Tag Archives: Hubert Parry


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

No culture is an island. The mirage of pure and “uncorrupted” languages, rituals, recipes, beliefs, and bloodlines evaporates on closer inspection. Human beings are genetically inclined toward interaction, cooperation, and mimicry. As big-brained social animals, we constantly absorb, transmit, and reconfigure concepts, behaviors, and technologies. The greater the contact, both within and between cultural groups, the greater the mixing, both culturally and biologically. Beneath the veneer of pristineness is an accumulation of elements, often with roots reaching beyond the scope of memory.

Such hybridity is a musical norm. Virtually everywhere and at every time, internal and external forces have accelerated or decelerated the pace of assimilating forms, styles, patterns, and instruments. Periods of heightened cross-cultural exposure, such as migrations and the Internet age, can both magnify hybridity and heighten the impulse for preservation. But, even when cultural walls are erected, influences inevitably seep through. Moreover, periods of intense hybridization are often followed by periods of stability, in which the new hybrids become “mainstreams” or “traditions.”

On an individual level, the process of musical creation is, almost by definition, an act of hybridization. Consciously and subconsciously, composers and performers mediate between diverse and sometimes divergent influences, intentions, methods, and emotions.

Intentional cross-cultural hybridity has a long history in the Euro-American classical tradition. For instance, Antonín Dvořák originally billed his New World Symphony (1893) as incorporating tunes from spirituals and Native American songs. He later clarified that the music contains “original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music” (emphasis mine). Either way, it is a hybrid. The same goes for composers like Bartók, Copland, and Shostakovich, who meld folk, folk-style, and popular sounds with orchestral techniques.

Perhaps less obvious today are the eclectic tendencies of J. S. Bach. Part of his genius was incorporating sounds from disparate sources: North Germany, South Germany, France, Italy, ecclesiastical chant, etc. Hubert Parry notes in his classic biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality (1909): “[I]t must be recognised that the principles of Italian art, in its broader and more substantial aspects, influenced [Bach] considerably; and in the first few years at Leipzig he endeavoured to accommodate his church cantatas to the prevailing taste in Leipzig.” Among other works, this yielded Cantata 174 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, 1729), which, like the earlier Brandenburg Concertos (1721), showcases Bach’s sophisticated take on Vivaldi’s formal and stylistic signatures.

The dissection of any music—folk, classical, pop, and otherwise—discloses similar eclecticism, varying in degree. These, too, can be self-conscious, like Afro-Cuban or jazz-rock, or masked, like American fiddle music and rock ‘n’ roll. Usually, the amalgamated sounds are not easily picked apart. The organic fusion of elements, whether musical, linguistic, culinary, biological, or otherwise, rarely reveals its seams.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Surviving Context

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some people are sticklers for context. They are hypersensitive about how words are handled and hyper-protective of original sources. For any statement, speech, painting, essay, song, novel or other cultural artifact to have legitimate meaning, it must be appreciated in, and only in, its native confines. Removing an idea from a specific discussion or an object from its historical period damages the intent and invalidates later applications. In the extreme of this view, ancient scriptures have no lasting relevance, reports on an event cannot describe anything else, and artistic creations from different periods or locations cannot be properly reproduced. Timeless wisdom becomes time-bound information. Ageless beauty becomes situational aesthetics.

It is fair to say that the extreme position is rarely (if ever) taken. Even sticklers treasure an occasional proverb or a piece of Classical music, though both were contrived for foreign audiences long ago deceased. Where the issue becomes problematic is when a comment is given wider relevance than the author intended. This is especially frowned upon in the guarded field of musical analysis, where fidelity to context is almost a maxim. True, ink spilled in the examination of one composer or piece of music is necessarily distorted when applied to a different work, let alone something more general; and egregious distortions can and do occur. But to insist that every musical insight be understood only in its document of origin restricts its potential readership and potential to enlighten.

If staunch contextualism were to prevail, then popular books like A Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Croften and Fraser) and Music: A Book of Quotations (Galewitz)—as well as specialized books like my own Quotations on Jewish Sacred Music—would lose much or all of their value. However, most of us recognize that words written on a particular situation or creation frequently retain and accrue beneficial meanings when expanded to larger contexts.

An example is composer-musicologist Hubert Parry’s warning, “Look out for this man’s music; he has something to say and knows how to say it.” Parry wrote this after attending the premiere of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899), but it could be describing any sincere and competent musician. Similarly, Beethoven unknowingly wrote on behalf of many composers when he included this statement in a letter to Louis Schlösser (1823): “You will ask where my ideas come from. I cannot say for certain. They come uncalled, sometimes independently, sometimes in association with other things.”

The governing ideal of a remark may reside within specific borders, but unconditional truths can still be happened upon. Indeed, various and sundry quotations find their way into anthologies precisely because their usefulness survives their context.

Part of this durability owes to the fact that observations made about any one thing take place within a grander sweep of experiences. No phenomenon exists in isolation and no reflection on a phenomenon is without underpinnings in a larger reality. In this sense, the constricted setting of a given quote already exists in a wider context, and the sagacity it possesses can speak to a wider context still. For instance, words about a Romantic composition may capture the essence of Romantic music, or elucidate music composition in general.

Of course, we should always be sensitive to the original target and meaning of a statement, and be habitual citers of sources. It is also obvious that not everything brilliant is applicable outside of the page it is printed on. But when it is, we should be free to adopt it as wisdom to think by.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.