Let’s go for Baroque…

One of my favorite classes in high school was a course in music history, taught by the late band director Ken Kamp. He was in charge of the marching band, concert orchestra, and jazz band, and I was a part of all three.

He was quite the character, who seemed to live on coffee and cigarettes. He had long, shaggy black hair, a thick beard, and wore glasses,  so really the only parts of his face visible were his nose and mouth. He’d grown up in New Jersey and worked on fishing boats in his early years, and that was about all we knew about him personally.

He was a sax player, totally into jazz, and could definitely be on the cruel and sarcastic side when it came to dealing with us, his youthful musicians.

None of that showed in his music history class and I think, to him, it was a joy to teach it. He took us all the way from the Baroque beginnings of modern music up to rock music and its various incarnations from its birth in African American music of the 1930s through its many incarnations from the 1960s onward.

The great thing about him was that, unlike a lot of my other history teachers, he did not hold his subject in high reverence, and delighted in acting out imagined scenes between famous composers.

To this day, I remember him telling us how Hector Berlioz wrote the definitive treatise on orchestration because he taught at a music school, so he figured out who the best player of each instrument was, then basically bought them lunch and talked their ears off.

Or, as Mr. Kamp put, “Say he was talking to the best oboe player in the school. He’d ask, ‘So, if I do this (mimics fingering an oboe) what kind of a sound do I get?’ And the oboe player would say, ‘Nah, man, that’s too complicated. Finger it like this…’” And he’d ask questions like, “Which keys are it easier for you to play in, and what’s the typical range of your instrument for the average player, and what can the most skilled make it do? And so on.

And all of this was acted out as mini-play and it was delightful, and the fact that I vividly remember it so long after and didn’t even have to look up Berlioz to jog my memory tells you a lot about how he succeeded as a teacher.

He’s gone now — not too recently but not that long ago — but I’ve decided that I would love to share what he shared with us. Plus I’m also a music geek when it comes to all things classical. So, for the new year, I’m going to be replicating what he taught me as best as I can remember the trajectory although, of course, it will have my own stamp on it.

Also, you won’t be getting the live storytelling. Sorry!

I suppose this post will serve as an introduction, and I’ll get into the more specific stuff next week, but here’s what we know about western music prior to the modern era… the Greeks may have used 12 tones like modern music does, and set up scales in various modes, depending on what key you were playing in and what note you started on.

You don’t really need to know any of this for the history to follow, other than that in modern music, a scale in Ionian mode starts and ends on the same note and is referred to as being in (that note name) Major.

So, if you start the scale on C and proceed to play C D E F G A B C, you’ve just played a C Ionian or C major scale. Other Greek modes play the same sequence, but start on subsequent notes. For example, the Dorian mode is in C Major (technically) but starts on the second note, so it is D E F G A B C D. And yes, it sounds completely different.

Out of all of these, the most interesting one to me is the Aeolian mode, which starts on the 6th note of the scale. In the case of C Major, it becomes A B C D E F G A B C, which also happens to be a natural A minor scale.

All of this somehow also applied to Greek architecture as well because them Greeks were all about order, although architecture only got three. (Music got seven, by the way.)

What we don’t know, though, are what Greek songs sounded like, because they never really bothered to figure out how to do notation. In other words, they couldn’t write out which notes were played, and for how long.

Same thing with Rome.

Now, while the Modern Age does not begin until the 1490s — not because of that asshole Columbus, but rather because it’s when the last of the Roman Empire ended with the fall of Constantinople — musical notation kind of sort of started to make a comeback with Gregorian Chants around the 10th century.

This is something that every fan of Monty Python already knows about, although while the Gregorians (Gregory Brothers?) were big on giving apparent relative pitches of notes, the whole concept of duration didn’t exist. All we got were little black blocks strung on wires.

In other words, we knew, based on the scale, how each note sounded relative to the others, but beyond that, whether one was twice as long or half as long, and so on, were not encoded in the music. That didn’t start to happen until about the 13th century, although they bear little resemblance to the modern system we have now.

The point is that we really didn’t wrest music away from the Church (capital C) and modernize notation until the same point that the Modern Age began, and this also marks the beginning of the Baroque Musical Era, which will be chapter one of our adventure.

See you then!

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