Erasmus on Funding Church Music

In a previous post, I outlined a simple hypothesis that historians of music have used to understand church music in the late Middle Ages and Reformation era: how church music was funded proved essential to how, when and why it was composed and, of course, the ways in which it changed as those funding structures evolved. For instance, the developtment of the doctrine of Purgatory was a direct contributor to the salaries of singers of polyphony. (If this seems strange, see the previous post, and stick around for more examples of this fascinating phenomenon.) As Purgatory is deprecated in certain Protestant contexts, so church music was in need of new sources of funding.

I will be going through parts of Rob Wegman’s The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe 1470-1530, which is a veritable Macrobius-style compenium of sources on these topics interspersed with commentary. “Choral polyphony,” Wegman points out, “was a costly undertaking even at the best of times. Yet in the troubled final decades of the fifteenth century, it proved especially ahrd to support the practice.” But it’s important to note that, once a foundation had been started for the singing of polyphony–that is, once a person had left money in their will for perpetual singing of masses–it was not the sort of thing that a parish or diocesis could do away with whenever it wanted. “Churches whose musical worship was supported by foundations could only hope for better times and ask their musicians to be patient; the income from foundations was notoriously vulnerable to changes in the economic tide, but their musical terms were fixed and could not be changed without papal approval.”

This sort of thing led Erasmus to hold forth in typical style, inveighing against polyphonic singers:

One supports this washed-up sewage of vile and unreliable men, as most Dionysiacs [i.e., professional performers] are, and on account of this pestilential custom the Church is burdened with so many expenses. Just calculate, I ask you, how many poor folk, barely clinging to life, could be supported with the stipends of singers?

Erasmus, Annotations on the New Testament, quoted in Wegman, Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe, 39-40.

Another theologian writing around 1500 on Aristotle’s Politics, Fernando de Roa, strikes a similar note, wanting to be sure that no one misunderstood Aristotle’s comments on music in Book 8 to be talking about the kind of horrible, modern music current in his day.

For we see that the churches [today] are full of musicians, but not of theologians. For one finds more people in the holy church of God who have benefices on account of music than of theology, despite the fact that theology is much more necessary for the salvation of the soul than music. And rightly, therefore, our theologians could tearfully say, along with that prodigal son: ‘How many hired servants and musicians (and what is more aboinable: stablemen and horse attendants) have bread enough in churches dedicated to the most precious blood of Christ, [and are] not content even with one or two benefices, while we preish here with hunger, in studies that have already used up our own goods and those of our parents!”

Fernando de Roa, Commentarii in politicorum libros Aristotelis, in Wegman, Crisis of Music, 40-41.

I love this opposition: the musicians, using up all the money, and the theologians, starving for lack of any support but doing their darndest. (Maybe we could model Ad Fontes blogs in this way: me, the musician, and Miles, Wedge, Hutch, Rhys, Joseph, and Brad, the theologians? Just a thought.)

In the next few posts, I’d like to explore a little about how the doctrine of Purgatory enabled this funding model (using, in part, some readings from Jacques le Goff) as well as how Protestants responded to this situation in their own music.


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