HEN ASKED TO COMMENT about the prowess of Moriz Rosenthal, Vladimir Horowitz insulted him: “I don’t think he really knew how to play the piano.” Are we to take such comments at face value, or should we seek context? Rosenthal was one of the most respected pianists of all time, and even Josef Hofmann spoke well of his playing. Why would Horowitz say such a thing? Was Horowitz succumbing to his famous penchant for insulting those of whom he was jealous? A responsible person investigates: Context, context, context!
I recently posted this brief article:
Censuring Jeff Ostrowski • My article elicited a considerable amount of mail. Some of the people who sent messages seemed upset and perturbed. Because of the caliber of several responses, I would like to share (anonymously, according to our stated policies) two emails I believe will edify our esteemed readership. In terms of whether can I defend the point I was trying to make in my article, I hope to find an opportunity to do precisely that; but that time is not now.
M Reminder: Views of individual blog
M authors do not necessarily reflect the
M opinions of Corpus Christi Watershed.
An email from Atlanta:
To Whom It May Concern,
As a long-time reader of Corpus Christi Watershed, I wish to thank Jeff Ostrowski and the rest of the website staff for their work in diligently promoting authentically Catholic sacred music. The resources which they have made freely available on the website have been an invaluable help to me, both as the director of the [……] Schola Cantorum and now as the director of a small ensemble focused on polyphony and chant.
Given this great debt which I owe to CCW, I was all the more dismayed and disappointed to read Mr. Ostrowski’s recent post about the unique style of British polyphony in the high Renaissance. As an ardent admirer of the English (for there were no notable composers from Scotland or Wales) polyphony of this period, I’ll not take issue with his assessment of Cornysh’s Salve Regina, which I also believe to be a beautiful setting of the piece, and at any rate I cannot quibble with Mr. Ostrowski’s taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. If he prefers the music of Victoria and Guerrero to those of their English contemporaries, so be it; I even join him in his commendation of their works. Our choir sings Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum each year for All Soul’s and enjoys it immensely.
What I cannot abide, however, is the article’s tone concerning these composers’ association with the English reformation, and particularly Mr. Ostrowski’s assertion that Tallis, Taverner, and Tye (and by extension their music) were all “tainted by Protestantism.” The lack of charity in this statement stuns me, particularly as it comes from from such a champion of sacred music as Mr. Ostrowski; its ugliness is inversely proportional to the beauty of the music which it deplores. To me, this statement may be interpreted in two ways: either we are to disdain this music (1) because its composers were Protestant, or (2) because the music itself is Protestant. Taking Tallis, indubitably the most famous of this trio and the most well-researched, as an example, I refute each in turn:
(1) There is good evidence that Thomas Tallis remained a faithful Catholic throughout his life, despite the vacillation of the English church during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I. Tallis lived through the religious changes wrought by these four monarchs and composed Catholic music to the end of his life, often at great financial and personal expense. Even if he was not as vocal about his faith as his student, William Byrd, that is no reason to condemn him for supposed Protestant sentiments which he did not express during his lifetime. His contemporaries universally regarded him as a Catholic. Even if Tallis was a Protestant, I must take issue with the wholesale condemnation of Catholic compositions by Protestant composers. Shall we throw away the Ave Maria of Robert Parsons, one of the most beautiful settings of the text, simply because there is a passing chance its composer may have been a Protestant? Shall we discard hymn tunes written by Protestants as well? If Mr. Ostrowski would consider Parsons’ hymn to our Lady “tainted,” I shudder to think of how he might castigate those who would sing the hymn tunes of Johann Cruger–and yet Cruger’s hymns appear on CCW and are used by Catholics (and Traditional Catholics, I might add) the world over.
(2) Though some of Tallis’ most famous works were composed for Protestants (the tunes for Archbishop Parker’s psalter, for instance), there are no sentiments in them contrary to Catholic belief or practice. Who among us has not sung “If Ye Love Me” in the context of Holy Mass? Perhaps Mr. Ostrowski will forgive me if I hesitate to brand us all heretics and apostatized persons for such an act and instead side with Saint Justin Martyr in saying that “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians” (Second Apology, 13).
Though Mr. Ostrowski expressly disclaims any “pugnacious” attitude in his post, I cannot fathom how we may take his assertions as anything other than a poorly founded ad hominem attack on some of the greatest composers who ever lived and who, to boot, composed Catholic music at the risk of their own lives and livelihoods. Before we censure these men for working in their own country despite its apostasy, we must acknowledge the relative comfort of our own religious situation. Have we, like William Byrd, ever been fined by our own government for choosing to assist at Holy Mass instead of the schismatic liturgy of the state church? Was Mr. Ostrowski, like Tallis, forced to see the choir stalls he sang in as a boy and the rood screens of his cathedrals demolished by iconoclasts, and the churches emptied of his beloved polyphony or, as during the reign of Edward VI, any music at all?
Byrd and Tallis were experts in word-painting, and their music speaks to us today precisely because it reflects the turbulence of the time in which they lived. Let Mr. Ostrowski bend his ear to an earnest performance of Tallis’ Lamentations or Byrd’s Ne Irascaris, Domine and see if he can fathom something of the heartache, the pain, and the intense grief which these men were made to feel. When our choir sings the lines, “facta est quasi vidua domina gentium [the queen of the people is made like a widow],” in the first part of the Lamentations, I cannot help but think that Tallis set them to music while thinking expressly of the Church in England: the “Holy Bride,” the queen, made a widow by her own people. Every time we perform that work, Tallis’ suffering is made present to us. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I am similarly filled with emotion by the joyful serenity of Tallis’ Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis, composed during the reign of Mary and the brief Catholic restoration in England. Is there not something of grateful relief in the Benedictus and satisfaction in the 10-minute Agnus Dei, itself a plea for mercy and peace? In William Byrd’s settings of the ordinary of the Mass, especially those for four and five voices, is there not something in the insistent homophony of the lines, “et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam,” which makes the conscientious performer think that their composer was frustrated out of his wits by being persecuted for his adherence to the one Church of Christ? I beg Mr. Ostrowski to acquaint himself with these works at his earliest convenience if they are unfamiliar to him.
Mr. Ostrowski is right when he asserts that the English composers of this period differed greatly from their continental counterparts. The principal difference between the two is that in addition to the sufferings wrought by the usual vicissitudes of life, the English composers were made to suffer an even greater calamity: the wholesale destruction of the liturgical tradition which had nourished them from birth. By publishing pieces like the one which I have addressed in the foregoing, Mr. Ostrowski not only fails to give due attention to this fact, but helps to bias a new generation of Catholic musicians against English music, and if we ignore the musical legacy of English Catholics we do it to our own detriment, depriving ourselves of some of the most beautifully moving Catholic music of all time. Let us be open to what these composers have to offer us, for as Prince Myshkin opines, beauty will save the world. In parting, I ask that Mr. Ostrowski and CCW give them a fair shake.
I pray for your work, and I am
Yours In Christ,
An email from the University of Cambridge:
Dear Mr. Ostrowski,
I hope this finds you well. In your recent post about Cornysh’s Salve Regina you wrote: “Not even the greatest scholar of Renaissance polyphony can distinguish between their counterpoint and harmonies”. I’m sorry, Jeff, but this is simply not true. The differences between the composers you listed are substantial and can easily be codified—and have been, by countless scholars. Musicologists have long discussed the stylistic peculiarities of these composers, and in more recent years we have even begun to explore the development of each individual composer’s manner of composing too. Take Jesse Rodin’s book, “Josquin’s Rome,” for example, which analyses a handful of works composed by Josquin during his short period in the CAPPELLA SISTINA, as distinct from his later works. And anyone who has spent a decent amount of time listening to Palestrina will immediately hear the differences between his First and Sixth Book of Masses, for example. And the difference between Lassus’s and Victoria’s motets are very clear. Forgive me; I don’t mean to be critical or discouraging. I really admire everything you do with CCWatershed. I just wish you would refrain from making these generalisations which are patently false, as it undermines the good work you do elsewhere. There are a number of musicologists who follow your page (myself included).
In Jesu et Maria,