Monday, 1 June 1998

Jack Westrup: An Introduction to Musical History (1955)

Edition: Hutchinson University Library
Review number: 57

This book is not an introduction in the sense of a basic textbook of musical history, but an attempt to look at musical history and its methods to help students evaluate and understand both musical history texts and source materials of various kinds.

Jack Westrup looks at what the source materials can tell us, with a brief look at the development of notation, and develops an attack on many early attempts at musical history (particularly that of Burney) for their biased and subjective approach to the subject. His criticisms are not solely reserved for past writers; he takes modern historians to task for merely repeating statements from earlier work (particularly for making judgements where they clearly didn't listen to sufficient music themselves), and for taking at face value statements in musical memoirs. (He quickly shows that Berlioz's memoirs, to take one example, are more concerned with presenting the Berlioz as a particular kind of artist in a Philistine environment than with the truth.)

The second half of the book consists of brief examinations of some major themes in musical history, and the particular pitfalls that can be fallen into by the careless historian; these themes include the role of the church and patronage, both areas where the statements of composers and chroniclers are particularly likely to contain inaccuracies for political reasons.

A very thought-provoking book, which will influence the way in which I read musical history.

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