Polyphony at the centre of Western art music – even Taruskin says so!

In a recent email from my friend Matthew Lorenzon he said something very good: “I’ve always thought that counterpoint is the defining aspect of Western music and that there must be something in there philosophically, a museme perhaps?” I’ve been running a bit more with counterpoint as ‘Idea’ (with links to the Idea of Communism – this nexus defining a specific musico-political ideology), as opposed to concept or technique, but museme might be better. Will think about it.

Here’s some quotes from Taruskin (from volume 1 of the Kindle edition of his Oxford History, “Chapter 5: Polyphony in practice and theory”):

Since there is no period in which the known practices of European music did not include polyphony, polyphony cannot be said to have an origin in the European tradition. Written or not, it was always there. As with any other kind of music, its entry into written sources was not any sort of “event” in its history. (The event, as such, was in our history, the history of what we are able to know.)

This is good, so that we don’t get locked into any sort of mystical thoughts of a ‘pure’ event of polyphony descending upon Western music. Yet, despite the ‘always already there-ness’ of polyphony, Western art music in the 12th century converted it from a fact of musical existence, to its central question or perhaps key contradiction. Its importance increased quantitatively to a point where it qualitatively shifted and opened up a whole new sequence of musical thinking (if this is not the definition of an event I don’t know what is) – of course this event also relies on the historical condition of the existence of a specific musical writing.

Yet even granting all this, we can still identify the extraordinary twelfth century as the one in which European musical practice took a decisive turn toward polyphonic composition. And if we are interested in isolating the fundamental distinguishing feature of what may be called “Western” music, this might as well be it. After this turning point, polyphonic composition in the West (not just polyphonic performance practice) would be indisputably, increasingly, and uniquely the norm. From now on, stylistic development and change would essentially mean the development and refinement of techniques for polyphonic composition.

This centrality of polyphony, of counterpoint, remained the case even in the 19th century, I believe. The 20th century brought it into crisis. It is this crisis and a way out that my thesis is (perhaps entirely) aiming at.