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Book Review

The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530

The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530 by Wegman
Rob C. Wegman
Routledge. x + 263 pp.
Abingdon, Oxfordshire and New York
ISBN: 0415964741
ISBN-13: 9780415964746
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Music historians are fond of (identifying) watersheds: Robert Haven Schauffler's biography of Beethoven in 1937 is entitled, "The Man who Freed Music". A generation earlier the Second Viennese School and Stravinsky were "freeing" music from tonality. More than a century before that the first Viennese school made their radical changes – to musical forms, for instance. Two hundred years earlier still, around 1600, the seeds for several of those forms, notably opera and the concerto, were planted. These – and the division of western art music into periods, "medieval", "Renaissance", "Baroque" etc. – are all to some extent artificial. And none of them has the same cultural resonances as have the changes that took place in European music at the end of the fifteenth and start of the sixteenth century. As described in an excellent recently-revised book by Princeton teacher Rob C. Wegman, these "divisions" had the characteristics of what we would now call a "culture war".

At issue was the accessibility and suitability for society in general and worship in particular of choral polyphony. Detractors saw it as, again to use a more modern term, "decadent". Advocates of polyphony and its attendant musical attributes resisted the change – as much for non-musical reasons as any – and refused, as we might put it, to watch while another watershed was crossed. Controversy characterized the sixty years or so either side of 1500.

As Wegman puts it [p.24] "Something fundamental in European musical culture seems to have begun to happen, sometime in the 1470s: a shift in musical and religious sensibility, occurring not in the corridors of power, not on the writing desks of composers, but among people of all stations who cared about music and the church." But this is an argument that has to be refined. Wegman shows how such criticism – that polyphony was anything from wasteful and inappropriate to lascivious and dangerous – was not new. Was not uniform. Nor can be drawn as runaway, incremental or unstoppable. Above all, that such attacks were indicative of honestly-held beliefs by those who felt they could substantiate their fears and misgivings. Significantly, by setting out all shades of opinion and the interaction between those who held them – implicit and stated – Wegman reveals a great deal about the nature of musical change over a period which co-incides almost exactly with the life span of one of its greatest practitioners, Josquin des Prez (1450/55-1521).

Wegman tells an interesting and important story well and entertainingly. Although his style is personal, indeed personable; and his narrative approach is "familiar" and immediate, he sacrifices none of the necessary rigor to make The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530 an authoritative and reliable book. Although the subject is an important one, and to music lovers whose interests don't usually extend to before the Classical period as well, it's far from dry or merely of specialist interest. If you don't believe that before reading this book, you will by the end.

The participants in the controversy – including musicians, clerics, theologians, statespeople, local priests and their congregations – are brought fully to life, chiefly by frequent and extensive quotation from their writings and sometimes their spoken views. Usefully, written material is presented in the original languages (usually Latin, French, German, Middle English) with a literally parallel translation at the side on the page. It could be argued that Wegman's technique of citation of sources in support of his thesis (with ample honest admission of exceptions and counter-indications) is heavy-handed, or wooden even. In fact Wegman keeps the pace and variety going more than adequately: progress is never slow nor the read a tedious one, however subtle the impact of the sources.

Notes are grouped at the back of the book, with bibliography and index as well as three appendices. The first of these is a particularly useful timeline tabulating the relevant event(s) of each year from 1470 to 1550 with the page(s) on which each is (first) discussed.

So the substance of the "crisis" is set out in about 175 pages; that's an entirely suitable scale on which to approach and deal with the issues. There is a crucial final chapter examining the crisis in its widest context. It reaches the eminently sustainable conclusion that to think of music as having developed in linear fashion from the contenance angloise to the seconda prattica is counterproductive at best; and at worst a deceptive obstacle to properly understanding how music developed into the later Renaissance, early Baroque, and beyond.

The other four chapters in The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530 set out the backgrounds, experience, roles and views of those who joined the controversy over the issues of polyphony in music – both in support and in deprecation. Chapter Four examines the "special case" of English music. In England objections to and defenses of the pre-eminence of the polyphonic style were substantially delayed when compared with the timeline in the rest of Europe; there seems to have been little debate on the issue right up until such times as the grip exercised on so many aspects of life by the Puritans also affected music.

Chapter 1, "They are not Hofereyen" (hoferey can be translated as "vanity", "vainglory") sets the tone for the book. Not only in that it situates the substance of the "battle" in an accessible context (one Johannes Behem, a parish priest in Görlitz, rails against his local politicians for misrepresenting the polyphonic style of music practiced in his church at the time, December 21 1486). But also in that Wegman is constantly aware of two attendant truths: that music making needed not be either only and always polyphonic or "reduced" to just plainchant; and that the fault lines along which those concerned with music divided reflected wider social and political beliefs and expediencies.

This is a compact and well-argued book. One that approaches and handles its subject well. Wegman's style is a winning one. His scholarship is impeccable. Attractively priced and covering the ground in a way that no other book currently does, The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530 is to be recommended. At first sight, to some, it may seem like a topic of minority interest. In fact, if you accept that music (like many other human activities) progresses via a process of thesis – antithesis – synthesis, to understand how and why vocal music changed over the hundred years before the generation of the High Renaissance composers and then Monteverdi is necessary to appreciate everything that came afterwards. This book provides as thorough and compelling an account of the issues and their outcome as anything available.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey.