Thursday, May 05, 1977

Rock and baroque music

Madison (Connecticut), May 1977

by Mauro Suttora

I believe that music, like all arts, affects and is affected by the social environment in which it is created. Although the genius of a musician is something that goes beyond time and space: that's what is meant when we say that a music piece is immortal. I think therefore it's useful to investigate music from a sociological point of view, trying to grasp the ideas behind the music.

Music is not something technical, with a history of his own, apart from the world: it is influenced by the political social and economic happenings of its time, and sometimes it reflects them very clearly. A Marxist would say that, music being a superstructure, it is dependent from the economic situation, which is the structure that makes every superstructure possible.

Too often, when we listen to music, especially old music (old in the sense that it was not composed 3 or 10 years ago, but 30, 100, 300 years ago), we are interested in the "form" of music, and not in its substance. I think music is only a medium to express ideas, and every single piece of music has an underlying idea which could also be expressed in poetry, in painting, or in theatre.

In the case of "program music", finding the ideas behind is not very complicated. The problems begin when we listen to something and, without any background, we throw our little estethic judgement in term: I like it, I don't; sounds boring, sounds exciting, makes me nervous, evokes in me a feeling of joy, etc.

These are all irrational, superficial, personal and subjective judgements, and they all imply that music was composed only for music's sake. Nothing is composed for music's sake, not even the silliest "disco" record of our days. Behind, let's say, Disco Duck, there are clear purposes: selling records, make a profit, make people dancing to the rythm of this song, and so on.

Wanting to be very politica, one could even say that Disco Duck was a drug given by the system to the young people, to keep them from doing things more serious and dangerous to the status quo, like reading books, or listening to other music, like folk or protest music.

I will now dive into the era of baroque. The baroque era (1600-1750) corresponds in religion to the Counter-reform of the Catholic church (the answer to the Protestant reform), in politics to the triumph of absolutisms and the consolidation of national states, and in economics to the rise of mercantilism and the bourgeoisie.

During absolutism there was virtual identity beteween Church and State: this connection is best exemplified by famous cardinal Richelieu, who held tremendous political power in France. Both these institutions used the arts as a mean to represent their power.

So, display of splendor was one of the main social functions of music for the church and the baroque courts. Like all baroque arts, music too was bound socially to the aristocracy; both the nobility and the clergy served as patrons. In Venice, where there was a republic, the state paid musicians.

Having a musician was a status-symbol for the noblemen. Consistent with the predominantly private organization of musical life (although there were some sorts of musicians' unions), the social position of the musician was in principle dependent on a patron, a sponsor.

Self-supporting composers who made their living from proceeds of their music, which is now the norm, did not exist then. The dependence on an aristocratis patron put the musician in the servant class. Like bakers and tailors, he had to wear livery, and had to come up with one new dance for every weekend, for the luxurious parties his patron held.

The same goes for musicians dependent on the Church: Johann Sebastian Bach had to deliver one new chorale every Sunday. Today, in a way, it's just the same: the Rolling Stones just signed a contract for six Lp's in five years.

(...)

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