Assessing the earliest stirring of the English style can be a perilous endeavor. It is true that a set of distinct features – parallel thirds, voice-exchange, a repeated pattern in the low voice, or pes – came to play a prominent role in English composition in the years following the Notre Dame School. These techniques eventually went on to exert a demonstrable influence on continental musical styles – they were not simply isolated in England. However, beyond these simple facts, our understanding of how this style developed and spread can be quite elusive.
First of all, England was hardly as isolated as we might like to believe. (Taruskin speaks of this interpretation of the English sound as the equivalent of “insular fauna – musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses.”) The Norman conquest, which began in 1066, established French culture, courts, and language on the island; a couple of hundred years later, the English returned the favor, invading and occupying much of northern France. With all these invasions and counter-invasions came whole armies of noblemen and clergy, each with their own traveling retinue of musicians. The English and the French – often at the point of a knife – shared a good deal of music between each other during these hundreds of years of strife.
Evidence of the French-English musical connection are abundant. While not primarily associated with the French in musicological circles, the English sound (thirds, voice-exchange, etc.) can be found both in French music and in music by “English” composers with suspiciously French-sounding names (Pycard, for instance). Our English sound, it turns out, is not as easily catergorizable as we might have originally thought.
A major historiographical problem that arises from this confluence has to do with the idea of influence. Music historians spend a lot of time searching for continuity between traditions, composers, and techniques; indeed, the paradigm of “slow, continuous change” is a major conceptual vantage point from which musicologists conduct their research. Although the discipline is so fractured now that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce any single scholarly perspective to be axiomatic, musicology traditionally approaches its subjects diachronically (concerned with how something changes through time). The concept of influence, then, is often a critical tool in establishing lineages. Thus the standard narrative: Composer (or group) A came up with innovation B, which then spread to country C and influenced the musical language of composers D, E, and F. Influence in popular music studies is just as pronounced: ragtimers influenced the development of jazz, which then influenced the development of soul, which went on to influence disco, then hip-hop, etc. It is easy to view historical processes through the lens of influence, where isolated developments are picked up, virus-like, by musicians and carried far and wide.
In this particular case, there are a number of theories accounting for the English sound. Some claim that the English exerted an influence over French university musicians, who happily picked up the sweet new style. Others contend that certain French techniques appealed to English musicians because of their resemblance to oral practices up on the island – when they returned home after university training, they brought these French styles with them. And as Taruskin wryly observes: “Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans.)” This touches on the issue of nationalism, which will undoubtedly come up again, but it also exemplifies a problem with the concept of influence itself. As a tool for establishing links between separate phenomenon, the notion of influence has the disadvantage of being decidedly linear. It doesn’t really account for the contentious, complex, messy situation that often accompanies the transmission and cross-fertilization of musical styles. It essentializes. (I’m engaging another text right now that does a superb job of addressing the perils of the influence concept, Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll. The black/white racial dynamic in the story of American pop music parallels this English/French dilemma in fascinating ways.) Influence is fundamentally a one-way stream, with the “influencer” on one side and the “influencee” on the other. Clinging too dogmatically to this concept when viewing historical processes can blind one to the myriad other ways developments can spread. Perhaps the English sound is a mash-up of two traditions, a sonic portrait of cultural enmeshment? Perhaps these little stylistic tricks were – dare I say it – developed independently on the island and the continent. This sort of synchronic reading is possible to put forth as well, but to what end? Ultimately, the problem with pure influence is that it fails to truly elucidate. There’s a futility to trying to determine linear relationships between social phenomenon, music or otherwise. Once again, I’ll close with RT (I decided not to employ scare quotes around my usages of the word “influence”):
Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?
That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. (I, 399)