The development of polyphony, in which two, three, four or more voices or instruments each has an independent existence and yet work together to create a harmonious whole, was one of the signal events in Western intellectual history
Among the many discoveries and inventions of the West is the most fundamental one, which often goes unremarked today, although its ramifications are all around us, from the electrical grid to the air transport system to the computers we use: the ability to think complexly, to hold multiple, sometimes conflicting ideas and variables in one’s head, and to create something new, but ordered and effective, out of their collision in, and collusion with, our imaginations.
Primitive societies lack this characteristic, which is why they remained, and in some case still remain, primitive. Certainly, most human societies have achieved some level of complex thought, whether in ornamental design, such as the Arabs, or in rhythmic complexity, such as the drumming of sub-Saharan Africa, or the intricacies of court etiquette in Mandarin China or Imperial Japan. But few human societies, before the West at the end of the medieval period, managed to combine a rigorously intellectual and systematic approach to artistic and scientific thought that has resulted in so much advancement over so short a period.
The re-introduction of Aristotelian thought into the West via the Spanish Moors triggered an outpouring of creative thought, and one that has not yet run its course. It was as if someone had turned on a switch in the Western brain. Suddenly, it was not enough to think linearly, as the ancients had, or superstitiously, as the early Christians and Muslims had. Muslim intellectual curiosity, such as it was, eventually devolved—occasioned in part by military defeats in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—into a self-referential ummah in which the proper study of mankind was not mankind, as it became in the West, but the study of the Koran. Until the surprise attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, Islam never again won a significant victory against the West.
Islam’s effect on the countries it conquered in a burst of zealotry and bloodlust has been almost wholly disruptive. The Persians may have often been at Greek throats—and lost all the battles that mattered, including Salamis, Plataea and Mycale—but they possessed a high culture of great literary, military and scientific achievement until the Arab Muslim conquest of the Sassanid empire, and the subordination of its Zoroastrian faith, beginning in the middle of the seventh century.
A sensible Western response to Islam would emulate what worked against the Soviets: containment, but one much more rigorously conceived and enforced to include a near-total ban on technological transfer and severe limitations on emigration. Until it reforms itself to eliminate sharia supremacism and renounces what is a de facto policy of murder in Western lands, the Muslim world has little or nothing to offer the West. Western governments should make it clear that no further Muslim expansionism will be permitted. That this is even controversial, or subject to discussion, shows how far the West’s self-esteem and commitment to moral principles have fallen.
Although the West has always been a pluralistic society—the cultural Marxist insult of “whiteness” has no basis in historical fact, other than as an accident of evolution, and those who profess not to see skin colour are in fact those who see it most—it has always been, in the neutral sense of the word, discriminatory. It has prized inquiry over dogma (the troglodytic “Christian Right” is largely a figment of the cultural Marxist imagination), creativity over conformity, inventiveness over rote. At every important juncture of Western cultural history, Wagner’s famous maxim—Kinder, schafft Neues!—has applied, con mucho gusto. There is no eminent “university” in the West like Al-Azhar in Cairo, devoted almost entirely to the study of Koranic law; that way, to Western minds, lies intellectual stupefaction, entropy and death.
Where did we get this notion? From Aristotle. And Aquinas. And from all the intellectuals, scientists and artists who followed them. The West understands—or at least used to—that there is no such thing as “sustainability”. Stasis is not for the West. Neither are static-state utopias, administered and guided by communism or National Socialism, or even the putative “end of history” triumph of liberal democracy, which lasted all of a decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and Islam’s renewal of its long war against the West. For us, the notion of “sustainability” is an alien concept, for just as human beings are either growing or dying, so also is our most human of societies. Once a culture loses its crusading instinct, it dies.
And now to something controversial: Melody (monophony), harmony, polyphony. From the time of the troubadours and the trouveres of the Crusades, the advances in Western thought have not only been mirrored in our music, but occasioned by it, from Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin des Prez and Pierre de la Rue, to Obrecht and Ockegham, to Palestrina to Johann Sebastian Bach. A popular song such as “L’homme armé” could become the subject of numerous medieval masses, not because of its secular origin (although that certainly helped, as the worshippers would respond to its familiarity), but because its implicit polyphonic structure could be successfully and inventively exploited by composers across Europe, leading to ever more complex and inventive ways of using the material.
Yes, masses. Because the development of European polyphony was, like religious dogma itself, inspired by Aristotelian ideas of free inquiry and the teleological impulses of both Judaism and Christianity. Music, like faith, has to be headed somewhere. Our lives may be temporally constricted, but freedom of inquiry is not. As the scholar and writer David Goldman notes:
Music begins with respiration and pulse, the inborn rhythms of human life. We may intensify these rhythms with percussive accents and electronic amplification and, through this intensification, achieve the momentary sort of exaltation that seems to buoy the audience at rock concerts … We know, no matter what we do, that the rhythms of respiration and pulse will cease at the moment of death. But we do not know what eternity is. At best we can say what it isn’t, as in Psalm 90:4, through poetic hyperbole: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” Eternity manifests itself to us as an irruption of the divine into the temporal world, as a singularity, a moment that interrupts the procession of years and days, of systole and diastole.
At the heart of all world music, of all world rhythm, of all world art, and therefore of every human activity, is the heart. The heart, we believe, is the repository of humanity’s spiritual goodness, just as the head is its storehouse of knowledge; somewhere between the two comes wisdom. Without wisdom, there can be no rational or humanitarian politics. We speak of heart-stopping events, of heartless cruelty, of aching and broken hearts—all metaphors of the human condition that express the association of our hearts with our emotional essence.
In medieval music, the fundamental beat was the tactus, the basic beat of the resting human heart. This was nothing new, for all music originates as folk music, and folk music is something that arises spontaneously in all cultures, aligned in spirit, intent and expression with the nature of the people who gave it birth. Everyone has a heart; everyone expresses his emotions slightly differently. The challenge in Western art, as in its politics, is how to combine the heart with the head.
The trend towards formal complexity and hidden structural subtexts arose during the transition from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and nowhere is it more evident than in music. The development of polyphony, in which two, three, four or more voices (whether sung or instrumental) each has an independent existence and yet works together to create a harmonious whole, was one of the signal events in Western intellectual history, a mind- and horizon-expanding advance over the old musical forms. It challenged the mind to think along multiple parallel tracks, to work with a clear goal in sight that would be satisfying both emotionally and formally. It created a demand for mastery. It was also, politically, democratising (as we see in the septet from Mozart’s Figaro), although those effects would not be felt at the level of government until the eighteenth century.
Polyphony arose in the service of Christianity, as a way of enhancing and intensifying the religious experience. The melodies developed from the plainchant of the monks, which were tricked out with a second, accompanying, more ornamental melodic line; this was called organum, which took root at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris near the end of the twelfth century. Over the next few centuries, the motets of Machaut (fourteenth century), the masses of Tomás Luis de Victoria, and the madrigals of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (sixteenth century) spread across the Continent from France, the Lowlands, and Italy and into the German lands.
And there, in the music of J.S. Bach (1685–1750), polyphony found its grand master. Bach was the great organiser of Western tonal music, establishing in his voluminous oeuvre the fundamentals of harmonic progression that would last through Wagner and into the early twentieth century. Bach demanded that the claviers and keyboard instruments of his day be regulated, or “tempered”, so that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale could be easily transposed from one key to another. This meant that clavichords, harpsichords and the nascent pianoforte had to have their strings tempered away from the natural overtone series of each note (which would make them dissonant with each other) into something the Western ear could hear as a unity: that, in fact, was the point of Bach’s famous Well-Tempered Klavier, which pianists and piano students alike still play today: twenty-four preludes and fugues in each of the twelve major and minor keys.
Near the end of his life, Bach decided to pour everything he knew about polyphony into Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue) which was left unfinished at his death. It’s a strange work on many levels, a series of canons and fugues for two, three or four voices, furthered by the fact that we have no idea for which instrument, or which combination of instruments, he intended it—or even whether it was ever intended for performance at all. The work can be sung a cappella, without any instrumental accompaniment; played on the keyboard; or performed by a string quartet, or an even larger ensemble. One of its basic building blocks is the sequence of notes B-flat-A-C-B-natural, which in German musical notation spell out the name B-A-C-H. A crabbed series of semitones adjacent to each other in the scale, those four notes provide the cornerstone for all manner of polyphonic development. In its final “Contrapunctus”, the piece does not end, but breaks off abruptly in the middle of a phrase—enigmatic, unfinished, as if Bach was saying to future generations: take it from here.
