Incomplete view

13 October 2017


Old-fashioned: Dr David Starkey sides with the Reformers in Reformation: Europe’s Holy War (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week)

Old-fashioned: Dr David Starkey sides with the Reformers in Reformation: Europe’s Holy War (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week)

CUTTING ourselves adrift from Europe, in a world where religious fanatics know that what God really wants of them is to butcher all heretics, is the extent to which we are reprising exactly where we were 500 years ago. This forms the key selling point of Dr David Starkey’s new series Reformation: Europe’s Holy War (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week).

The parallels are clear enough: as a nation, we have decided to affirm our independence from the contamination that engulfs life beyond the Channel; we are an Empire entire of itself. The contrasts offer little enough comfort: at least this time round we are not even pretending that European Catholicism is longing to reintroduce the Inquisition and auto-da-fé for all Protestants.

But, for me, Dr Starkey’s first episode painted a curiously old-fashioned view of the great religious upheaval. It was essentially a Whiggish reading, with all the virtue on the side of the Reformers, obviously right in their desire to translate the scriptures, to do away with an irredeemably corrupt and unchristian Church of Rome.

Surely, modern Reformation studies paint a more complex picture? In England, there is plenty of evidence to prove the popularity of the Church on the very eve of the upheaval, and that the majority of people were devastated by the ending of devotions and the destruction of the monasteries.

Henry VIII’s volte-face from Defender of the Faith to desecrator-in-chief owed more to greed than any sudden conversion to Zwingli’s way of thinking: it was a profitable out-working of his desire for an annul­ment so that he could marry Anne Boleyn to provide an heir and satisfy his lust. It is splendidly watchable; I hope that fur­ther episodes will give greater balance.

Henry and Elizabeth notoriously insisted that in their private chapels the complex polyphony that they adored continued to resound to the glory of God, however much their subjects had to make do with the Lenten fare of metrical psalms. Even more absolute rulers, imposing their personal taste on entire nations, are profiled in Tunes for Tyrants: Music and power with Suzy Klein (BBC4, Monday of last week).

Suzy Klein’s new series shows how the great dictators of the 20th cen­tury, especially Hitler and Stalin, employed music as a means of stamping uniformity. She acknowledged the power of singing along in a huge crowd, and its demonic aspect: we subconsciously imbibe the words along with the tune as music softens our individual consciences.

More important than their championing of particular composers and styles, tyrants also ban and destroy the music they hate, the sentiments they consider subversive. Musicians can be enemies of the state, and many paid for their disharmony with their lives.

Klein is irritatingly over-emphatic, and occasionally silly, but her main point is crucially important: music matters: it can reinforce reliance on the status quo, or foment revolution. Perhaps Luther’s most effective tool for propagating his reform was the congregational hymn.

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