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?

Posted on July 31, 2011, in music. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I don’t think the saying is anything like that old. In Reformation times, people took their religious music extremely seriously. Elizabeth I actually introduced a formal set of rules that effectively banned quite a lot of harmonic and choral tricks, purely on the basis that they sounded too papist. Basically, if you wanted to write a hymn in Elizabethan England, and you didn’t want to be hanged for it – you made sure there was precisely one syllable per note of music, no more and no less. As you can imagine, it had a pretty stifling effect on English music at the time.

    Elizabeth was an extreme case, because as far as she was concerned, to be an English catholic was more or less synonymous with plotting against her life. (A prejudice that was not entirely without foundation.) But the underlying attitude was not unusual – early Reformation artists were determined to break with the decadent, elaborate, borderline-idolatrous artistic practises of the Roman church. And that’s an attitude that remained strong right up until the Restoration (late 17th century), certainly in England.

    I’ve found (online) an attribution suggesting the phrase was coined by a clergyman in 1844. The context of that page doesn’t give me much confidence, but the period sounds about right to me – I would guess at a late 18th or early 19th century origin.

  2. I fear any authoritative reference may prove elusive. I just tried to google for any references in Goethe’s Faust that would’ve told us it was familiar in his time, but of course the results came back full of references to it in articles about Goethe’s work. And, to make matters worse, all the music inspired by it!

    Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes it to one Rowland Hill (1744-1833), but his context is presumably much closer to the Salvation Army’s than to reformation tensions.

    But, if Elizabeth banned musical papisms, that would indeed seem to provide a very strong context for such a saying: the devil had all the best tunes by law! And let’s not forget some of the leading Elizabethan composers in England were catholic, though their music is no match for Palestrina et al.

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