Today is Debbie Reynolds’s birthday. She is the most energetic woman I’ve ever seen on screen. What strikes me whenever I’ve watched her dance is this: her mastery of technique is what makes her energy so intense and infectious. Her poise and carriage are never tense nor slack; she is an icon of the (apparently) effortless channeling of the potential into the kinetic.
Articles under Music
Yesterday, I received an email from Jon Elfner, a friend of mine. The email read, in part:
“He did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid [Mark 9: 5].” With this little detail, Saint Mark reveals quite a bit about the character of Saint Peter and the human condition in general. Under normal circumstances, we are unprepared to behold the full glory of God, and when suddenly God’s grandeur “flame[s] out, like shining from shook foil,” it can be a terrifying, disorienting experience.
We have many testimonies of this encounter. One early, telling encounter was that of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a priest and probably had entered God’s temple countless times to offer sacrifice. One day, he suddenly saw in reality what he had been celebrating in shadowy, symbolic ways. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up….And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts [Isaiah 6: 1, 5]!” Isaiah is rendered voluntarily speechless until his lips are cleansed by a coal from the altar.
Similarly, Saint Thomas Aquinas, toward the end of his earthly life, was celebrating the Eucharist as he had many times before. This time was different. Like Isaiah, he glimpsed something of the reality that he had celebrated in the half-veil of sacramental mystery. The author of the Summa Theologica, perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement of all time, wrote no more after this, leaving the Summa unfinished. “All that I have written seems as so much straw,” he confided to a friend.
Saint Peter suffers no such scruples. Beholding Christ transfigured, he was properly afraid. Not knowing what to say, however, he said whatever came to mind. In this, he seems to be of a kindred mindset to modern man. Is it not the case that our incessant talking, the swarming proliferation of words, is so much nervous chatter to cover over our anxiety and alienation? We hardly know what to say, yet we can’t stop talking. In our case, I suspect that silence doesn’t occur to us because our fear is not the result of an encounter with the living God, but with the dreadful possibility of His utter absence.
I began by saying that we are not normally prepared to meet God in the unmitigated power of His limitless Being. What the Transfiguration begins to teach us is that, under the dispensation of grace, in the afterglow of the Resurrection and Pentecost, we live under a “new normal.” We live in the in-between time, the time of the holy Liturgy, after the shadows of animal sacrifice but not yet at the full consummation of the world. The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world that itself is passing away. The baptized, as God’s adopted children, are being trained to “see [God] as He is [1 John 3: 2].” The training of our senses and their elevation to the spiritual realm takes place in the liturgy.
This past June, we were blessed to be able to unveil our two newest icons, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, flanking the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Gradually, our sanctuary is being populated with the communion of the saints. Icons are not mere representations of model believers. The iconographer truly receives the image from the inbreaking realm of heaven. Iconography is, therefore, an ascetical craft, a discipline of visual listening and receptivity, a training of the interior vision to see beyond the sacramental into the reality of God’s holy court. At the same time, icons train the worshipper to attune his or her senses to this new reality. The icons are a central part of the liturgical act, and as conduits of grace, help to elevate the sense of sight to its proper spiritual register.
Similarly, sacred music is much more than pleasing ornamentation of holy words. As Kevin Allen and I have discussed at various time in our decade of collaboration, the composer of sacred music must, like the iconographer, exercise a discipline of spiritual listening. The aim is, through purification of hearing, to catch something of the overwhelming beauty of the perpetual song of heaven. At Solemn Vespers this coming Saturday evening (August 5, 5:15 p.m.), the First Vespers of the feast of the Transfiguration, Kevin and I humbly offer two new motets in this spirit. We pray that our double motet will be a similar conduit of grace, to prepare our hearts to hear God’s Word in its fullest transformative power.
The figure of John the Baptist loomed large in the imagination of the early Church. This is a challenge for most Christians today. Sure, no one born of woman was greater than John the Baptist, but wasn’t that under the old dispensation? Isn’t the least in the Kingdom of God greater even than John?
It is noteworthy that John maintains one of the two primary positions relative to Christ the Pantocrator in a traditional Deisis, the triptych of icons that you can see in our sanctuary. This places him, hierarchically, quite close to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven. What are we to make of this?
