The Joy of Renaissance Music: Palestrina’s “Pope Marcellus” Mass

It’s another school year, which means another year going through the history of Western music in Pre-AP Music Appreciation.  This week we’re diving into Renaissance music, after spending last week covering the music of the Middle Ages.

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were not a period of depressing darkness, but rather a lively age.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be a peasant pushing an ox cart full of dung, but that peasant knew his place in the universe, in the sense that he knew he was part of an ordered cosmos with God at both its head and its center.

More on that another time, but I mention it to note that the Renaissance would not have been possible without that long age of faith in the Middle Ages.  Still, the Renaissance Period—variably dated, but starting roughly sometime in the fifteenth century, and extending to the seventeenth century—was a period of increased interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the human realism depicted in the art of those great civilizations, both a continuation of and a departure from the Middle Ages.

It also saw the declining influence of the Catholic Church in Europe, especially in the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  As Protestantism and other social forces broke the Church’s monopoly on education and its dominance over art and music, Catholicism mounted a Counter-Reformation, aimed at both reducing the influence of Protestantism and reforming real abuses within the Roman Church.

That effort, naturally, involved revisions to music.  Catholic priests denounced the increasingly theatrical nature of church music, decrying it as distracting from the simple message of the Gospel and the sacred Latin text, instead serving as gaudy entertainment for Mass goers.  Much like the megachurch arena rock concerts of today, services had become garish and maudlin, a reflection of the corruption within the Church.

It was in this context that Giovanni Pieluigi da Palestrina composed his greatest works.  According to Roger Kamien in Music: An Appreciation (the eighth brief edition, which I use with my students), Palestrina composed some 104 masses and 450 other sacred works, and his music became, essentially, the gold standard of church music until modern times (“masses” in the musical context are works built around five sung prayers, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, not to be confused with the Catholic service).

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Major Loot

In 2014, Hobby Lobby purchased a tablet containing an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest epic work of literature in Western Civilization.  The tablet is 3500-years old, and Hobby Lobby won the tablet in a Christie’s auction, paying $1.6 million for it.  Hobby Lobby displayed the tablet in its Museum of the Bible, which houses a number of rare and ancient artifacts.

Now, Hobby Lobby has forfeited the tablet to the US Department of Justice due to it shady provenance.  It seems that the original seller falsified a letter of provenance to show that the tablet had entered the United States before laws against importing rare artifacts were enacted.

To make matters worse, Christie’s apparently knew that the letter was questionable, but withheld that information.

Unfortunately, that means Hobby Lobby took one on the chin financially.  I’m not sure what the fate of the original smuggler is, but I imagine he’s long gone and living the sweet life.

The bigger question, though, is what should be done with such artifacts?  Current US policy seems to be to return them to their country of origin.  While that might seem to the be simplest policy, is it really best for the preservation of the artifacts—and our cultural heritage?

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Comic Review: Dracula: Vlad the Impaler (2021)

This past weekend I went to Athens, Georgia, with my girlfriend to see the sights.  We spent a good bit of time in downtown Athens, near the University of Georgia campus, which was overrun with graduates and their families in town for a weekend of graduation ceremonies.  Amid our sightseeing, we stumbled upon Bizarro-Wuxtrey, a comic book and record store that truly lives up to its name.

The first floor of the shop is Wuxtrey Records, a record shop that, due to Virus-related capacity restrictions, we were not able to browse.  The second floor is—like Bizarro Superman—the comic book section.  It was the classic comic book store, complete with an overweight, older gentleman with long hair and a beard manning the shabby little counter.  The store features several rooms of comics and old magazines, including back issues of old niche magazines dedicated to sci-fi flicks and movie monsters.

Amid the stacks of new arrivals I found the subject of this post:  the black-and-white reissue of the 1990s graphic novel Dracula: Vlad the Impaler.

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Saint Patrick’s Day

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day throughout the Western world, a day to venerate and celebrate the life, death, and Christian service of Saint Patrick (the day coincides with the supposed date of St. Patrick’s death).  Of course, now the holiday has devolved into a drunken festivity in which everyone pretends to be Irish for a day, downing pints of green beer and wearing green.

