One of the central hypotheses that this blog will explore, over the long haul, is the following: ever since the Reformation, it has been difficult to find ways of funding those activities which, before the Reformation, tended to be funded by monasteries, the institution of Purgatory, and the beneficial system. Toward all three of these things the Reformation had an attitude of suspicion if not outright hostility. Yet these institutions were, it must be said, extremely good at funding the kinds of clerical activity that exceeded the daily tasks of a parish priest, the sorts of funding that made cathedrals, hospitals, endowments for singers, and so forth. (And to give them a fair shake, building a cathedral and filling it with people to sing all day every day was not just sheer opulence: from a Medieval perspective, it was the central duty of the Christian church to “pray without ceasing.”)
I am hardly the first person to notice this, but I may be the first person to want to make a further claim. To this day, church music is looking for other models of funding beyond monasteries, Purgatory, and the beneficial system; and that many clerical abuses and ecclesiastical corruption in the present moment are similarly traceable to the desire for extravegant church music and a need to find funding for it. To put it another way, a lot of people think that the problem with contemporary Christian music is the drum sets, overdrive guitars and the oft-abused smoke machines, but really we should be looking at the for-profit radio networks, Vevo channels, and touring schedules if we want to understand how we got to this place. This is correlated to a general parachurching or mass-media-izing of the ecclesiastical experience which has an adverse effect on the ability of pastors to actually shepherd local congregants.
But what is so curious is that this is exactly the thing that Reformers and Reform-minded people in the late 15th and 16th centuries complained about. All this beautiful music made clergy forget their local congregants’ actual needs. Priests in general, and church musicians in particular (they were all priests), entirely ignored their local congregations but blithely took the incomes in order to go off and sing in Dijon, Paris, Bruges, Rome, Naples, and so forth. This was the classic abuse of the “benefices,” basically parochial positions awarded to important priests (often musicians), who would then pocket the money, hire someone cheap to replace them, and never show up to execuse the clerical duties.
For instance, the German reformer Johannes Oecolampadius claimed that “what embitters Christian hearts” was “simony, priests who do nothing, fornication, drunkenness, possessing many benefices, etc.” Erasmus specifically connects this to singers: “Just calculate, I ask you, how many poor folk, barely clinging to life, could be supported with the stipends of singers?” Elsewhere Erasmus also connects the style of the music—polyphony—with the great expense it necessarily incurs: “And what is more ridiculous, those who pollute the dignity of the holy rites with their improper chattering are being hired at great expense.” That’s not an unfair critique: polyphony was expensive, both from the perspective of the wages owed to the singers and also from the years of education and training necessary to produce singers capable of that music. (These, and many other excellent quotes, can be found in Pamela Starr’s article, “The beneficial system and fifteenth-century polyphony,” in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth-Century Music, ed. Anna Maria Busse Berger and Jesse Rodin, (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 463-475 as well as Rob C. Wegman, The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe, 1470-1530 (New York: Routledge, 2005). There is also an excellent treatment of benefices and clerical abuses in A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, which I will be posting about soon.)
All this provides a context to the many posts I will be making which will flesh out this picture and provide evidence for the hypothesis (or, hypotheses, I should say, for there are two: one about funding of church music in the late 15th and early 16th century, and the other about its connection to the present problems, which is a much harder one to prove, of course). I may turn out to be wrong, but, thanks to the un-scholarly magic of blogs, you get to watch my hypotheses crash and burn in real time, long before I attempt to publish them. Along the way, though, we will all be exposed to wonderful primary and secondary literature on the subject, so who’s complaining?
A quick post-script: one of my teachers once wisely noted that music is necessarily the hero of every story a musicologist tells. This is one of the dangerous tendencies in my field and, in this particular situation, all the more so, because most people study late 15th century music not because they have been incensed by Langland’s portrayals of the priesthood in Piers Plowman and want to understand the evils of music but, rather, because they love the beauty of Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin. As do I. But I’m also a Christian interested in troubleshooting church music, so I must look the problems squarely in the face without too much sentimentality.
That being said, here is some of that beautiful music, and it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. (And, it must be said, beloved more by Luther than by the Council of Trent; but that’s for another time.)