conqueror. The Psalms were sung in Solomon’s Temple to pure Melody, and nobody ever thought of singing them in even the most rudimentary form of Harmony until almost the time of Charlemagne.

When the idea of Harmony did come into the world it grew out of the difficulties of the churchmen in singing the psalms and hymns of the church in unison, with a body of singers whose voices were of course neither all tenor nor all bass.

In this, apparently, a practical inconvenience at last began to receive attention. The first means of removing the inconvenience that suggested itself was the simplest and most obvious—the voices, divided according to natural range, chanted the Plainsong in parallel lines at two pitches (five notes apart). From this it is apparently a short stage (but in reality it proved a pretty long one) to the more sophisticated idea of leaving the Plainsong to one part (the Tenor’ = holding part) and allowing the others to circle around it, weaving a polyphonic web of sound. A further stage abandoned the Plainsong altogether, and thus completely original harmonized music came into existence—free harmonic settings of the Canticles and the various parts of the Mass, substituted for the former traditional melodic settings. The process was carried over into secular music, and so came into existence the Madrigal. The Masses and Madrigals of Palestrina in Italy, Byrd and others in England, and Vittoria in Spain mark the climax of this period of unaccompanied woven choral music.

From the first glimmerings of the idea that a number of differently pitched voices, singing together in a choir, might be provided with different `parts’ to sing, suited to their different natural ranges of voice, to the culmination of the effort to provide for them a music that should be beautiful and expressive, we have a period of roughly one thousand years. Think of this period as running from 600 to i600 and you will not be greatly out. Obviously an essential for the development of choral music was a practical notation. Unisonous Song could be handed down traditionally and taught by ear ; Choral Song required accurate and detailed written record. A means of providing such record was not easily found, and the slow evolution of notation presumably acted as a brake upon the wheel of progress.

Harmony, you will see, is a product of Song, but you will later find that Dance influenced its development.

A European Art

To this day Harmonic Music is a purely European art ; except in Europe and lands colonized from Europe, music is still unisonous. It has never occurred to the Grand Lama of Tibet, or the high priest of the Juju tribe in the Central African jungle, or even to the Muezzins of the Arabs who invented Algebra, or any Sarastros of the Egyptians who raised the Pyramids, that a group of their people, singing together, can be occupied in singing strains that are different from one another and yet blend into a pleasant combination. And before centuries enough have elapsed for them to invent harmony for themselves they will have come under the civilizing influence of the C. M. S. or the L. M. S. or the S. P. G., and will have learnt to revel in Sankey’s Sacred Hymns and Solos, in Anglican Chants with harmonium accompaniment, in the alternate austerities and gaieties of the English Hymnal, and in Jazz as reproduced by the Gramophone. Then they will send their most musically gifted youths and maidens to the R. A. M. and the R. C. M., and the New England Conservatory, and will found their own Academies, Schools, and Conservatories on European lines, and thus the world, if it does not look out, may never see the full natural development of the musical instincts of Africa and Asia.

Melodic Song Today

Meantime simple melodic song continues even in Europe. Unisonous Plainsong is still to be heard to-day (and very beautiful it can be) ; and so is unisonous Folksong (than which, at its best, nothing can be more beautiful). But the churchmen have brought in `Counterpoint’ (that weaving of voice parts that has been mentioned). It has grown out of Unisonous singing as the elaborate tracery of their cathedrals of the ` decorated’ period (the fourteenth century) grew out of the single lines of the plain round-headed Saxon or Norman arch (of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries).

The unaccompanied Choral Music of the best period will be discussed in the next chapter, as will also the Instrumental Music—the Church Choral Music, which was developed out of primitive Unisonous Song (but in some of its branches showed the influence of the Dance), and the Instrumental Music, which largely developed out of the Dance (but in some of its branches showed the influence of the Song).