The real story of Saint Patrick is far more interesting than the debauched modern celebration.  Patrick was the son of a wealthy family in what is now Britain in the declining years of the Roman Empire.  Irish raiders captured Patrick and sold him into slavery in the Emerald Isle.  Working alone as a shepherd, isolated and afraid, Patrick turned to Christ for solace and strength.

After escaping captivity, God called him back to Ireland, not as a slave, but to deliver Ireland from its spiritual bondage.  After his ordination, Patrick returned and preached the Gospel to the pagan Irish, sparking a major religious revival among the people there.  Ultimately, Ireland became second perhaps only to France in its dedication to the Catholic Church, and unlike its Gallic co-religionists, maintained that devotion well into the twentieth century.

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TBT: The Boogie Woogie Flu

In looking back at posts from March 2020, it’s wild how many of my posts were about two plagues on humanity:  the Democratic Party primaries and The Virus.  What’s particularly interesting is how those posts—including the one below—still assumed that life would begin returning to normal after two weeks; after all, we were all promised “two weeks to flatten the curve,” and now we’re living under perpetual public health tyranny.

Amidst all of that plague talk, I penned a short post about the Strasbourg “Dancing Plague” of 1518.  After being told to vegetate indoors for a year, I’m beginning to think a mystery plague that causes hysterical dancing might be preferable to the foolishness we’re enduring at present.

But I’ll keep the preamble brief and let the post do the talking.  Here is 23 March 2020’s “The Boogie Woogie Flu“:

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The Joy of Romantic Music III: Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”

To take us into the last weekend in January, I thought it would be nice to do at least one more entry in my unplanned Friday miniseries on “The Joy of Romantic Music” (read the second installment here).  I very much enjoy the music of the Romantic composers, and have discovered some new favorites as I’ve been covering them in my Pre-AP Music Appreciation class.

I’m a real sucker for program music—music that tells a story or depicts an idea or place—and the Romantic period was full of it.  There was perhaps no greater champion—if not practitioner; Camille Saint-Saëns likely holds that title—of the form than French composer Hector Berlioz.

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The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau”

Last Friday I wrote of the beauty and power—the sheer joy—of Romantic music, a topic I’ve covered once before on this blog.  In writing last week’s post, I noted briefly that Romantic music is nationalistic, which was certainly true in a number of cases.

Europe following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was a hotbed of political activity and nationalist sentiment.  The Congress of Vienna (1815) redrew the map of Central Europe, reducing the hundreds of German principalities, bishoprics, duchies, baronies, and the rest into about a dozen political units, hoping these larger Germanic kingdoms would serve as a bulwark against future French aggression.  They did, and more—under the steady Realpolitik of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia gradually grew to unite these new lands into the Second Reich—a unified Germany.

Meanwhile, smaller nations chafed under Austrian or French influence.  Bohemia—now part of the Czech Republic—fought against Austrian political rule and the German language that came with it.  Bohemians championed the revival of their native Czech language, and began revisiting Czech folklore and music as the resting place of the national spirit.

This process was not unique to Bohemia or the Czechs, but today’s featured piece, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau, is a prime of example of how nationalist musical ideas can capture beautifully a sense of a place, while also transcending national identity and borders.

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The Joy of Romantic Music

This semester started with two weeks of online learning (of which today is the last day before students and teachers return to campus after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), so it’s been an unusually slow start to the already sleepy January term.  However, that hasn’t stopped my music classes from listening to great music; indeed, we’re now covering what is perhaps my favorite period in the history of Western music:  the Romantic Era.

While I adore Baroque and classical composers and their works, Romantic music builds upon the forms established in those eras, stretching and expanding upon them to reach new heights of emotional intensity and musical expressiveness.  The music of the Romantic composers delights with its musical exploration of the supernatural, the mysterious, the Gothic, and the nationalistic.

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Flashback Friday: Christmas and its Symbols

It’s Christmas!  Another magical day to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

2020 was a tough year, but Christ is mightier than The Virus.  Thank God—literally!—for sending His Son.

Have a wonderful, safe, loving Christmas Day.  God Bless all of your for your support and generosity, and for being such amazing readers.

Here’s 25 December 2019’s “Christmas and its Symbols“:

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