In 1946, just after emigrating from Nazi Germany via the Netherlands and Cuba to the United States, Edward Lowinsky published The Secret Chromatic Art in the Netherlands Motet. He posited a system of chromatic modulations through musica ficta in sixteenth-century Netherlandish polyphony circulated by clandestine heretic societies during the period of religious struggle in the Low Countries. According to Lowinsky, in the second half of the century a small contingent of northern musicians with radical Protestant sympathies wrote pieces that appeared on the surface to set texts and use diatonic melodies condoned by the Church. Beneath that compliant surface lurked secret chromaticism and seditious meanings that remained hidden from the Inquisition.
Despite Lowinsky’s obvious interest in odd passages in motets of Clemens non Papa, Lassus, and others, I argue that his history as a Jew in Nazi Germany and then as an exile from that regime compelled his idiosyncratic hearing of sixteenth-century polyphony. A close reading of the text suggests that Lowinsky identified with the composers he wrote about and that he aligned Nazi Germany with the Catholic Inquisition. Beyond its engagement with music theory and cultural history, The Secret Chromatic Art delivers a modern narrative of oppressed minorities, authoritarian regimes, and the artistic triumph of the dispossessed. The Secret Chromatic Art matters today because its themes of displacement and cultural estrangement echo similar issues that Pamela Potter and Lydia Goehr have discerned in the work of other exiled musicians and scholars who migrated from Nazi-controlled Europe to the United States, and whose contributions helped shape our discipline. Moreover, Lowinsky’s theory figured prominently in the debate initiated by Joseph Kerman in the 1960s that pitted American criticism against German positivism, a polemic that is still with us today.
- © 2011 by the Regents of the University of California