Polyphony

I just finished Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. I enjoyed the book very much — many interesting insights. Among these was a lovely point that Lewis made about polyphony. Lewis has an extended discussion of the comparative lack of influence which Western music has had on Middle Eastern culture — compared, that is, to Western art or Western literature. He then discusses the idea of polyphony as foundational not only to Western music, but to Western culture generally. In music, of course, polyphony means more than one melodic voice at the same time, interweaving with the others. Polyphonic music was at one time long ago officially banned from the Catholic liturgy, but men of genius like Palestrina were influential in rendering polyphony acceptable in, for example, magnificent settings of the Mass. The rest is polyphonic history (as the Masses of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, inter alia, attest). For me polyphonic music reaches its apotheosis not in the symphony (voices together) but in the concerto, where melodies are not only multiple, but clashing and rivalrous.

Lewis makes the elegant point that the concept of polyphony plays a central role not only in music but in many Western cultural forms. In literature, for example, in the form of novels and, more especially, plays. In sports, particularly the team sports which flourished first in England and then blossomed spectacularly in the United States. And — and this is Lewis’s real target — in politics, where the ideal of polyphony is manifested in parliamentary political systems — multiple competing voices which can seem at times cacophanous but in the end (God willing) produce the harmonies of the modern polity.

The advantage of monophony is that if there is a voice which it is especially important to hear, one maximizes the chances that it will be heard; polyphony makes this less likely and it is for this reason that religious leaders of the past, Muslim and Christian, were troubled by it. Now of course few people give polyphony a second thought. I recommend the book (which I listened to, in splendid monophonic solitude). — MOD

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