Why Petty Politics Can be a Good Thing

What drives musical innovation and complexity? We’ve discussed a couple factors so far, including artistic play, technological advances influencing practice, and competition. I’d like to return briefly to the last of these (competition), although I’ll leave rap battle analogies out of this one.

The motet was the most sophisticated, dense, and – as Taruskin points out – occult genre of its day. It was also the most prestigious in the halls of power. (In today’s terms, the motet might be the equivalent of combining the intellectual rigor of total serialism with the patriotic fervor of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”) Suffice it to say, the motet did a lot of cultural work. It is important to remember, however, that the great feats of complexity that played such a prominent role in the genre’s success were not purely the result of aesthetic considerations. One of the things I admire the most about the OHWM is that Taruskin adamantly refuses to approach pieces of music as disembodied, pure aesthetic objects. It would be easy and alluring to see the motet as just another evolutionary step forward, as a product of composers’ innate drive for greater expressive power. Taruskin doesn’t let us off this easily.

The fact of the matter is that politics played a major role in the complexity arms race of the motet, especially in Italy. During the 13th and 14th centuries, small principalities broke up the boot into a balkanized patchwork of power centers. Even the church got in on the factionalization when the great papal schism lasting 40 years led to a multiplicity of popes all vying for legitimacy. And what does music have to do with all of this? Taruskin: “This period of political and ecclesiastical chaos was a gold mine for the arts, and especially for music. That is because one of the chief means of asserting political power has always been lavish patronage of the arts.” (I, 277)

Despots used music as a competitive tool to project their own superiority over their rivals. Despite the somewhat ignominious nature of this arrangement, their deep pockets made for some of the best-paid, most respected gigs of the day. (That is, until your patron’s fiefdom gets sacked by the next town over.) Composers from France and Flanders – the birthplace of ars nova – flocked south to write music for these powerful patrons, including the great Johannes Ciconia. Ciconia worked for one Francesco Zabarella, an archpriest in line for the papacy, setting to work to glorify the achievements of his boss. Here are some sample lyrics from his hagiographic motets: “O Francesco Zabarella, glory, teacher..,” “O Francesco Zabarella, protector….”

Music of this sort is about as far as you can get from “music for music’s sake.” Yet the competition between rival Italian courts and religious authorities led to cross-pollination of regional styles, a secure paycheck for the composers involved, and the explicit instruction for them to go out and innovate. Thus, while the pretenses for this music were hardly what we today would call “purely aesthetic,” political competition profoundly enriched the musical culture of the day.

It’s a bit like the space race. While it’s certainly true that the US and the Soviet Union were essentially engaged in a multi-billion dollar pissing contest, it’s hard not to recognize the positive (and unintended) outcome of the race. Our species endeavored into outer space, we developed amazing new technologies, we educated an entire generation in the hard sciences. The photo of the earth from the moon is pretty nifty, if existentially exhausting. At a certain point, the petty political posturing at the root of space race funding sort of fades into black. What we’re left with is that photo of our perfect planet earth.

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