Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 9

“Go away,” I told Lady. “I’m deeply busy, this morning, trying to listen to the music of Pérotin, who could provide the missing link in music history.”

I had gotten it into my head, yesterday—where did all this stuff come from? Let’s put it onto another art form: suppose that you had a culture that had no written language, and then in the space of less than 500 years, you suddenly get Shakespeare. Wouldn’t you be a little suspicious?

“I think it was seeded by aliens,” I told her. “What else could it be? No, they’ve visited us before, and they’ll do it again. But at least now we know that they’re friendly. After all, who could give us Byrd….”

“Who’s giving us the bird?”

“William Byrd,” I told her, “and after I’m done trying to listen to Pérotin, we have to set right to work on recusancy. And to the question of whether Tallis was a recusant. There’s quite a bit to be done, so I have no time whatsoever to put you into my blog….”

“Marc, I have no idea what you’re talking about…”

“Neither do I, most of the time. Anyway, here’s the deal. Though I don’t always listen to it, it would be intolerable to live a life without English Renaissance music. It may be, in fact, responsible for much of the moral laxness and intellectual sloth of the current age. I completely believe that nobody should be permitted to leave the house, of a morning, without hearing at least the Agnus Dei from the four-part mass of Byrd. Minimally. Actually, to ensure compliance, it should be mandatory for all employers to play the mass in its entirety first thing in the morning….”


“Well, we require lunch and coffee breaks, don’t we? It’s absolutely the same thing….”

“Marc, why don’t you just tell me what you’re trying to say.”

“Look, you know Gregorian Chant, don’t you? You know, it had a big vogue, all those years ago, and we were all taking scented baths in candlelit bathrooms and listening to Gregorian Chant played on our cassette tapes….”

“I have no idea….”

“You know, the monks from wherever they were in Spain. Anyway, the point is that people had always sung, and that for years the chants had passed from one generation to another. But here’s the thing: they weren’t written down. Then, people somehow got the bright idea of musical notation. But first, there was this very gradual evolution of the chant itself. Originally, it had been in unison—like the way we sing, or try to, Happy Birthday. Then they got the idea of adding boys’ voices, and did you know that the female voice is exactly an octave above the male voice?”

“I doubt that,” Lady said.

“Well, you’ll have to ask Leonard Bernstein about it, but good luck. Dead, he is!”

“We note his passing with…”

“Quiet,” I told her. “Then they added a drone note, and even cooked up those funny little instruments like the hurdy-gurdy to provide them. You know—it’s this low note that…well…drones on and on and never changes. And then, somebody finally gets the idea that we didn’t all need to be singing the same thing. Wait—first they got the idea of one line singing while the other sings exactly the same thing five notes higher.”

“And that was a good idea?”

“Yeah, and during this whole time, people were starting to figure out how to notate music. The two problems of which, of course, is what pitch the sound is, and how long to hold it. Basic stuff, to you and me, but it took a while to figure it out.”

“OK, so…?”

“So then we come to Pérotin, whose music I can’t listen to because I keep getting ‘error’ messages on YouTube. But I did listen to Kassiana of Constantinople, since not only is she the first female composer that we know of, she’s also the first! Or one of them, at least….”

“Ah, Kassiana, that woman of supreme beauty and intellect!”

“I doubt that you knew that,” I told her. “And what was her relation to the emperor Theophilos?”

“Stormy, as are all relations with beautiful and intellectual women!”

“A shot in the dark,” I told her. “Anyway, she flipped him the bird, and then hiked off to found a nunnery, and now we have the Hymn of Kassiana, which is still sung in the Greek Orthodox Church today. And which I was actually able to hear, since it seems that Pérotin is in error, but Kassiana is not. So I listened to it, and it’s interesting, in a rather monotonous way. OK, full confession: I only got through the first half before I needed coffee. But here’s the point: Kassiana is 9th century and the unheard Pérotin is 13th century. And though I haven’t heard it, I did read that Pérotin’s music inspired Steve Reich! Hah!”

“Hah, indeed. And who is this Steve Reich?”

“A modern minimalist composer! See!”

“Through a glass darkly. Marc, what’s the point here?”

