|The Savage Breast|
Issue #18 (February 1983)
Carrying bagpipery to the heathens
Tahiti, 23 August 1773: The King of Tahiti refuses to deliver two hogs he had promised to Captain Cook. A wrangle ensues, and it may take an ugly turn. Cook solves the problem by putting on a concert. Georg Forster, a naturalist accompanying him on this, his second voyage, describes it as
Cook's...second voyage...resembled nothing so much as a floating band-concert.
[quoteright]The Swedish naturalist, Andreas Sparrman, recorded similar reactions, both on his part and on that of the Tahitians. Sparrman had not been prepared psychically for the horror of the pipes even by a long stay among the Hottentots of South Africa, where he had joined Cook.
Everywhere Cook went on his second voyage, he used music - particularly Scots music - to create good relations between himself and the natives of Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand, and Fiji. Not only did they like the "uncouth" music that was so repellent to the cultivated Europeans, but Cook liked their music, too. His journal for 2 October 1773 contains the following remarks concerning the music of Tonga:
Cook's first voyage to the South Seas had been with an expedition of the Royal Society, which had been dispatched to Tahiti to observe a transit of Venus. On the second voyage, his purpose was to explore for the great southern continent that had, so far, existed only as a hypothesis. There must have been something about the first voyage which led him to believe that Scots music would enable him to establish good relations with the South Seas natives. Documents are extant in which he requisitioned three bagpipers for the second voyage; of the three, the name of only one, Private Archibald McVicar, has been preserved.
Cook's musical education was nonexistent. His characterization of Tongan music as "harmonious" cannot be taken to mean that the Tongans used bass harmony. He meant it in the colloquial sense, meaning that it was pleasing to his ear. Bass harmony was a European peculiarity, and not all Europeans were united in their opinions regarding it.
Benjamin Franklin, for instance, far preferred Scots folk-tunes to the artful productions of European composers because of their lack of bass harmony, which he found odious. Scots music, like the music of most primitive peoples, is not chromatic, but pentatonic. In the pentatonic scale, every note harmonizes with every other -there are no dissonances.
Another antagonist of bass harmony was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His first career had been as a music copyist. Then he wrote the articles on music for Diderot's encyclopedia. In the article on harmony, Rousseau was relatively restrained; but in the later Letter on French Music he became downright vitriolic:
The Letter, Rousseau's contribution to the "Guerre des Buffons" then raging in Paris over the relative merits of French and Italian opera, concluded with the observation that there had never been such a thing as French music, and there never would be. How could he say such a thing? He himself had begun a new career as a composer of French opera; his Devin du Village had made him a rich man -- and got him a free pass to the Paris Opera. But with the publication of the Letter his pass was revoked, and an angry mob of musicians hanged and burned him in effigy.
Rousseau's rejection of French music was apparently motivated by a puerile urge to turn accepted values topsy-turvy, a tendency generally observable in his other work. The intellectual path that he followed was to derive music from language. Music, he reasoned, had been born in primitive society from the desire to imitate the sounds of speech. By an argument too involved (and too specious) to go into here, he concluded that the sonorities of French were not suited to reproduction in music. And besides speaking the wrong language, the French were also given to the abuse of bass harmony. He blithely ignored Rameau's withering counter-blast.
Rousseau's original contribution to musicology can best be described as piffle. But his assumptions and methodology were forebodingly grave. In the Letter, he turns to primitive anthropology to justify his contrary and provocative opinions -- an anthropology, let it be said, of the imagination only. The Letter on French Music opened a door through which he would pass twice more, in the Essay on Arts and Sciences and in The Social Contract, to prove, by comparison with what he imagined to be the state of primitive man, that the arts and sciences had actually impeded human progress, and that modern civilization was a state of degeneracy, not advancement. The first essay had led to a musical lynch-mob's venting its rage against him in effigy; the other two led directly to the Reign of Terror.
Cook, on the other hand, while not a scientific anthropologist, at least made his observations first-hand, not from the safety of the armchair. His reasoning (which was probably intuitive) can be inferred from his conduct of the second voyage, which resembled nothing so much as a floating band-concert, namely that music not only does not derive from language, it actually transcends it and all other cultural manifestations.
On his third voyage, Cook's men became embroiled in a fight with some of Rousseau's "noble savages" on Hawaii over possession of one of the ship's boats. Cook was clubbed to death; a contrite aborigine later returned one of his thighs to HMS Resolution as a goodwill gesture. He had brought no bagpipers along this time -- the Admiralty apparently could not be persuaded of the utility of music in the exploration of the wild and savage parts of the earth.
Gareth Penn has established some sort of record -- his work has appeared in every Ecphorizer since Issue #2. At the Ecphorizer Party last month he accepted his lionization with modesty and grace.
Gareth Penn is probably best known as the greatest amateur Zodiac sleuth after his many articles in The Ecphorizer that lead to the identity of Zodiac. However, Penn is much more than that as he has a keen inquisitive mind that finds an interesting story in just about anything from a memorial to a little-known soldier in a park in Vallejo, CA, to his notes about animals, to plumbing the depths of the limerick. Penn's prolific pen is evident in that he has made a contribution to every issue of The Ecphorizer up through Issue #33 (and counting!).