The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Keeping the Politics out of it? Part 1: Music and the Establishment

  28th September 2021

28th September 2021


How many of us use music as a means of escaping from the cares of everyday life? Not just the mundane details of day-to-day existence (work, shopping, household matters), but the now-constant cycle of news and adverts broadcast over all varieties of media. For many, music is a refuge from the drip-drip-drip of news stories, of political posturing, grandstanding and mishaps.  Music, surely, is a place where we can at least leave politics behind, isn’t it? Well, not quite… For a start, in many countries it’s the very same politicians we’d love to keep their noses out of the arts who decide on the very serious matter of who funds them, and to what level. And while one would like to think that they keep at arm’s length from programming decisions, they certainly have an eye on issues like audience numbers, outreach programmes and community engagement. They want to see that the funds they are supplying (however inadequate they sometimes seen) are put to good use, with positive results.

In fact, ever since the origins of western ‘art music’ in the middle ages, music – like the other arts – has flourished mainly by being at the service of other institutions: sacred or secular, local, regional or national. In short, ‘the establishment’. Most of the earliest named composers in the western canon (such as Léonin and Pérotin in Paris, Guillaume de Machaut in Reims) were in the service of the church, with arguably the first ‘golden age’ of classical music occurring in the (predominantly but not exclusively sacred) output of the Franco-Flemish school of composers, straddling the 15th and 16th centuries. Their works contributed to a view of the world that was dominated by the teachings of the church, and encroached on the lives – private and public, spiritual and worldly – of citizens great and small. Though not always unquestioningly reverential, the music of this era was almost entirely at the service of the institutions which paid for it. Self-expression, in the sort of terms we would now understand, simply did not exist as a concept.

At the same time, the courts of kings, princes and other members of the aristocracy looked to increase their prestige by employing the greatest musicians of the day: for example, Alexander Agricola (c.1457-1506) was employed in Milan by Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza, and in Burgundy and Castile for Philip the Handsome, in whose retinue he travelled widely. Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1461-1501) employed composers such as Obrecht, Willaert and Josquin de Prez. Almost a century later, the famed wedding festivities for Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in 1589 were marked by a series of lavish intermedi by composers including Malvezzi, Marenzio and Cavalieri. The career of Claudio Monteverdi was dominated by his activities at the Mantuan court of the Gonzaga family, and subsequently as maestro at the San Marco Basilica in Venice, benefitting from the relative freedoms offered by life in the Venetian Republic.

Being in the service of the ecclesiastical and political establishment meant relative security for musicians – as long as you were on the winning side. The religious and political turmoil of the Renaissance era, especially the Lutheran Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, created winners and losers, and demanded, at the very least, flexibility on the part of musicians. The difficulties of these times are familiar to anyone with an interest in the music of the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean eras: composers like William Byrd – a protestant-turned-Catholic who continued to write English-texted music for Anglican services after he became a recusant Catholic as well as Latin works – trod a fine line. For John Dowland (Byrd’s junior by a generation) Catholicism meant poor employment prospects and exile in Denmark, before returning and eventually securing a position as lutenist to James I. And within a few generations, the coming of Cromwell’s Commonwealth played havoc with musicians working not just in the church but in the theatre.

In Europe, the patchwork of German states meant plenty of opportunities for musicians with the more artistically enlightened rulers, but also a potential confessional minefield when some states were Lutheran, others Catholic. When in 1733 JS Bach – a committed Lutheran – sent a dedicatory volume of music to the Augustus II, Elector of Saxony (a Catholic), it was of a Latin-texted Missa (a short form of Mass consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only that was used in Lutheran services) that would eventually become the Mass in B minor. Three centuries earlier, in decidedly more belligerent times, the proto-Protestant Hussites in the Czech lands had as their battle song the splendid chorale ‘Ktož jsú boží bojovníci’ (‘Ye who are warriors of God’), to a tune that, to this day, stirs emotions in Czech speakers even more than ‘Ein feste Burg’ would for German Lutherans. Indeed the resonance of the Czech melody has increased over the centuries thanks to its quotation or imitation in major works by Smetana (Má vlast), Suk (Praga) and Pavel Haas (Suite for Oboe and Piano) and Karl Amadeus Hartmann (Concerto funebre).

