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Ted Gioia on the Origins of Musicology

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Ted Gioia on the Origins of Musicology

Ted Gioia, while undeniably a cultural treasure, sometimes leaves me very puzzled--and no more than with his latest effort: Why is the Oldest Book in Europe a Work of Music Criticism? (Part 1 of 2).
I’ve been researching the myth of Orpheus for almost 25 years now, and I’m not so sure he is merely a myth. Certainly the author of the Derveni papyrus was absolutely convinced of his reality. As far as I can tell, everybody back then believed that both Orpheus and his music were incontestably real, and capable of doing things that, today, would fall under the domain of medicine, or science, or philosophy, or even magic.

We would love to hear music of that sort, wouldn’t we? And the Derveni papyrus actually shares parts of a hymn, praised not for its beauty or artistic merits, but because of its extraordinary powers. In other words, the Derveni author was offering to teach the secrets of a kind of music much like that famous Orphic song that had brought a dead soul back to life. You can now understand why someone would want to bring this music to the next life—it was simply too good, too powerful to leave behind.

Ted goes on, jumping from topic to topic:

Inventors and innovators in math, science, and technology are remembered by posterity, but for some reason the opposite is true in music. If you are a great visionary in music, your life is actually at danger (as we shall see below). But, at a minimum, your achievement is removed from the history books. If you think I’m exaggerating, convene a group of music historians and ask them to name the inventor of the fugue, the sonata, the symphony, or any other towering achievement of musical culture, and note the looks of consternation that ensue, even before the arguments begin.

This last is rather hilarious, actually. If you got some musicologists together and asked them to name the inventors of fugue, sonata and symphony, you would certainly get a lively discussion, but not because the names of the people involved in the development of these genres have been "removed from history books" by some shadowy figures or forces, but because the development was incremental and distributed among different musicians. Though certainly Haydn was pretty central to the invention of the sonata. Ted has a bizarre perspective on music history, but one, I suspect, that will win him a lot of readers:

In other words, the history of musical innovation overlaps closely with the history of dissidents and their rebellions. Mull over the implications of that connection. 

But why do we destroy music? In the pages ahead, I will suggest that songs have always played a special role in defining the counterculture and serving as a pathway to experiences outside accepted norms. They are not mere entertainment, as many will have you believe, but exist as an entry point to an alternative universe immune to conventional views and acceptable notions. As such, songs still possess magical power as a gateway on a life-changing quest. And though we may have stopped burning witches at the stake, we still fear their sorcery, and consign to the flames those devilish songs that contain it.

This is deeply flattering to us music lovers, of course, we are like initiates in a secret mystic cult! But charming as this gnosticism is, it is quite a few logical connections short of, well, truth. 

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