Avignon, runner-up to Vatican City for being the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, epicenter of Catholicism. For over a century, this fortressed city was the seat of seven Popes and two anti-Popes during what is known as the Great Schism or the (Second) Babylonian Captivity.
(For a more detailed history lesson — and trust me, this infamous stretch is as convoluted as history gets — google any of the above capitalized words. Except for the title. I haven’t notified Google about my fig puns.)
Our Sunday afternoon we spent in this auspicious setting after having attended morning meetings with the modest (30 members?) congregation of our LDS church which meets in an unremarkable building on the outskirts of town. We didn’t visit either just for the contrast, but if contrast would have been what we were after, we couldn’t have chosen better.
“Outskirts”, in Avignonese, means anything outside the huge, intact walls encircling the whole medieval center of town, which is dominated by this, the Papal Palace.
When Pope Clement chose Avignon over Rome as his home, the Western Schism in church leadership/doctrine/politics/even musical preferences got enormous traction. Avignon was a breeding ground for secular (or popular) music — like the love tunes crooned by the Provençal troubadors, medieval equivalents of Elvis, Frank, Mel and Nat — and it was here over a couple of centuries and thanks to the tastes of a couple of Popes in particular, that secular music merged with the sacred. Something called polyphony — “many voices” — flourished during and as a result of what we otherwise call the Crisis of the Middle Ages.
Historians call that new wave of multiple merging voices ars nova, and what we get from that centuries later is every bit of harmony you’ve ever heard. In other words, thanks to crisis, schism, division and a fortressed city like Avignon we have The Beatles, The BeachBoys, Styx, Foster the People, Pentatonix, Racal Flats and, of course, MoTab.
(For a more detailed music history lesson, see David and Donna Dalton. My parents. Growing up, I never learned how to tell score for football, tennis or golf. It crippled me only slightly as a teen, as did some other black holes in my knowledge, many of them — but not all — numbers-related. And totally due to my own laziness. Like telling score. But wanna talk musical scores? Chat polyphony? I’m all over it.)
So, why am I lecturing you from this polyphonic pontifical pulpit? Is it all about Popes? And Dark Ages? And Schisms? And newfound harmony?
Avignon, to me, is a monument to all the good that can grow out of disaster. Those who witnessed firsthand the messiness of papal estrangement, captivity, separation and divorce, (and the Great Schism was the greatest divorce Christianity had known, surely capable of having taken out the church for good and forever), those witnesses wouldn’t have been able to foresee, I don’t think, what beautiful harmony would eventually emerge from that period of catastrophe. Music as we know it — from the contrapuntally weaving majesty of symphonies and choirs to our simplest hymns — rose from a widespread and profound split.
Majestic harmony from cataclysmic disharmony.
Avignon put its name on the map not only as a launching pad for all modern music, but as an important outpost during the French revolution. In 1791, the massive gothic Pope’s Palace with its 18 feet thick walls, made a perfect and unassailable prison and garrison. Once again, it was the one fortressed spot on a tattered map.
And for the rest of us that afternoon, it was the one perfectly unassailable shady spot on a Sunday.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.