Friday, December 26, 2008

The Church's Open Musical Society

The golden age of Gregorian chant, the many centuries in which it was written, developed, and applied, were times of imitation and innovation—and both were necessary to its flourishing and they were mutually reinforcing. Willi Apel and others have documented how tone formulas developed in many directions, as popular and useful devices became more elaborate, and how sounds that strike the ear in a certain way, signaling certain kinds of moods and thoughts, were reused in a different context to conjure up similar ideas. Within the developing musical ideas we begin to see a theology of music taking shape alongside the cognitive theology of text.

A good example is the Christmas proclamation, which we just heard at midnight Mass. It tells the story of the prehistory of the Birth of Christ, using the tone usually distinctively associated with readings in the Hebrew scriptures. The descending fifth at the end of the sentence is the mark that tells us, even if we could never understand the words, that we are hearing prophetic words. Finally near the end, on the words "born of the Virgin Mary," we encounter our first departure from this formula, with a sudden and striking rise in the pitch to the octave above the final note. Here we hear the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Thousands of chants have been closely analyzed by scholars to discover which parts were borrowed, which parts adapted from a previous and contemporaneous tradition, and which parts constitute innovations designed to more perfectly render the idea of the text. Those who sing these chants every day will discover something new in them every day, parallels within the Church year. Even casual singers have variously noted similarities between formulas used on Christmas and those use on Palm Sunday—the former welcoming a King in the form of an infant and the latter welcoming a King back into Jerusalem.

This glorious pattern of repetition, imitation, adaption, development, quoting, borrowing, and innovation—with tones and melodies all informing each other in complicated ways over a thousand years—became the rich and endlessly complicated tapestry that was inherited by the polyphonic composers of the second millennium. The early composers of polyphony drew almost exclusively from the chant tradition, making explicit in the musical notation was had only been implicit in the acoustic effects of the chant sung in large spaces with a striking reverberation. Their compositions and practices further inspired Perotin, Obrecht, Machaut, Josquin, Dufay, and the hundreds of others working in the 15th and early 16th century. Their work was in turn a necessary precondition for the emergence of Victoria, Guerrero, Palestrina, DiLasso, Tallis, and so many others in the new golden age of polyphony.

They quoted chants and quoted each other, and wrote compositions in hopes of inspiring others. There was a dynamic between them that was both competitive and complementary. An 8-voice setting that achieved some measure of fame would be followed up by another composure who copied the style and approach and went further with a 10-voice setting, followed by a 12-voice setting, followed by a 14-voice setting, and so on until we encounter such fin de siecle pieces as Tallis 48-part Spem in Alium. They were a competitive society that also practiced the greatest form of musical collegiality, at once making a name for themselves and dependent on the innovations of others as a precondition for their unique contribution.

The idea of a single ex nihilo composition, in which one solitary genius in one generation wrote a piece of music that was wholly original and artistically complete, was not an ideal that they knew or understood. To aspire to this would be been contrary to the idea of organic development, and no more justified that for one person alone to aspire to introduce a liturgical innovation. The idea was first to defer to the glory of what had existed and what did exists before daring to make one's own humble contribution to the edifice of what became the treasury of sacred music.

It goes without saying that polyphonic music of this period was freely copied, imitated, duplicated, borrowed, and performed in every suitable venue. This was not a threat to the composers or those who published their works but rather the goal, the highest compliment that true art could receive. It was not considered piracy to repeat what came from another source but rather an obligation, what Thomas Day calls the Unwritten Law of musical composition: "The icon painters prayed and fasted as they struggled to put the holy images into the exacting forms prescribed by tradition; you must try to do something similar." Even Beethoven himself obeyed it, having studied Mass settings dating back hundreds of years before writing his own Missa Solemnis.

For the nearly the whole of the development of music until the modern age, the idea of copyright—taking exclusive possession of a musical innovation and prohibiting imitation—was not only unknown and inaccessible via the laws of the time. It was something that was contrary to their vocations as composers, since their art was a gift to the Church and the world.

A side note on William Byrd here: It is a well-known fact that he and Thomas Tallis were granted a monopoly on the printing of music in England by Queen Elizabeth in 1575 (this was different from a modern copyright, which was unknown at the time; it was more like an old-world mercantile privilege). The very existence of such a right and privilege was unprecedented in music and was extended with a political goal in mind of maintaining some control over music. The patent was to last 21 years, but if the goal was political control, it failed miserably. English schools and Churches continued to import music from abroad, and failed to provide the expected market for the music of Byrd and Tallis. It is a deep irony that was of the most prolific violators of the patent was Byrd himself, who privately printed and freely distributed music written for Catholic Masses and services that were banned by law. Byrd, holder of the monopoly in printing, became the biggest practitioner of music piracy, paying relentless homage to his forbears and writing music that was circulated in the underground, "peer to peer," we might say.

The chant itself was never subjected to copyright, as editions proliferated throughout Europe for the following four centuries. Every order and monastery produced its own edition, furthering its own tradition and developing it in subtle ways. Reformed music books circulated alongside the traditional ones. As printing technology improved and more firms entered the production market, the entire field became wildly rivalrous, with competition between nations and within them, together with striking debates about chant technique, adaption, notation, and far more. The open society of Church music benefited from development in polyphonic technique as well, with relentless borrowings and imitations, theme upon theme, the sacred borrowing from secular and back again.

The same was true of music more generally, with nothing like today's copyright known until the late 18th century and then only spottily. Neither Bach nor Mozart nor Beethoven worked under a protected regime of intellectual property, and most empirical studies of this issue have shown that the imposition of copyright tended to reduce rather than increase the number of composers and published compositions - which is rather the opposite of what one might expect.

This glorious and productive society of musical development changed dramatically in the 20th century with the push toward applying a rigorous regime of patent and copyright to musical editions, including the chant itself. Because of a dispute between Solesmes and the lead influences behind the Vatican edition of chant, the leaders in the field took refuge behind national laws that restricted and hid their music, forbidding imitation and duplication and restricting dissemination and channeling all remuneration to a single source. No one really understood this in those days but the result created what Day calls an "undercurrent of bad feelings" that contributed mightily to the musical revolution of the 1970s and following.

To be continued…

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: