Believe It or Not

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Believe It or Not


Williams, Peter, Musical Times


THESE TWO BOOKS fit in with musicology's current emphasis on presenting information-packed surveys (preferably of underworked areas or periods) and are good and permanently useful examples of their genre. They compile a range of facts so as to discuss certain composers' contributions to, respectively, a Royal Roman Catholic and a Royal Lutheran court during the 17th century. And their authors work from the common belief that music represents society in an essential and not merely an accidental way (to use old terms).

Now I happen not to believe this, and neither book convinces me otherwise. Music which sets a Kyrie or a Psalm is music which sets a Kyrie or a Psalm and says nothing whatever about what its composer believes in, other than (at best) his duty to make his listeners believe in it or (at worst) his going along with patrons who do. It is ability not sincerity that makes noteworthy church music. Today, obviously, interesting contributions to scholarship can be made by authors who describe the background conditions and assumptions under which composers and other people work, and historical narration does have the knack of being 'interesting' in itself, providing it is deftly drawn and its own agenda (which it is bound to have) is not crippling. But what do books truly reveal about the music qua music if they are not to remain mere chronicles? How do we know the compositions it discusses are not just going through the motions? Are they merely accompanying some other and more significant action? Why do we find the music important if we do? Is it developing further the musical language as the composer found it? Is it even being misused for some reason? Is it just one of the many 'aspects of life'?

Perhaps - when more dissertations than ever are being written, when fewer and fewer people are fully trained in the language and grammar of music, and when courses within schools of the arts and humanities produce people ranging not deep but wide - it is so that the temptation to divert attention away from music's own languages to everything else about it just can't be resisted. This could be especially the case now that collecting scholarly materials is so much less troublesome than it used to be, thanks to all the online information, the easy searches, the instant copying of materials, the e-mail networking. Add to this the current taste for fact-collecting about everything, streaming out in expensive, semi-edited books from major and minor publishers - biographies, personal monographs, autobiographies, chronological and /or geographical monographs, explanatory introductions, surveys - and one can only hope that eventually it will all settle down into a proper critical engagement with music, one comparable to, say, Leavis's or Kermode's engagement with literature. They were scholars too - but tremendously enlightening critics.

The Ashgate book first. Ferdinand Ill's father was one of the chief spoilers of the legitimate claims of Elizabeth Stuart (dedicatee of Byrd, Bull and Gibbons's Parthenia, and wife of the Count Palatine in Heidelberg) to be Queen of Bohemia. The young couple's hope of giving central Europe a reformed faith was inevitably found intolerable by the Hapsburg Roman Emperor next door, and Elizabeth became 'Queen for a winter' only. Decades later Ferdinand Ill's aggression did soften somewhat but only because, like some more recent would-be conquerors of central Europe, he eventually lost, and the (Roman) Catholic League had to make do with papal allies in Austria, Bavaria, Bohemia, Italy, Spain, Sicily, Portugal, Hungary and elsewhere. France was a little trickier, thanks to its own chauvinisms and, until he was done away with, a liberal-minded king, Henry of Navarre. But whatever the political situation and religious intolerances, all the belligerents had their public and private music, and some of it is of permanent interest.

The Thirty Years War is such a rich topic that researching the music for church and stage associated in various ways with a main antagonist like Ferdinand can help to slot in the relatively few surviving pieces of music against a background of great turmoil. …

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