Monday, December 23, 2019

Polyphonic Music and the Angst of the West: A Christmas Post

Sicut Cervus, by Pierluigi da Palestrina, published in 1604. It sings Psalm 42 of the Vulgata Bible. Maybe this old motet can be seen as a Christmas gift from the Western culture to the rest of humankind

With the waning of the Middle Ages, Europe was coming out of a terrible period. The crusades had ended with a series of crushing defeats and the tremendous war effort had backfired, generating famines and the black death pandemics that killed more than 100 million Europeans. It is estimated that around 45–50% of the population perished, in some areas probably closer to 75–80%.

Yet, Europe rebounded from the disaster -- perhaps because of it. As I described in a previous post, with the 15th century the European population restarted growing, faster than before. It was probably because it could find intact natural resources that the previous collapse had left free to regrow: forests and arable land.

The 15th century was the time of the Renaissance, an age that was the start of the incredible expansion that led Western Europe to dominate most of the world after a few centuries of conquests. But the tumultuous expansion was not without internal struggle: every European state wanted a slice of the overseas bounty. Eventually, the competition would generate the great struggles of the 17th century, with Europe turning against itself with the 30-years war, the witch-burning age, and other disasters. Much before that happened, the older European cultural unity had been lost: Latin, the old universal language that had bound Medieval Europe together, was rapidly losing ground. It wasn't needed anymore.

But, before disappearing, Latin had a last moment of glory. It was the age of polyphonic music in Western Europe, a kind of delicate, sophisticated, intricate, incredibly beautiful kind of music never seen before in the world. Not that polyphony didn't exist before, it was possibly the most ancient kind of music in human history. But the Western European version that lasted from ca. 1400 to 1600 CE, was something different. Earlier on, Gregorian music -- monophonic -- had been mostly an embellishment of the sacred Latin words of the Bible. With polyphony, music asserted itself in an age when Latin was not understood anymore.

To be sure, polyphonic music was still sung in Latin and it often had religious subjects, but it was a completely different story. It was an expression of the European willingness to expand into new realms. Just in the same way as the European galleons were exploring new lands, European polyphonic music was exploring new harmonies and new ways of communications: lacking a shared language, music had to come to the rescue. Polyphonic music could be religious, but it was not necessarily so. It could take the form of a madrigal, a secular kind of music.

For some two centuries, a new harmony, never heard before, resonated in Europe. Then, as the political struggle became harsher and wider, polyphony gave way to symphonic music, better suited to the tragic and violent age that started with the great carnage of the 30-years war and expanded all the way to the disasters of the two world wars of the 20th century. It lasted until English became the new universal language. With English, music could become again linked to the human voice and to words that could be understood. A modern genre such as the rap is, after all, a return to the Gregorian approach to music as an embellishment of human language. 

Today, polyphonic music is still alive and well as a religious form of music in Eastern Europe, but it is a relic of a bygone time in Western Europe and in all the regions that recognize themselves under the wide label of "The West." Yet, we can still appreciate the technical mastery of the composers of that time, one of them was Pierluigi da Palestrina, who composed Sicut Cervus, from Psalm 45 of the Bible.

Actually, the Sicut Cervus is not just a beautiful harmony, it is something more. Its theme is a thirsty deer looking for water. It says, Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.” Which you can translate as: “As a deer longs for a spring of water, so my soul longs for you, oh God.” And that, I think, can express the burning desire of the West, the angst for something that Westerners themselves don't understand but have been seeking for centuries with such a reckless enthusiasm that they set half of the world on fire. And, whatever it was that they were seeking, it seems clear that they didn't find it. Today, the parable of the Western world domination seems to be mostly concluded, even though it still flares here and there. But there remains to us something distilled from so much ardor, the music of a remote age when our ancestors had managed to create something eerie and beautiful that we can still admire, today: polyphonic music.

I noted in a previous post how all human cultures have treasures that they cherish and revere. These treasures are not the property of anyone but gifts for everyone. In that post, I cited Greta Thunberg, the young bearer of the rights of the planet, as a gift that the West may be able to offer to the world nowadays. But also a treasure from the past, Western polyphonic music, can be seen as a gift to all humankind. Will we ever see a time when human cultures will exchange only gifts and not bombs? We are not there yet but, who knows? For the time being, the West seems to be still desperately searching for something, but nobody knows exactly what.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)