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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous


by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler

This article first appeared in Sacred Music, Volume 118, Number 2, Summer 1991.

What is Style?

The dictionary defines "style" as a distinctive manner of writing, a characteristic mode of expression, fashion or manner. In the arts and in music, style is a mode of expression or of performance. In a musical composition, style has to do with the manner in which all the elements are treated: form, melody, rhythm, harmony. We speak of a composer's style, distinguishing Mozart from Gounod, for example. We separate instrumental style from vocal or choral writing. We often list national styles, and we refer to a sacred style as distinguished from the secular.

Style exists in every part of life. We immediately think of style as it applies to clothing, and today the term "life-style" is found often in common usage. Students of literature are required to identify the styles of various writers and various centuries, as, for example, one can note the English of Shakespeare is different from that of Dickens. Students of music must distinguish Bach from Stravinsky. Students of musical theory must be able to write in the style of Bach as well as in the contrapuntal style of Palestrina. Chinese food is not French cooking, and a military march is not Gregorian chant. Style exists in everything. It is, in a word, the sum of characteristics inherent in a particular art at a given moment, but since these characteristics are ever-changing, and dependent on time and developments in society, new styles are constantly emerging. As the purpose for which the various art forms are created changes, so does the style into which they are cast change.

Early studies of musical style date to the seventeenth century, and the resulting distinction made between a sacred and a secular style in music continues to influence musical practice to this day. The Italians invented the terms stile antico and stile nuovo. The first referred to the contrapuntal writing of Palestrina and the Roman School, which was also called stile grave and stile romano. Contrasting it was the new music, called stile moderno, stile rappresentative, or stile espressivo. The new experiments of the seventeenth century took place chiefly in the music being written for the stage, especially the fast developing opera, while the Church continued to favor for liturgical use the older manner of Palestrina and the other Roman church composers.

Basic to the distinction between the two styles was the treatment accorded in the stile nuovo to words that expressed emotion, passion, suffering or even joy. The use of various devices in operatic composition to emphasize human emotion crept into writing for the liturgy and was found to be alien to the purpose of church music, which was intended to adorn a text rather than interpret it. As a result of opposition on the part of the Church to the affective writing in the new music, only the style of the Roman School was accepted for use in the liturgy and thus it became the sacred style while the new devices were confined to the opera and became the secular style. With the baroque era a distinction in the manner of composing for the liturgy and for the stage came into being, setting up between them a dichotomy that marked two styles: secular and sacred, a phenomenon that did not exist before. It continues in our time and is still a factor in judging all sacred music.

Basic to the distinction in sacred and secular styles is the phenomenon of connotation. The response to style is a learned response. It is the understanding by the community of musical sounds that establishes an agreed meaning about their significance. Most people will react to a military march, knowing what the sounds are intended to convey. So also with music intended to express funeral or sad emotions. In general, people will think of music in a major mode as joyful and that in a minor mode as sad. This is the result of years of living within a community for whom these sounds have become basic.

There is nothing per se in the music itself that determines such meaning. Rather such interpretation of sound or musical composition rests upon the experience of the hearer usually extended over some time. It is impossible to say that certain sounds in themselves are holy and others not. But because of education or simply lived experience, one comes to accept certain sounds as expressing sanctity and other sounds giving profane or worldly ideas. It is not the individual who determines this connotation, but rather the community together with the individual who is a part of that community. One may break with the common idea and attempt to establish another style, but time is necessary to move a community. One individual, convinced as he might be of his own ideas, does not effect a change in community connotation alone or in a short time.

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Part 2: Church Music and Style

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