Quentin Faulkner makes the following assertion about polyphony and the western musical tradition:
Polyphony is often cited as the major distinction of Western European art music. The development of complex formal structures could also be singled out for this honor. The attitude toward music that lies behind these accomplishments is, however, a more fundamentally distinctive and decisive characteristic of Western art music: music has a profound intellectual dimension; it speaks to the mind as well as the emotions. No other culture has nurtured such a deep ingress of music into the domain of the intellect. . . . It is not an accident that music’s intellectual component began to recede simultaneously with the retreat of the church’s hegemony. Viewed against the background of primitive music and the music of other cultures, Christian art music appears as something unnatural, “artificial”–a glorious aberration that has left an indelible impress on all Western art music following it, up to and including the present.1
Faulkner’s comparison between western music and “primitive music and the music of other cultures” may smack of western cultural superiority to some. But is that a bad thing?
It is important to notice the relationship he highlights between the music produced by the western tradition (polyphony specifically and “complex formal structures” more broadly) and “the attitude toward music that lies behind these accomplishments.”
In other words, Faulkner is arguing that music practice flows from music philosophy, and since the music philosophy of the medieval West is, in his opinion, superior to that of other cultures, so is the music it produced. In fact, Faulkner would go so far as to say that the music philosophy of the medieval West is more compatible with biblical Christianity than that of other cultures, and thus this is why what they produced is superior.
Since culture is an externalization of values, and since some values are (from a Christian perspective) superior to other values, it follows that certain cultural expressions that flow from superior values would also be superior.
- Wiser Than Despair, 150-51. [↩]