Interview with Grantley McDonald, Post-doc researcher on the MALMECC project
What attracted you to this project?
I have been working on a large-scale project on the court chapel of Maximilian I Habsburg (1459–1519) since 2016. At every turn I became aware how much its structures, practices and personnel drew on the chapels of his immediate predecessors: his father, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Archduke Sigmund of the Tyrol, and Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. I was attracted to this project by the chance to explore more fully the musical life of these earlier courts, in an environment that would lead me to look at the materials in ways I had not previously considered, and with some colleagues whom I admire tremendously. The court chapel of Maximilian’s father Frederick III in particular is desperately under-studied, despite Frederick’s central position in the politics of Central Europe during the fifteenth century. Most nineteenth-century historians dismissed him as ineffectual and cranky, but the diligent work of some recent German and Austrian historians, and the systematic examination of the written records of his reign, have begun to reveal his true importance. This revision of Frederick’s historical and political importance really demands a reassessment of his musical legacy.
Why do you think this project is important or original?
I have long been fascinated by Isaac Newton. Besides his pioneering contributions to the natural sciences and mathematics, Newton was obsessed by historical, theological and prophetic questions, as his voluminous papers attest. Things are different now. As disciplines become ever more specialised, they develop their own way of examining, testing, and talking about their object of study. Ideas and hypotheses are evaluated; ever more workable ideas and techniques are developed, and inaccurate or untenable notions are winnowed out. This is true not only in the natural sciences, but also in the humanities, where the objects of study are “softer” and more difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, while the creation of such subject-specific discourses permits individual fields to move forward, it also means that it is difficult, if not impossible, for an individual to master the discourse – and the attendant literature – of several different academic specialisations. If he were alive now, even Newton would have found it a challenge to operate at the cutting edge of both theoretical physics and biblical criticism. However, working in a team made up of individuals with different specialisations is one way of profiting simultaneously from the approaches and advances of multiple fields, and of stimulating fruitful new lines of enquiry.
MALMECC has the added challenge of operating within the field of mediaeval studies, which has long served as a crucible of nationalistic and religious agendas. Responding to recent developments in the “new mediaeval studies”, we are trying to disrupt the agendas of earlier generations of mediaevalists by asking different questions of the material and questioning the narratives underlying earlier work.
My own part in the project combines these stimulating new intellectual challenges with what is perhaps a very traditional way of working: by trawling the archives of Europe to gather vast quantities of previously unpublished material recording the lives and activities of the members of the chapels of Frederick and Maximilian, to create what historians call a “prosopography”, a collection of life data on a circumscribed group. After a while, historical work on a given period or situation can start to turn in circles once scholars have digested and discussed the available source materials. The publication of new source materials provides the necessary fuel for new discussions, but it’s hard going. Working in archives is like looking for pieces of a jigsaw in an exploded building. It can be wretched, boring, and unexpectedly draining. Once a document has been located, it must be transcribed and analysed, and these tasks require advanced skills in palaeography and various dead languages, as well as knowledge of the historical background and interpretive acumen. But once you start to build up a body of documentary evidence, all the little bits of the jigsaw start to fall into place. You’ll probably never find all the pieces, and you will have to chuck out bits that belong to other puzzles, but once a picture starts to emerge, it’s electrifying. That shiver of uncovering past lives sends you back into the archive the next day. And the next. And the next. More importantly, the location, transcription and publication of previously unknown materials is an indispensable part of keeping historical discussion fresh and dynamic.
Which aspects of courtly culture in mediaeval times do you find most interesting and why?
In the present project, I have become fascinated by the intersections between the structures of the court and the structures of the church. The Holy Roman Emperor had a mission to promote the interests of the church. In the fifteenth century, this meant fighting against Hussitism and the advance of the Turks; in the sixteenth, it still meant fighting back the Turks, but also involved stopping and – if possible – reversing the gains of Protestantism. So the relation between the church and the imperial court is particularly interesting. As elected head of a confederation of nobles, the Emperor also had to project the power of his personality and authority. One of the things I am investigating is the way music was used to do that – in a sense, how music was instrumentalised as a political and even as a propagandistic tool.
What message would you like to communicate through your work on the project?
One of the explicit aims of MALMECC is to challenge the nationalistic narratives that have in the past run though mediaeval studies, and to an extent still do. The history of the Holy Roman Empire has almost always been written as a German and Austrian story. On the other hand, while the five-hundredth anniversary of Maximilian’s death in 2019 prompted numerous conferences and major exhibitions in Austria and Germany, the event was marked by no comparable events in Belgium or the Netherlands, even though Maximilian, as Duke of Burgundy, ruled the Low Countries for some fifteen years. I wanted to shake up such silly parochialism. Besides working in major archives in places such as Vienna, Innsbruck, Weimar, Augsburg, Nuremberg and Karlsruhe, I have also looked further afield, to central archives in places such as Rome, Milan, Ljubljana, Prague, Strasbourg, Brussels, Lille, the Hague, Ghent, and Bruges, as well as to numerous small town and church archives throughout Europe. This has revealed that the activity of the Holy Roman Empire involved much more than simply Germany and Austria, but sent out tentacles across the continent.
Secondly, I want to reveal something of the lives of the members of the chapels of Frederick and Maximilian. Partly because the source situation is so difficult, we have in the past found it hard to understand most musicians of the Middle Ages as people, with a few exceptions, such as Guillaume de Machaut. But by collecting vast amounts of information about individual musicians, I have come to know many of them as interesting individuals: emotionally fragile organists, undisciplined and unruly singers, priests hustling for promotion within the Church hierarchy or providing for their illegitimate children, trumpeters negotiating a pay-rise or a pension for their wives. And all this fine-grained texture about the lives of members of the chapel and other musicians can bring their music to life in surprising ways.
What got you interested in mediaeval music and what do you like about it?
As a kid I sang in the choir of St Paul’s cathedral in Melbourne, and at our parish church. Even as a child I was drawn to mediaeval and Renaissance music, and devoured recordings by David Munrow, the Tallis Scholars and Gothic Voices. As an over-eager high school student I wrote a long essay about the Roman de Fauvel, complete with a recording which I had made with some friends, huddled around a tape recorder. As an undergraduate in Melbourne I was fortunate to work with some very erudite conductors, such as John O’Donnell and John Stinson; under John Stinson I sang in a group called Les Six, which specialised in fourteenth-century Italian music. I also continued my vocal studies with Vivien Hamilton and Stephen Grant, who sang with the mediaeval ensemble Sequentia. After moving to Europe I started to sing with other early music ensembles, such as Diabolus in Musica (Tours) and Cappella Pratensis (Den Bosch/ Leuven). I find the combination of elegance, intellectualism, and raw energy in this music immensely appealing.
What reactions do you get from new audiences, such as children?
During a US tour with Cappella Pratensis last year, we had the chance to work with groups of high-school students and undergrads, such as a group of the students of the wonderful Jenny Bloxam at Williams College in Massachusetts. With the high-school kids, we worked on things such as tone and articulation as ways to express the text. Cappella Pratensis specialises in performing from facsimiles of original sources, and after a few hours we had Jenny’s students doing likewise. Their delight at being able to sing from notation which at first seemed foreign was palpable. After a concert in New York, a young poet even sent us a package of delightful Neo-Spencerian poems in praise of the ensemble and the performance. We hope that the kind of research we are doing in MALMECC will resonate both with our own peers and with students of the next generation who come to study mediaeval and Renaissance music more deeply through their own experiences as performers or listeners.