All the best tunes
Who first remarked on the Devil having all the best tunes?
I’ve heard it attributed to Martin Luther. A bit of thought suggests it could be more likely to have been his followers a generation on. Someone brought up in a world bitterly divided into us and them, for whom us were upright Lutherans and them were corrupt Papists. And a world where the Papists really did have all the best music, as was absolutely the case from the time of the counter-reformation through to the wider adoption of fine music in the baroque era.
Measured in years, the era of Catholic domination of music lasted a long time. It was firmly established by Palestrina in the mid-16th century. Come the 17th century and it’s preeminence is so well-entrenched that the church can jealously guard its proprietary treasures, leading to the famous story of Allegri’s Miserere remaining exclusive to the Vatican for 130 years before the young Mozart smuggled out a pirated copy for the rest of the (by then very different) world!
Last night’s concert by the Exon Singers presented a great work from that catholic tradition. Victoria’s Vespers is apparently a reconstruction, and (having hitherto encountered Victoria only in smaller-scale settings of individual liturgical texts) I had been expecting something sub-Palestrina. But there was no “sub” about it. This is a glorious work in its own right: that Italian tradition evidently extended to the Spanish Victoria. The Papists really did have the best tunes!
The event also benefited from the setting: sung by candlelight in a fine church. But that evoked memories of my years in Italy, and I couldn’t help feeling that the true setting for this music should’ve been the colourful opulence of one of their churches – as exemplified by Michelangelo’s ceiling – rather than an English church whose colours are limited to the stained glass. But maybe that’s just by association with places where I’ve sung: glorious Palestrina in Italian churches, vs the much drearier English early music in English ones.
Another thought that this concert provoked was, what has happened to the great polyphonic choral tradition? By the time of the Baroque, mainstream choral music had acquired an orchestra, and while the formal polyphony of Palestrina and Victoria is still evident in the time of Monteverdi, it’s clearly evolving into something more free-form. A capella religious traditions live on in miniature forms as diverse as Bruckner motets and Negro spirituals. But for anything larger scale, I think we have to look east to the Russian Orthodox church and works like Rachmaninov’s vespers.
Oh, and why does this music travel so little? Why do we Brits get so much more English music of the era, despite the overwhelming superiority of so much Continential music? Could it be that because Britain’s own first top-rate composer was Purcell, we subconsciously don’t want to admit anything from earlier than his time into the mainstream?