This is a mystery worth spending time with, rather than a question that admits of one, simple answer. In this short post, I would point out the importance of John as the preeminent prophet, the crown of the great guild that included Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Indeed, it is John who goes before Jesus Christ in the very spirit of Elijah, the greatest of the Israelite prophets. John, then, is a crucial link to our Semitic cultural heritage. His testimony to Christ is the fulfillment of the longing of the preeminent representatives of the People of Israel, the longing to see God’s face. “Behold, the Lamb of God!” says John.
John, along with Our Lady, is the model disciple, the one who “must decrease” that Christ may become all in all. Saint Augustine playfully noted that John’s feast falls at the moment when the days start to become shorter, whereas Christmas, the entrance of the “light that enlightens everyone” into the world, corresponds to the lengthening daylight.
There is one other playful aspect of today’s feast, this one directed at anyone who has had to learn the “solfege” method of singing. The hymn for Vespers, Ut queant laxis (and not “Doe, a deer…” from the Sound of Music), is the source of the familiar syllables that name the notes of the musical scale. The first syllables of each line (in bold in the pages below) name the first six ascending notes of a major scale: Ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la. The seventh degree was formed by combining the first letters of Sancte Ioannes, the last line. Later, “ut” became the more common “do” and “si” morphed into “ti.” You will notice that each line of the hymn begins one step higher than the last. Musicologists suspect that the composer of this hymn was the great twelfth-century musical pedagogue (and Benedictine) Guido d’Arrezzo, who invented the solfege system.
Ut queant laxis
(Translation by J. M. Neale)
For thy spirit, holy John, to chasten Lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen;
So by thy children might thy deeds of wonder Meetly be chanted.
At what point did hominids begin to recognize musical pitch? Rhythm seems much more obvious, since so many of our bodily functions are rhythmic. We breath, we walk, we chew…Most noises in nature are chaotic, when judged by musical pitch. Even birdsong, while beautiful, is not precisely pitched, nor does it often make use of one pitch held for any identifiable length of time. What was the experience of the first person who heard that a sound could be one note? And who discovered the possibility of adding one pitch to another, that two pitches, with a long enough duration for each, could be heard in relation to one another? I would like to imagine this discovery as a revolution in awareness. A pitch emerges as order out of chaos, hints at fundamentals. This primal recognition is so far from us for whom music is a cheap commodity. It is not so easy for us to engage profitably with ideas like the Music of the Spheres or the myth of Orpheus.
Pythagoras achieved an insight when he heard the relations of pitches in the blacksmith’s shop. For the Pythagoreans and for Plato after him, harmony was represented by an enacted by musical pitch. Today, we have discovered that all of the cosmos can be understood as waves in vibration. But we cannot perceive this fundamental order without an accompanying silence.
[The second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is often understood as a duel between Orpheus=the piano and the Underworld=the orchestra. Listen to how the piano tames the orchestra and brings the chaotic rhythms and angular pitches into harmony:]
Pray Tell Blog recently posted my review of Benedicta, a CD collection of Marian chants sung by the monks of Norcia. It’s really two reviews in one. One part of me admires the lovely singing, the warmth of tone, and the ringing intonation of the brothers’ voices. On this level, the recording stands up with the better chant recordings I’ve heard. The other part of me is uneasy, however, about some choices the monks made. Among these choices was their use of the “Solesmes method” of interpretation (which, as I understand, is no longer used even at Solesmes Abbey itself), which I identified as part and parcel of the larger problem of presenting the chants without context. The lone comment on the blog suggests that it shouldn’t matter whether the Solesmes method or some other approach is used. What matters is that the music is beautiful.
Even before reading the comment, I was puzzling over what I take to be the importance of getting past the Solesmes method. Is my position truly defensible? Or is it a personal preference? I believe that my position is rational, and therefore to be preferred to a ‘pre-rational’ assessment.
But defending my position will take some work. Let me give an example of the uphill battle we’re talking about here.
