It is easy to marvel at the grand feats of human creativity and ingenuity without stopping to consider whence these achievements came. This is only natural, I suppose; after all, the slaves who constructed the pyramids are long gone, but the pyramids remain. Similarly, the era of “cocaine cowboy” drug trafficking in Miami is over, but the shining glass towers downtown stand as a silent testament to all the laundered cash dumped into development during the 90s. Feats of construction, imagination, and intelligence endure in the form of magnificent structures and artwork. The sometimes dark forces that underwrite them, however, are usually lost in the sands of time.
In any extravagant human achievement that takes great amounts of resources and labor to produce, the wealth required for its creation must come from somewhere. This introduces a fundamentally ethical question. For instance, the money required to build Steve Jobs’s house came from Macs and iPods, and most would say that this is a fair trade. However, the wealth required to build Bernie Madoff’s house in West Palm came from bilked investors. Madoff’s beautiful mansion, then, is a physical manifestation of illegality, abuse, and treachery. The question of funding, therefore, is critical whether one is contracting a new condo tower or commissioning a symphony. Behind any sign of material power is the ethical question of where that power came from, and at whose expense.
The same is true for music. At the beginning of the 17th century, court favolas (or early operas, depending on how you’d like to look at them) provided opportunities for powerful families to flaunt their influence, status, and wealth. The more extravagant, the better. We’ve talked about complexity arms races before on this blog; in the case of early opera, it was an arms race of lavish excess. From costumes to special effects, stage settings to musician fees, noble families spared no expense to put on a magnificent spectacle. A work like Monteverdi’s Orfeo is typically seen as the positive artistic outcome of such noble largesse. What typically isn’t accounted for, however, is the question of just how these noble families procured the funds to throw such lavish musical extravaganzas. This sort of question should be of paramount concern to us music historians, however far it might be from a purely musical matter.
As historian Manfred Bukofzer has shown, the ever more exorbitant costs of bankrolling extravagant music spectacles led many nobles to apply oppressive taxes to the lower classes. But the exploitation didn’t stop there. To take an example: “The Duke of Brunswick, for one, relied not only on the most ingenious forms of direct and indirect taxation but resorted even to the slave trade. He financed his operatic amusements by selling his subjects as soldiers [in the Thirty Year's War] so that his flourishing opera depended literally on the blood of the lower classes.” (II, 15)
Wow. This duke makes Madoff look positively saintly. After learning this, it’s hard to listen to Orfeo and other early operas in quite the same way. But knowing the high social costs of high musical extravagance shouldn’t plague the opera lover with guilt, either. It is a somewhat sad but inescapable fact that the passing of time neuters human suffering; we are left with Orfeo, and all the unfortunate slave-soldiers who died so their duke could have his opera are preserved only in scholarly footnotes.