The Dancing Chimpanzee by Leonard Williams

Andre Deutsch



This slender volume offers an even slenderer argument, in essence thus:


Despite Darwin, music did not evolve from the love-calls or apes. True, apes are emotional and unpredictable (ie potential musicians). But they have no concepts, and hence no rhythm, and hence no music; and anyhow they never had any love-calls. QED.

  Music-making must therefore be post-ape. Man is a tool-user; music a tool (of ritual or magic). Its raw material was the emotive anthropoid cry, modified by hominoid rhythm. Thus monotone chant precedes song, drums precede flutes. Now read on (eg in Curt Sachs).


I doubt if many people, least of all musicians, will need to be told that it’s not quite such a far cry to the love-call, or that music is not quite so low in the scale, as Darwin supposed. His view of the descent of man was, after all, a posteriori; his a priori views on music are less obviously based on fact, as he himself realized. Indeed, his serenading ape was perhaps less a scientific theory than a subconscious expression of distaste for the Victorian ballad: “the males begin the dreadful concert”, as he wryly puts it.

   However, Mr Williams takes the theory very seriously, as befits one who is about to refute it. Unlike Darwin, he is a practical expert on music (he is principal of a Spanish guitar centre) as well as monkeys (he runs a woolly monkey sanctuary). So he can easily show that the two topics have nothing (else) in common worth mentioning: there is hardly even a missing link. Music, he explains, involves not just emotion, but well-developed conceptual thought. This scents a most pertinent and salutary approach to just about every musical question except the one actually under discussion. If the origins of primitive music are utterly unknowable to the ape, then “a study of primitive music in relation to the vocalizing and rhythmic actions of apes” seems to call for an even shorter book than this one.

   This dilemma is met with commendable resource. Mr Robert Wilson contributes agreeable drawings, which was a good idea. Mr Williams for his part is adroit at turning his brief theme into variations, with unrelated episodes. For example, he tells us six times that Darwin was wrong, seven times that rhythm is the root of music, eight times that apes cannot form concepts, and so on; while three pages (61-4) are devoted to reporting “the kind of reporting we must guard against”. As a change from saying things again in different words, he says them again in the same words (eg part of p.23 reappears on p.55) or else leaves them unsaid altogether (of the index has several obvious lacunae: and surely the relevant work of Mrs Langer, Dr van Lawick-Goodall, etc, was worth a mention?).

   I cannot help feeling that some of this ingenuity is misplaced. Clearly Mr Williams is a gifted and informed musician. Better still, he writes about his woolly monkeys with the compassionate and uncondescending sense of kinship with a brute creation that characterizes the true naturalist. But his attempt to sit in judgment on two unconnected branches of learning has inescapable hazards.

   At least he makes his readers think again about The Descent of Man. That wise, carefully-documented and modest masterpiece had the advantage of a logically-evolving theme. In Mr Williams's own forthcoming work, Man meets Monkey, the subject-matter will also be closely related; it should be a howling success.


The Musical Times, June 1967 (p. 518) © the estate of eric sams