I was at a reception after Vespers recently, speaking with two members of our own Schola Laudis. I mentioned to them that one of the things driving my interest in chant and Renaissance music at the liturgy is that I was seeking a rational way to go forward with the composition of church music. I meant by this that we should have reasons for choosing one type of music over another. When it comes to church music, it seems that we are usually content with saying that we want music that is beautiful. Fair enough. Would it be too pedantic of me to ask why we consider some music to be beautiful and other music to be maudlin, ugly, or overly sentimental? Some people consider “Send in the Clowns” to be a beautiful song (me…not so much, though I get its appeal). I personally find the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde to be quite beautiful, in its way. These are not, and should not (I think) be models for church music. Many people, on the other hand, find Gregorian chant dull, elitist, hard to understand, difficult to sing with any connection to one’s emotions, etc. Yet church documents make very clear that this style is the basis of our sacred music tradition.
Much of what we take to be beautiful depends on our cultural upbringing and, one hesitates to point it out, on our level of achievement in virtues like moderation, chastity, and humility. Lacking such virtues might lead us to prefer ecstatic music to sober music, manipulative music to ordered music, or simply music that we liked as children to music that adults tell us we’re supposed to like when our tastes develop a bit more.
Therefore, simply saying that music ought to be beautiful is not specific enough. Church music needs to be beautiful to certain types of persons. And those of us who are not yet those sorts of persons need to be able to make an act of faith that the beauty of such music will become more apparent as we grow in virtue and knowledge. Furthermore, I think that it is reasonable, based on experience, to hope that exposure to “virtuous” music will actually assist us in growing in virtue (this argument goes back at least to Plato, though it is much contested). We have more likely been exposed to the opposite phenomenon, someone descending into vice accompanied by depressing, libidinous, or cruel music.
What remains, then, is for me to explain why the approach taken by the Norcia monks is delightful on one level, but, in my opinion, does not quite approximate the beautiful in the fullest sense. Furthermore, I should be able to show that their recording falls somewhat (not entirely, mind you) short of what it could have been because of specific choices that they made: the use of the Solesmes method, and the somewhat random manner in which the chants were selected (random with regard to liturgical rationales). These proofs will have to wait for a later post.
Bonus tracks: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde…music that is not quite chaste, deliberately eliding tonal boundaries in a manner uncomfortably parallel to the elision of marital boundaries in Wagner’s personal life at the time of its composition. He was falling in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, and perhaps carrying on an affair with her. Wagner’s indiscretions resulted in his separation from his wife Minna.
Here’s my example of ‘ecstatic’ music, “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane, a piece not without its own kind of beauty and order, yet clearly not in any way a model for church music.
And surely you didn’t think I’d leave you without “Send in the Clowns…”
I decided to take up this topic once again because of three separate instances in the past week or so. The first one directly involves me. I was preparing to go to the sacrament of confession. During my examination of conscience, I came upon an old, all-too-familiar sin. I’m tired of battling against it, occasionally discouraged by my inability to make much apparent progress. But what happened next was interesting. I noticed that there was a very subtle stirring inside that suggested to me that what I needed to do was feel worse about this sin. And feeling really, really sorry, really upset with myself…well, I suppose the idea is that my behavior will magically change if I change my feelings.
Well, it doesn’t actually work for me. Does it work for you?
Once you start thinking about this meme, you find it all over. We try to convince each other of our sincerity (especially when we let each other down) by furrowing our brow, biting our lip, getting bleary-eyed. The template for this in my world will always be President Clinton. This is not a criticism of the ex-President. When he felt our pain and acknowledged “not feeling contrite enough,” he was doing what a leader should do–in an emotivist world. Media figures and fellow politicians wanted to make sure that he felt bad, and he needed to make sure that we knew that he felt bad. And it’s become something of a public ritual ever since. When a celebrity (Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Paula Deen) messes up, he or she is expected to go on camera and exhibit signs of sorrow.
What other route might there be? Keep in mind that contrition is a condition of absolution in the sacrament of penance. So there is nothing wrong with the feeling itself. It can be a sign of a healthy conscience. The difficulty is that these feelings may or may not actually have an effect on future behavior. If you’ve ever dealt with (or are an) an alcoholic, you know this. Caught lying, the addict may well feel completely miserable and sorry. But the lure of alcohol and drugs typically overrides the feelings eventually. So generating correct feelings is insufficient for changing behavior.
