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Centuries of innovations in Western music, presented at a fast tempo

Terence Blanchard's “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” was staged by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in September 2021, becoming the first-ever opera by a Black composer to be produced by the company. In his book, Stuart Isacoff counts this as a milestone in Western music history. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Stuart Isacoff sprints through nearly two millennia of Western music in his latest book, “Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed.” It’s always a challenge to get music to live on the page, but Isacoff tackles it head-on, describing his project as a “book about moments in music history when things dramatically changed, a succession of bold leaps in the progress of Western culture.”

A pianist and composer who performs, writes and lectures on music, Isacoff delves deep into history to discuss the innovations in Western music that we take for granted today, such as musical notation, polyphony (simultaneous, multiple musical voices), opera and jazz. In the first chapter, “Singing from Symbols,” he points out that Saint Augustine (354-430) “was gripped with guilt”because music had distracted him from the word of God. The church as a whole had an ongoing challenge wrestling with the emotional and seductive power of music and, concerned about the variety of religious chanting across its realm, tried to standardize those chants.

But without musical notation, there was no way to do so. Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) worried that “unless sounds are held in the memory by man … they perish.” King Charlemagne (742-814) took up the task without success. The turning point came when Italian monk Guido of Arezzo (990-1050) devised a written system to instruct his pupils. But instead of being celebrated for his breakthrough, he was met with “envy and scorn” by his fellow clerics. Not until Pope John XIX embraced Guido’s system was he rehabilitated.

If this leap through history leaves you breathless, fasten your seat belt for what follows.

Isacoff next considers the development of Western polyphony — indispensable to today’s music — which arose separately in various parts of Europe and the Byzantine Empire and was intimately connected to the mathematics of sound and increasingly sophisticated rhythms. As he does elsewhere, Isacoff points out that non-Western music — such as Indian raga and West African drumming — had deployed these creative concepts much earlier. The music of the Central African Pygmy people, he points out, “can involve eighteen separate interlocking parts.”

Isacoff takes readers through the birth of opera and its threat to throw off the church’s “prescription for emotional restraint.” He whizzes from the Medicis’ commissioning of an opera called “Euridice in 1600; to the French tradition embodied in Jean Baptiste Lully’s collaborations with Molière to create comédie-ballet; to England’s operatic “watershed,” the 1728 “Beggars Opera” by John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch, based on popular ballads and revived 200 years later in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera.” He pays homage to Mozart, then brings readers through to contemporary operas from Philip Glass and John Adams, as well as the first Met performance of an opera by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” last year.

Naturally, Isacoff has made choices about what to include on his musical tour. I loved the chapter on the Bach family, in part because the pace felt a little less rushed. He devotes two chapters to the development of jazz and its cross-pollination with “classical” music. Although Isacoff could have spent much more time on this multifaceted medium, in the context of this book, I was glad for the space he offered it.

Some choices feel like afterthoughts, however. Particularly jarring is his chapter titled “A Question of Sex,” which is introduced like this: “Only recently has a quiet revolution granted the fair sex a fairer status.” Really? The fair sex? In 2022? His description of Beijing-born pianist Yuja Wang, “who stirs nearly as much reaction with her short, tight-fitting outfits as she does with her flashy technique and deep musicality,” left me wondering why none of the flashy, foppish males in the book get the same treatment.

The trouble with books that speed through centuries of musical development is that they inevitably leave people out. While accurately noting that female conductors have faced the steepest climb — particularly in the United States — Isacoff omits Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006), who forged a career as a professional opera conductor a generation before Marin Alsop took the helm at the Baltimore Symphony in 2007.

A chapter called “Mozart Among the Lotus Blossoms” explores the piano and Western symphonic music’s forays into modern China, concluding, “Despite the historical obstacles, the marriage of East and West now seems irrevocable.” I wondered about this generalization. A “marriage” suggests musical influences traveling in both directions. Will the West embrace Eastern music with the enthusiasm that Isacoff suggests China has embraced Western music?

“Musical Revolutions” covers a staggering amount of material in under 300 pages. It is illustrated with wonderful photographs and comes replete with bibliography and index. Its prestissimo tempo, though, raises the question of who might be its ideal readers. The coverage of these critical musical revolutions seems thin for a music aficionado and overwhelming for a neophyte. Perhaps the readers best served by this book are the ecumenical music lovers who enjoy music through the centuries but who may be missing the context for their listening.

Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, “Three Muses,” will be published in September. She completed 26 years running a social justice foundation in 2020.

Musical Revolutions

How the Sounds of the Western World Changed

By Stuart Isacoff

Knopf. 308 pp. $30.

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