“with numerous music examples” - introduction
It was just an unassuming paperback I’d picked up some time ago for a mere €2 in the second hand bookshop : “Monteverdi – His Life and Work” (1)
The frontispiece carried the promise “with numerous music examples”, a bit like an art history book touting the number of colour illustrations.
One of the joys of reading an art history book, is of course to have eye and mind happily consorting, creating meaning while making the joyful connection between descriptive text and visual image. (2)
It’s quite different for music – literary descriptions are either very general glorifications of music or else very subjective outpourings. And objective musicological descriptions, including score extracts with keys & notes, often scare off the un-initiated with their technical terms. (3)
a small digression on learning music as an adult - 2021
As to myself, having never had a musical education, the connection between musical score and actual sounds used to elude me. So my listening (however intense, attentive and profoundly impacting) remained mostly intuitive, and in CD-booklets I routinely skipped paragraphs with technical music terms.
Luckily, however, my book-buying has always been more ambitious, overreaching my actual abilities, and so not shying away from books including staves and notes - implicitly assuming that one day I could still teach myself how to read sheet music.
Which has proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy : now at last, with the help of a limpid educational book (5) (which in 70 pages patiently explains the basic musical elements) and following many many hours of repetition, I’m now at a point that I can decipher (ever so slowly, ever so laboriously) what is happening on the lines of a musical score. Ah, the joy of recognising a b flat! The pride of identifying an augmented fifth! (4) I’m like a former illiterate, painstakingly deciphering a sentence word by word, letter by letter.
a modest meditation on the passing of time and the soul of a sentence - 1926
With my recently acquired humble musical knowledge I can now slowly read “Monteverdi – His Life and Work” and, for instance, ponder the timeless meaning of “ the frequent use of augmented fifths produce effects of voluptuousness and melancholy”.
But a rather casual, non-technical sentence sets off my melancholy musings, making me wonder about the passing of time and styles. The book’s author, musicologist Prunières, pays a tribute to Romain Rolland (his former music teacher)(6) as follows: “With an intuition bordering upon genius, he has entered into Monteverdi’s very soul and defined synthetically the essential characteristics of his art.”
Who, these days, would still write a sentence like that? Where (apart from in self-help tutorials) does one still find words such as “intuition, genius, soul” used in one breath? An entire world of high art, of cultural reverence, of exquisite sensibilities, is evoked. While reading the historical/biographical notes or the musicological commentaries, I didn’t wonder about the date of writing of the book , but this one reflective sentence made me pause and realise that the book was written in another era, almost 100 years ago.
permanent by design - 1972
As mentioned in the opening paragraph – this book I’m blogging about really is just an unassuming paperback, published back in 1972 by Dover books (7). But it ages particularly well, withstanding the vagaries of human use and of the elements (8) for close to 50 years.
On the back cover I read that this longevity was indeed aimed at by the publisher, who devotes a full paragraph to their efforts to “make the best book possible”, from choice of paper to method of sewing and binding, firmly concluding with “This is a permanent book”.
They were quite right to add a proud exclamation mark to the heading ”A Dover edition designed for years of use!” : their bold claim of permanence has held true so far.
They were truly ‘circular by design’ avant la lettre. Quite an achievement, because, just think of it, which TV-set produced in 1972 would still be used today? Which smartphone bought today will still be in use in 2071?
Free Notes without a Stave
(1) by Henri Prunières, Translated by Marie D. Mackie – 1972 republication of the original 1926 English language edition.
(2) Ekphrasis, “Greek for the written description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined” (Wikipedia)
(3) “Parrot may not learn to sing, but at least he’ll know what singing is” (J. Winterson)
(4) When asking Google about “literary descriptions of music” it brings me to this very relevant blogpost :
(5) Ignace Bossuyt : ”Van noten en tonen – Wegwijs in muzikale begrippen”
(6) When asking Google about ‘Romain Rolland et la musique’ : « Le nom de Rolland, qui suffisait entre les deux guerres à évoquer un modèle littéraire et social est tombé dans l’oubli », « figure effacée de l’Europe » « le modèle d’écrivain-musicien »
(7) Dover books still exists, but in a ‘restructured’ and slimmed down form, apperently focusing now on colouring books for adults. And I’m not the only one paying tribute to their former sustainable publishing ethos : https://contingentmagazine.org/2020/02/23/this-is-a-permanent-book/
(8) “the natural elements” – we’d almost forgotten about them in our advanced societies. To our horror we now discover our fragility, our helplessness, for instance, in the face of floodings. The human death toll, the destroyed houses and infrastructure of course command our first concern, but how pitiful, too, those muddy heaps of books and paper files spoiled by the water.
(9) photo-disclaimer & additional book : this is a photo of two books, the Dover book (as mentioned) and another lovely book on Monteverdi by Actes Sud– published back in 2004, and bought second hand, still in great condition, 17 years later. My PC from that the early 2000s is long in the scrap yard, and the ZIP drives on which I prudently saved my back ups are inaccessible now.