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Polyphony fan

05 May 2017


THE touchy artist is not just a mod­ern phenomenon. Even in the days when the Church was the main pat­ron of, and platform for, artistic ex­­pression, you could not guarantee that your favoured composer or painter would provide adornments to the faith in meek compliance.

Take Josquin des Prez, composer to popes and princes in the early 16th century, who would happily give a singer a slap round the face for messing up his music. And what about his great admirer, Martin Luther — theologian, Reformer, and musician — who declared that any­body who did not like des Prez’s music should go off and listen to pigs instead?

Luther’s relationship with music, and the rich musical tradition that the Reformation fostered, was the subject of Sunday Feature: A Square Dance in Heaven (Radio 3, Sunday). It is clear that, besides being a connoisseur of contemporary Latin polyphony — it was, he wrote, like “a square dance in heaven” — Luther also knew something of the business of making music. Thus, when the death of des Prez failed to halt the stream of publications that claimed to contain new music by the great composer, Luther wryly com­mented that “since Josquin’s death, he has composed more music than when he was alive.”

Luther’s own advocacy of the music of des Prez and others set a precedent for the Lutheran Church in particular, and Protestantism in general, while the hymns and psalms of the Reformed Churches became the folk music of the early modern era, bellowed by the warring parties in the English Civil War as they marched into battle, and by the iconoclasts as they tore down religi­ous effigies. As for Britain, we have Queen Elizabeth to thank for the survival of soph­isticated music in church; for, in Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s estimation, she was more Lutheran than Calvinist.

Once in a while, The Afternoon Play (Radio 4) is enlivened by some­thing extraordinary; and The Pro­gress of the Soul of Lizzie Calvin (Wednesday of last week), in which Michael Symmons Roberts dramat­ised John Donne’s long, unfinished poem, was one such occasion.

This is the story of metempsy­chosis: the soul, played by Glenda Jackson, is, in Donne’s cosmology, a hitch-hiker through the natural world, starting in the apple which symbolically chokes Lizzie Calvin, and transferring to dog, flea, whale, and eventually mandrake. Symmons Roberts’s treatment, full of fizzing rhymes and quick-fire humour, cre­ated the perfect vehicle for this reinvention. Sit down with some decent headphones and let your soul transmigrate for 40 minutes.

The Listening Project (Radio 4, passim) produced an encounter last Friday to warm the hearts of the interfaithful. We met Faiza and Lauren, teenage girls whose recent joint Facebook post about trust between faith groups has encour­aged a social-media anti-hate cam­paign. Faiza and Lauren are clearly engaged in their own faiths, and coin a term for their friendship which I can see catching on: Islamity.

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