Think of The Art of the Fugue as the musical equivalent of Aquinas’s similarly unfinished Summa Theologica and you won’t be far wrong. Its effect on the Western way of thinking—not just in music, but in all aspects of European and, thus, American life—is incalculable, just as Aquinas’s systematic way of thinking resonated across all fields, including science and faith, and not simply philosophy. The connecting thread between them is religion—Christianity. And therein lies some of the animosity of the atheist Left against not only Western faith but against Western culture itself, since the two are, unfortunately for them, inseparable.
The invention of tonality made possible a sense of narrative in music—an Aristotelian story with a beginning, middle and end that is going somewhere, and which exists independent of any texts. A ballad tells a story, usually strophically; the music may be charming, but our attention is on the words. Bach’s sacred music, written for the Lutheran church, often tells an explicit, textual story, as with the monumental St Matthew Passion, as dramatic a piece of religious theatre as the eighteenth century ever produced. But so also does Bach’s purely instrumental music, including the mighty organ works, such as the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the “Brandenburg” concertos, and the “Goldberg” variations for keyboard.
The importance of this development to the Western psyche cannot be overestimated. Narrative stories are the way we impart moral messages in the present by engaging human curiosity about the future, often by means of the past. We create and tell stories so people will want to know what happens next, but the actual moral is what’s happening now. Which is to say, the process of storytelling is as important as the message; it’s no accident that we know it as the Hero’s Journey, for his pilgrimage is one that we share whenever we read a book, watch a film, listen to a major symphonic work, or gaze at a painting.
In order for a narrative to be fully experienced, therefore, it must unfold over time; even paintings can evoke a sense of time as well as physical space. It is not enough to simply blurt out the ending: Mimi dies at the end of La Bohème; Bruce Willis has been dead all along in The Sixth Sense; the Jarndyce fortune evaporates into the hands of the lawyers at the end of Bleak House. We want to live the story with the characters, across time.
And yet, as we often hear, there is no time. The pace of modern life, it is said, is too fast for us to give up an hour to a Bruckner symphony, two hours to Rififi or Rashomon, or several weeks to The Magic Mountain. Bollocks. We flatter ourselves if we think we have any less time to devote to the pursuits of the mind and the spirit than did, say, the ancient Greeks. The hoplite class of Athens could rely on a deadly, nearly annual war against either their fellow Greeks or the invading Persians as surely as they could count on the seasons or the tides. Many of them would die. And yet they produced Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes; Aeschylus’s epitaph mentions that he fought at Marathon, and says nothing about his plays or poetry.
The pace of life, in any case, is relative. No doubt future generations will think we had it easy, with nothing to do except work desultorily at a nine-to-five government job, take annual leave, enjoy weekends and holidays off, and spend the evenings in front of giant flat-screen televisions half-watching network, cable or satellite programming while eating take-away food delivered right to our doors. Such luxury! Such indolence!
What is meant is: we have no attention span. An attention span demands several things: native intelligence, an ability to discriminate among choices, an ability to follow along, a keen anticipation of the outcome and, most important, a willingness to learn so that the moral is earned rather than delivered. The ending of any real work of temporal art is only its beginning. Answering the question “What happened?” is easy. Understanding what it meant is hard. Understanding is a process, not a punch line. Understanding is growth. Understanding is the first step to changing the way we apprehend and think about the world. It may even involve our changing our minds. No wonder it is so dangerous to the Left.
That the process emerged out of Christianity, and the Judeo-Christian tradition of inquiry, only enrages the cultural Marxists, and makes them more determined than ever to stamp it out. And yet, men need gods, perhaps even a God. And whether He is called Zeus or Jupiter or Yahweh or Hashem or Allah or God the Father or Jesus the Christ or Dialectical Materialism, gods we shall have. In the end, especially when death comes to call, most atheists accept Pascal’s Wager and get their bets down accordingly.
Mankind also hates gods. We resent them for their influences in the fortunes of men, even as we try to appease and propitiate them. From the Greeks to our own time, Western history is partly about worship and partly about the resentment that attends enforced worship. The dynamic between the two impulses is what gives us our Schwung—our cultural pulse, our social intensity, our societal momentum.
And so, at the end of The Art of the Fugue, Bach breaks off in mid-phrase. Are the contrapuntal forces he unleashed still echoing and inspiring? Or have we finally answered Georg Lukács’s famous question—“Who will save us from Western culture?”—with Pogo’s famous aphorism, “We have met the enemy and he is us”?
Michael Walsh was for sixteen years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the non-fiction best-seller The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (2017); this article is an extract from its sequel, The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the West, which was published by Encounter Books in May