“Just a couple of centuries later—OK, maybe a bit more—you have utterly maximalist composers like Tallis and Byrd!”

“In what sense were they maximalist, might one ask?”

“To which one might answer, Spem in alium.

“Don’t get it,” said Lady.

“Neither did my version of Word,” I told her. “In such degenerate times do we live!”

“I utterly resent,” she began.

“I wasn’t calling you degenerate, just the times. Anyway, it’s a piece of music set to some simple, though affecting, words. Here they are:”

I have never put my hope in any other
but in You, O God of Israel
who can show both anger and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins
of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

“Mindful of our lowliness I ever am, and adjure others to be so at all turns,” said Lady.

“I rejoice to hear it,” I said. “And if you hear the Spem, you’ll hear 40 distinct separate voices singing one of the most astounding pieces of music ever written. And written by Thomas Tallis, and when was he born?”

“Why do I think you might tell me?”

“How I wish I could. Unfortunately, the internet drifted off somewhere. So all I can say is that he started off life as a Catholic in England, so he must have been about the age, if not older, than Henry VIII. So call him 16th century—middle-ish.”

“And why would that be important?”

“Here’s the deal—these two guys, Tallis and William Byrd, wrote some of the most amazing, complicated and beautiful music of the Renaissance, and that’s saying something. One thinks of Palestrina and Tomás de la Victoria.”

“Never, never, are they barred from mind!”

“Stop it—these guys are major. And they’re also Catholic, since that’s what everybody was, in England in those days. But then, everybody had to switch to the Church of England, when Henry couldn’t get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. So then, in mid-career, both guys had to stop writing in Latin, since that was Papist, and stop writing the really complicated music that they had been writing. Instead, they had to write simple stuff, which guys like you and me could actually sing. So they did that, but nobody knows how that actually sat in their gullets….”

“Did English Renaissance composers have gullets? And if so, were they used for augury?”

“So then, being a Roman Catholic was serious trouble—losing your head was a possibility, nor do I mean it in the sense of losing emotional control. So all of that was going on—remember the dissolution of the monasteries?”

“The monasteries were…”

“They were pulled down,” I told her. “And the Catholics had to go underground…”

“Not a bad idea,” said Lady, “although I suppose….”

“So that was cool, but then guess what happened? Bloody Mary came roaring onto the throne, and then everybody had to go back to being Catholic again!”

“Say what?”

“And then, well, she kicked the bucket and—after a couple of years—Elizabeth I takes charge, and do I have to tell you what religion she was?”


“Yup, it was ‘if today is Tuesday, I must be Catholic.’ Or in this case, Anglican, because that’s what Elizabeth was. Though she wasn’t as nutso about it all as Mary had been about Catholicism. Anyway, the big question was whether Byrd or Tallis were recusants.”

“A question that burns in my mind to this very day,” said Lady. “My, how fine I sound, when dragged into this bog….errr, blog.”

“Recusancy—being a secret Catholic. Not much doubt about Byrd, but no one knows about Tallis. But Tallis must have been a good guy, since Byrd wrote a very moving song after he died, with the lyrics, ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies.’”

“Very nice indeed,” said Lady. “Now if only my poets….”

“Well, in a sense, it’s a shame the whole question of religion banged into it at all, because you can say what you want about theology, but musically, the Catholic Church wiped everybody else off the map. Shame they’re not still doing it….”

“Well, aren’t they? Didn’t you go off and do a retreat at a Catholic Monastery in Chicago?”

“Not one of my best moves,” I told her. “Though come to think of it, the monks who were singing chant were probably taught the chants note by note, just as they had been a thousand years earlier. At least I think so. Damn, never thought to ask….”

“Well, you were preoccupied, then….”

“I was indeed. I want to believe, you know. I did my best—though I do admit to sleeping through whatever the 3AM service was called. Anyway, the point is that the music was very beautiful, though nothing as complex as the music that sprang up, so astonishing and improbably, a couple of centuries later. You know, I really do think that aliens….”

“Could I suggest something?”

“And that is?”

“Well, if you’re willing to believe in aliens, why not believe in God?”

You know, it does make sense….