The centrality of court or ecclesiastical employment remained crucial for musicians throughout the Baroque period and well into the Classical era. Both Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) and Mozart (1756-1791) were employed by Prince Archbishops of Salzburg (the living embodiment of the ways in which secular and sacred were entwined in those times), creating some of their most lavish church music for the vast internal space of Salzburg Cathedral with its precariously appointed choir galleries. As late as the early 1820s, Beethoven was composing his Missa solemnis for his patron and friend Archduke Rudolf, who had become Cardinal-Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc) in 1819. But the sands had by then been shifting away from the sacred to the secular for some time, thanks to the combined effects of Renaissance Humanism and the Baroque Enlightenment. Increasingly, the most important decisions to affect people’s lives, from the humble to the great, were taken at the level of the nation state, and it is the 19th-century phenomenon of nationalism and its relationship with music that the second part of this study will explore.

Recommended recordings:
Byrd - Singing in Secret: Clandestine Catholic Music  DCD34230
- The Marian Consort / Rory McCleery
Biber - Missa Salisburgensis; Monteverdi - Sacred Works (DVD)  2110394
- Collegium 1704 / Václav Luks

Latest Posts


Orpheus Britannicus: A Giant of Early Music

24th November 2021

Among this year’s musical anniversaries and super-anniversaries (ranging from Stravinsky, Mario Lanza and Astor Piazzolla to Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Josquin des Prez), one particular name carries special resonance for British early music lovers. 2021 marks both the centenary of the birth and 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Thurston Dart (3 September 1921–6 March 1971). Known professionally simply as Thurston Dart (and ‘Bob’ to his friends and colleagues), he was an enormously influential performer and academic... read more

read more

Faust emerges from the shadows

10th November 2021

For more than 200 years composers have been fascinated by the story of Faust, a scholar who, unsatisfied with life, bargains away his soul to the Devil in return for unlimited knowledge and pleasures. The consequences of this pact, for Faust, his loved ones and, most crucially, his soul, have proved endlessly fascinating for artists and philosophers alike, and of course the subject has very special resonances for any individual whose life is focussed on the creative process. The Faust of German legend goes back to the Middle... read more

read more

Mozart’s ‘Other’ Operas

2nd November 2021

More than two centuries after his death in December 1791, Mozart’s operas are steadfast centrepieces of the operatic repertoire, from the three Da Ponte operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte) to the Singspiels Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung and the two mature opera serie, Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. All these works – composed in little more than the last decade of his life – have been fortunate on discs, from the pioneering Glyndebourne recordings under Fritz Busch and Vittorio Gui, to later... read more

read more

Farewell to Two Musical Greats

26th October 2021

Last week the world of classical music world lost two of the most outstanding artists of the past 50 years and more.

The greatly respected Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink passed away on 21 October at the great age of 92, just two years after stepping down from the podium. His last concerts, at the head of the Vienna Philharmonic in London and Lucerne, were of music by Beethoven and Bruckner, two composers with whom he had become closely identified over the course of his long career. Born in Amsterdam on 4 March 1929,... read more

read more

Early Music round-up: Some new and recent releases

19th October 2021

With all but small-scale musical activities largely suspended until recently over the last year-and-a-half, new recordings have witnessed bumper crops of solo recitals and chamber music, but another apparent beneficiary has been early music. Anything from the early Baroque and still earlier eras is often unexplored territory for many listeners, but with the rise in performance standards of the past few decades and the huge expansion of repertoire (not to mention the emergence of many independent labels willing to take... read more

read more
View Full Archive