J.S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach's Achievement

The Integration of European Music in the Aftermath of the Wars of Religion

I. Two centuries of ideological warfare

In this period of millennial perspectives it is appropriate that we study the 3 ideological cataclysms which, over the last 500 years, have shattered the European spiritual continuum:

  1. The Catholic-Protestant polarization of western European Christianity . Christianity had frequently put forth divergent branches in previous centuries: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox , Coptic, Bogomil-Cathar, Hussite. among others. The persecution of heretics had a venerable history, nor were murderous conflicts over religious differences uncommon. All this history pales in comparison with the total devastation that overtook Europe through the continuous warfare unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, the Thirty Years War reduced the population of the Lower Palatinate ( The Rhine Valley) by 90%; the state of Wurttemburg by 85%. Three-quarters of the inhabitants of Bohemia ( the modern day Czech Republic) perished .

  2. Nationalism versus Feudalism. The term "nationalism" rather than "republicanism" or "democracy" is being used because the applications of the concept of the nationhood have found expression in many hybrid forms of government, democratic, parliamentary , socialist, communist, military, fascist. Despite their great differences, each has contributed to the undermining of the system of monarchist and feudal institutions which defined European politics from the 8th century. The term "feudalism" is also being used in a very general sense, as the system that connected up Europe until the end of World War I. In its more restricted, technical usage, "feudalism" applies only to the system established by Charlemagne, which fell apart in the 14th century. Wars of national sovereignty and independence came into prominence in the late seventeen hundreds. They continue to rage throughout the world. Up until 1989 it was believed that Europe had finished with this phase; Yugoslavia provided the definitive counter-example

  3. Capitalism versus Communism. Historically the most recent replay of Europe's inherent incapacity to achieve spiritual integrity , the capitalist/communist schism devastated the planet for 7 decades , gripping the consciousness of the mankind as with a band of steel.

Vestiges of all these conflicts are still around today: Reformation contra Counter-Reformation still reigns in Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia . Monarchies with real political power are still to be found in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Nepal, Brunei and certain fringe principalities. Modern Europe's monarchies are largely ceremonial, though one should not discount the very real economic power of persons like the queens of Holland and England. There are not many private citizens who can claim a world-class oil company as their personal property. One might also interpret the spontaneous rise of fascist governments in the 30's as monarchism in modern dress. The distinction between a king and a demagogue may be clear on paper, but it makes little difference to the governed.

As for communism, it is very much alive on the mainland of East Asia and in Cuba. Nor should its continuing political clout in Eastern Europe be trivialized. That this contemporary catechism of alienation, capitalism versus communism was more universally dispersed , does not in any sense imply that its root dissensions were any more fundamental. Ideological warfare in all its viciousness is a permanent feature of the human condition.

Sorting through the cultural debris left in the wake of the shock wave of an ideological divide one identifies certain common features:

The instinct for detecting heresy present in persons committed to the cause eventually engulfs members of their own persuasion. To them, the very exercise of originality or imagination becomes suspect. It may be that only a few key figures in the arts, letters and sciences, will be singled out for persecution; others working in their disciplines soon incorporate forms of self-censorship in their creative output . In the long run this brings about a climate of opinion, relative to which being inventive in ways contrary to the norm becomes unthinkable: a restrictive style becomes one of the characteristics of the age. Although the store of concepts may be vastly augmented, ( as in medieval scholasticism or Marxist-Leninist theory) , a shroud of darkness closes over the mind. Example: in the last decade we have seen how words like "liberal" and "political correctness" have become so tainted by adverse publicity and innuendo that they can at most be whispered apologetically.

In the United States it has always been the case that the use of the words "Negro" and "black" in conversations among white people will be followed by an embarrassed silence - as if to say " I guess I better watch my step lest I say the wrong thing." When talking with scientists from Eastern Europe, I found that the word "Jew" was never uttered without a nervous laugh. These simple examples serve to illustrate the power of political manipulation over ordinary speech, and by extension over all cultural productions.

Such mentally constricting and doctrinaire views extend deep into the arts and letters of their times. Rigidity of thought becomes the norm. During the 50's, when censorship of the arts was forcing Russian literature into the suffocating mold of Socialist Realism, the United States developed a self-imposing cult of conformism in popular and official culture, film, music, dress and education. Although this was relieved, (perhaps) , by the Dionysian revels of the 60's, it has since returned with redoubled force.

Historically it has always been the case that there remains a large portion of the planet for whom an ideological conflict, its purges, its wars and Inquisitions appear foolish, even innocuous. What do most Europeans think about, or even know about the Sunni-Shiite quarrel that has divided the Moslem world for centuries? The "Babylonian Captivity" of the Popes at Avignon during the 14th century, that pathetic succession of Popes and anti-Popes all under the control of equally ludicrous European potentates, , a phenomenon that was so overwhelming in its consequences for its own times , now serves, even for Catholics, as a cause for embarrassment.

That the Taiping Revolution of 1850-64 was the most destructive conflict between Napoleon and World War I is unknown to almost all Americans, most of whom think that the Civil War has that distinction. When it is explained that the cost of this war was in the neighborhood of 30 million lives, a not uncommon response will be : " That's China; It doesn't count. They lose that much in a famine. Anyway, what's it got to do with us?" A clash of both peoples and ideologies, with the Manchu dynasty and the Confucian bureaucracy on one side, and a mix of Christianity and 19th century socialism on the other, its importance to world history is apparent to anyone not biased by xenophobic prejudices: The Taiping Revolution connects everything from the triumph of Maoism to the present day persecution of the Falun Gong .

Likewise: although 16th and 17th century western Europeans believed that the world that really mattered was filled with nothing but Catholics and Protestants, it must have appeared to the rest of mankind, Arab, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Chinese, African or Native American that the West was embroiled in a family squabble around an idea that is almost incomprehensible: that governments had the right to perpetrate genocide on persons who misunderstood the teachings of the Prince of Peace.

A European ideological catastrophe classically takes the form of a civil war cutting across all national boundaries, setting communities and families at each others throats, devastating entire nations and scattering peoples over the face of the earth: the national character of the United States was formed by the members of all the religious confessions forced out of Europe at this time: Catholics, Quakers, Puritans, Moravians, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, Huguenots, Jews, Baptists and others

That the context in which the cracks and rifts open up is homogeneous is important: the way in which the tectonic breakup of the trans-national unity unfolds is as much a part of its spiritual universe as its deceptive appearance of consensus. The growth of fascism taught us a great deal we did not want to know about the European soul; the Cold War has supplied us with important insights into communal ways of life, and responses to the impact of industrialization, around the world.

Christianity had been, and would remain, the dominant ideology for most of Europe through the 16th and 17th centuries . That one now found Christians, some of them called Catholics, others Protestants, embroiled in fierce genocidal wars might appear to some as merely a lamentable detail. Yet the converse proposition exhibits more insight: the truth is that Europeans have a predilection for continent-wide civil wars, the odd part of it being that the ideology under which they gave expression to their hatreds called itself a religion of compassion.

Music and the Reformation

The role of music in the church services of all forms of Christianity has always been fundamental . Writing in 1597 Richard Hooker refers to the: "admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject " ( Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Bk. 5 )

It was therefore unavoidable that over the two centuries during which the heart of Europe was being torn asunder by religious strife, that the varying fortunes of sacred music from place to place would reflect the this on-going violence. The blossoming of numerous confessions, Catholic, Gallican Catholic, Henrican Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Reform, Presbyterian, Puritan, Pietist, Jansenist, etc. resulted in the creation of a tragically fragmented musical language across the length and breadth of Europe. Every imposition of a new religious order brought with it the creation of new hymnals, missals, graduals, books of common prayer and other written materials. New music needed to be written for all this, itself subject to numerous rules and restrictions. Depending on the time and place, one encounters prohibitions against organs, musical instruments like sackbuts and viols , counterpoint, polyphony or even simple part singing , plainsong, and popular melodies deemed too vulgar for the devout.

