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Chapter Nine - Overcoming Spencer: Late-Century Theories of the Origin of Music

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 March 2023

Bennett Zon
Affiliation:
Durham University
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Summary

While Carl Engel sought to explain non-Western music within the context of comparative East–West research, underwritten by Tylorian concepts of cultural unity, he does not, like his predecessors, project a teleological historiography leading ineluctably from the primitive East to the civilized West. Nevertheless, conventional developmental teleologies remained fixed in musicological consciousness, and were subsumed into the increasingly popular debates about the origin and evolution of music. The well-recorded debates about the origins of music leave little doubt that non-Western music was considered a living fossil, and that modern European music was its direct and more developmentally evolved descendant. Indeed, evolution effectively became a scientifically approbated substitute for broad conceptions of East–West or savage–civilized historical teleology, as evident in Herbert Spencer’s controversial article “The Origin and Function of Music” (1857): “That music is a product of civilization is manifest: for though some of the lowest savages have their dance-chants, these are of a kind scarcely to be signified by the title musical: at most they supply but the vaguest rudiment of music properly so called.” Although he was apt to change various aspects of his argument to suit the criticisms, Spencer retained a dogged belief in the progression from primitive to civilized, from East to West, and from savage to evolved:

In music progressive integration is displayed in more numerous ways. The simple cadence embracing but a few notes, which in the chants of savages is monotonously repeated, becomes, among civilized races, a long series of different musical phrases combined into one whole; and so complete is the integration that the melody cannot be broken off in the middle nor shorn of its final note, without giving us a painful sense of incompleteness. When to the air, a bass, a tenor, and an alto are added; and when to the different voice-parts there is joined an accompaniment; we see integration of another order which grows naturally more elaborate. And the process is carried a stage higher when these complex solos, concerted pieces, choruses, and orchestral effects are combined into the vast ensemble of an oratorio or a musical drama.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
First published in: 2023

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