Dunstaple’s time

Time, in Renaissance Europe, was a gift from God. It was measured in seasons: in agrarian calendars of sowing and reaping, and biblical cycles of stories and singing. It belonged to no man.

But as the fifteenth century aged, currents of thinking and living eddied and swirled. For centuries, philosophers and theologians had railed against the idea and practice of money lending. For just as long, though, it had been commonplace, often disguised as money exchange to mask the uneasy relationship between worldly wealth and the church. In strict doctrine, usury was condemned as immoral. In practical terms, lending money for interest enabled levels of commerce, influence, power and trade that would otherwise have been impossible. So when convenient, it was rife, under other names.

As money lending became increasingly widespread, time was understood and felt in new ways. Time began to measure money earned or owed. This buying and selling of time by mortals corroded the concept of time being God’s provenance. The notion of eternity was under threat.

Perhaps in response to this, John Dunstaple began creating pieces designed to evade time, resisting cadences in order to spin seemingly infinite, mellifluous lines. As medievalist Jennifer Bailey has argued so convincingly, with his radical way of hearing and constructing duration, Dunstaple seemed to be attempting to salvage time from sordid fiscal concerns, trying instead to conjure up sounds of eternity. He was trying to keep divinity safe.

Dunstaple was not alone in this pursuit. Scores searching for perpetuity were also written by his colleagues on the Continent: Dufay and Binchois, leading to Ockegham, Busnoys, des Prez, onwards to Palestrina. Set adrift on increasingly powerful tides of change, composers wrote hypnotic, agonizingly expressive polyphony.

Hearing their arching, aching lines makes us wonder whether they were trying to build a place outside of worldly time before Humanism swept all this aside, confining rhythms to bodies once more: pulse measured by heartbeat and breath, no longer reaching for immortality.

In 1545, money lending was made legal for the first time in England, when Henry VIII’s Parliament enacted a statute permitting interest payment on all loans, of up to 10%. Almost the same year as Henry VIII cemented the notion that time and money were under the sphere of human influence, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory of a heliocentric universe. This was a radically new celestial map, shattering earlier concepts of heavenly order. These two major public decrees confirmed that neither time nor matter was constant, and humans were manipulating both.

So, 1545: a legal-financial document from the recorder-playing, melody-writing King of England, wherein money and time were formally intertwined, confirming suspicions composers had been wrestling with for the previous century. Relationships between the material and the ephemeral continued to be played out in sound for centuries to come, and the dance between art and commerce is no less intricate today.

With thanks to Paul Kildea