An Introduction to Western History and Culture through the Development of Music
Lola Salem PhD
The course is led by Lola Salem. Lola is a tutor for undergraduate students at the University of Oxford where she carries out a DPhil (PhD) in Music. Trained as a professional singer (Maîtrise de Radio France), she has pursued musical theory and practice throughout her higher education.
This course distils twelve centuries of Western music (from Middle-Ages to now) arranged in chronological order and thematic sequences in order to procure students critical and analytical tools for engaging with their history and the arts in general. Introducing some of the great ‘classical’ figures and genres of the Western musical canon in relation to key cultural and historical elements, this course also encourages students to interrogate the place and function of music in Western societies. Leaving the course with a trained ear and able to process a strong command over a substantial repertory, students will be able to engage with historical facts and concepts in a complex and playful way. The course does not require any prior knowledge of musical notation.
- Class 1: From the Earliest Notations to the C15th: music and Christendom.
- Class 2: Theme and variations around the ‘Baroque’ (C16th—mid 18th).
- Class 3: Classical and Romantic periods: rules, revolutions, restorations (mid C18th—19th).
- Class 4: Music in crisis? Challenges of Modernity and beyond (C20th—21st).
- Class 5: Voice, text, and sound.
- Class 6: Music, art or science?
- Class 7: Music and power: representations of the social order and its dissolution.
- Class 8: How does one ‘listen’ to the past?
The development of music in Western societies, from the Middle Age to now, is introduced during four sequences, organised chronologically. Those will provide a solid historical, cultural, and theory background for engaging during the four last sessions with transversal themes. Roaming through the contexts in which music arose and structured human relations, major events or watersheds that structure the musical ‘periods’, the first four sessions will also encompass a review of key genres and compositional strategies. During each session, the students will engage with the complexity of the relations between different agents, structures, and types of networks. This presentation will equip the students with a unique understanding of the arts in general, their cultural and geopolitical influences.
The following sessions rearrange some of the material already presented with new elements in order to investigate music history under different auspices. First [week 5], the students will be introduced to the challenges and outcomes related to the art of binding together radically different media: the voice (human instrument), the text (semantic), the sound (non-semantic). They will come to appreciate the balance of this alchemy as the font music’s evolution through time, either tided to specific functions (e.g. divine liturgy) or genres (e.g. opera). Then [week 6], students will reflect on the tension that structures music, between science and art. Since the medieval quadrivium, music has always occupied a special place among the creative arts. The session will familiarise the students with different compositional and analytical methods, their reception and re-enactment through time. Finally [week 7], musical productions and works will be interrogated in relation with the concept and reality of power. They will be analysed as phenomena that represent and uphold political status quo and, in mirror, as ways to criticise it and even disrupt social order.
The very last session combines up-to-date historical perspective on the past (soundscape studies) with practical exercises of listening analysis. Students will be provided with various documents that will help them put into context the musical extract they will have to decipher. Such exercise ensures that the students have understood the main issues covered during the whole course, and entice them to think of historical facts and concepts in a relational way.
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