"The suppression of chantries in the first year of the reign of Edward VI, together with the injunctions of his reign against organs and florid polyphony, were much more significant for the musical life of the Church ........ The injunctions for the taking down of rood-lofts and organs and the destroying of Latin service-books were not carried out everywhere with equal rigour, but otherwise the harrowing story of destruction alternating with restoration ran its course for more than a century " (Church Music in England , Frank L. Harrison, from The New Oxford History of Music , vol. IV, page 466 )

The following comical quote is taken from a sermon preached in 1628 by Canon Peter Smart of Durham against the church composer Cosin . Smart was a fundamentalist Anglican who railed against "schismaticall, hereticall and traiterous Arminians and Papists" . He spent 12 years in prison during the civil war:

"... [Cosin] chaunts with Organs, Shackbuts and Cornets which yield an hydeous noyse....He hath brought meere ballads and jigs into the Church...Hee will not suffer so much as the holy Communion to bee administered without an hideous noyse of vocall and instrumentall Musicke....." -Op. Cit, page 47

Although the immediate effects on the art of music were often catastrophic, the end results were not always negative. Music, perhaps because its content is more abstract than that of other arts, may, even in periods when censorship is most severe, also be more protected. Official censorship will often be appeased by alterations of a libretto or song text. The thought police of the repressive Metternichian order that dominated continental Europe throughout most of the 19th century did not interfere significantly with the careers of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann or Brahms. Stalin, it is true, laid a heavy hand over the lives of Prokoffief, Shostakovich and others: he insisted on Soviet music having a "recognizable content" ( translation: a gloss of "Russianism" derivative of Rimsky-Korsakoff) - it made the task of identifying "subversive music" that much easier. Perhaps even he understood that it is not so easy to eradicate a musical idea.

Thus, even though composers of Catholic church music were forced, after the decrees of the Council of Trent, to modify plainsong settings by artificial, even mutilating rules , they could, and did, lift ideas from Calvinist composers . This was most true in France, where Gallican Catholicism put up a strong resistance to the Tridentine enactments. Calvinist, Huguenot or Reformed composers also labored under many restrictions, different in kind but not in severity from those inhibiting their Catholic co-workers. They might, for example, be compelled to dilute their settings of the Psalms to the point where they could be hummed by a pious peasantry at work in the fields. Yet they too found a way to work side by side with Catholic musicians . Speaking of France in the first half of the 16th century, the musicologist Franois Lesure writes:

" For a long time non-Huguenot musicians did not hesitate to set the Marot-Bze Psalter to music. Here there was still no clear distinction between Catholic and Calvinist music." -Op Cit , pg. 25 (The references refer to the Bibliography.)

Music in England

Nowhere was the state of music so adversely affected by the violence of Reformation and Counter-Reformation as in England. We begin with the 16th century example of John Taverner, whose peregrinations from orthodoxy to orthodoxy appear extreme, even for his times:

" England had produced one masterly polyphonic composer, John Taverner, who wrote eight Masses and many motets before the Reformation. He was choirmaster of Cardinal's College at Oxford, Wolsey's foundation. He resigned in 1530, ceased all musical work, and became a fanatic adherent of the extreme anti-Catholic party. [Thomas] Cromwell employed him in the suppression of the monasteries: in a letter from Boston in 1538, he writes his master: "according to your Lordship's commandment, the Rood was burned the seventh day...... and a sermon at the burning of him, which did express the cause of his burning and the idolatry committed by him." -Douglas , pg. 77 (The quotation does not specify whether or not the "Rood" was merely some "object of superstitious veneration", or some church worthy! )

The following quotation provides an overview of the tragic history of those centuries:

" The suppression of the monasteries, and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer.... vitally affected the history of English church music.... The loss to music was incalculable... The task of these composers, especially in 1549, was tremendous....
" The Second Book of Common Prayer ( 1552) .... Once more the church musicians were put to some confusion... The growth of the newly founded English school of church music suffered a severe check... A fresh Act of Uniformity was passed in 1559 ....
" In the period that followed England was acknowledged to hold the supreme position among all the nations of Europe. Before the close of the century, English cathedral music could successfully challenge that of Italy and the Netherlands....
" The Civil War .... was another tremendous blow to English church music....The cathedrals were closed.. the clergy and choirs were dismissed.. organs were mutilated ... wholesale destruction of music books....for some 15 years church music was non-existent in England..."-Fellowes , pgs. 1- 9

This was the coup-de-grace. Despite the presence of exceptional individual composers like Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten, and notwithstanding the abortive attempt to jump-start a native musical tradition with the importation of Georg Friedrich Handel, English music has never recovered its former glory since the civil wars of the 17th century. That the musical heritage of England is insignificant in comparison with Italy or Germany only tells us something about its history, nothing about its national character.


Continued