What I recommend instead is truth and preparation. By truth, I mean what twelve-step programs mean by steps four and five: making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and stating the exact nature of our wrongs. By preparation, I mean that we learn what situations trigger our disobedience, and make a decision to act contrary to our inclinations when temptation presents itself.
Let me give another concrete example of emotivism.
A common complaint about liturgy is that those attending “don’t get anything out of it.” This sort of rhetoric tempts pastors to make the liturgy more interesting, to see it as a service that they provide to consumers whose desires need to be accounted for. And what are the consumers hoping “to get out of” the liturgy? I can’t say for certain in every instance, but I can speak from my own youthful experience. I thought that church ought to make me feel better about myself, others and the world, that it should inspire me to be a better person. I should walk away from the liturgy with different feelings. This is how many of us gauge the effectiveness of many, if not most, public and private encounters. Success means feeling good, and feeling crummy means that we are doing something wrong.
But does it? This is a highly questionable idea.
When I was studying to be a professional musician, I typically practiced three or four hours at the piano every day by myself. I did not enjoy this for the most part. Wynton Marsalis likes to refer to practice as The Monster. Every day, musicians have to get out of bed and confront the monster and slay it. The payoff comes when, after years of slaying monsters, one plays the trumpet like Wynton Marsalis or sings like Renee Fleming. In the meantime, though, one must act contrary to one’s feelings, rather than taking feelings as any kind of objective measure of one’s moral state.
Similarly, in a marriage, when a spouse becomes debilitatingly ill or a child develops a major behavioral issue, dealing with this situation will often require mastering one’s immediate feelings of disgust at sickness, resentment at having to set aside personal goals, and fear that things may spiral out of control. These feelings must be opposed because to give in to them would be to act wrongly, to fail in one’s duties and responsibilities to others. Nursing an ailing loved one can be exhausting, no fun at all. But it is beautiful. When we witness this kind of sacrifice, we recognize it as true and good as well. But to accomplish this sacrifice, we must be prepared to act contrary to our feelings, rather than having our feelings somehow demand of others some kind of compliance (as is the case when we want to “get something out of the liturgy”).
These kinds of routine decisions to act in accord with the truth, with the demands of beauty and goodness, change us into different persons. Our identities become completely wrapped up in the repeated good action, and we become virtuoso trumpeters or faithful spouses, beloved brothers. We have become virtuous, having the ability (Latin: virtus) to choose the truly good, the truly beautiful even when others can’t see it. Here’s the hitch. As we are changing, we are likely at times, perhaps often, to feel “inauthentic.” That is to say, we will miss our old selves. What it’s actually like to be a virtuoso or a faithful spouse is at first an unfamiliar experience and requires us to act in ways that feel insincere.
In an emotivist world, the great sins are inauthenticity and insincerity, the great virtues sincerity and authenticity. Thus, it is difficult for an emotivist to make any headway in any kind of human excellence. Let me end with a quote from Lionel Trilling on what this might mean [emphasis added]:
“At the behest of the criterion of authenticity, much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification. Conversely, much that culture traditionally condemned and sought to exclude is accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example, disorder, violence, unreason.”
Think for yourself!
By the time I was a highschooler, this mantra was assumed wisdom. The Vietnam War and Watergate had accelerated the questioning of authority. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” was quietly being replaced with, “Don’t trust any claim you can’t verify with your own eyes.” At least that was the ideal.
In such an environment, tradition often appeared to me as a surrender, a lazy forfeiting of one’s duty to discover the truth for oneself.
I began to think differently about tradition when I began my education as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where students go to grapple with Great Books. My first exposure to Plato and the Greek historian Thucydides demonstrated to me that others’ observations on the world might at times be superior to my own in their power to explain and organize experience. In many ways, Plato played a parallel role in my life to the role he played for St. Augustine, broadening my mind to a consideration of the non-material aspects of the world, to a critical engagement with what it means to think at all.
But the utility, and indeed, beauty of tradition really hit home in my studies of music. Under Bruce Tammen, I began to learn the craft of choral conducting. What constitutes a good vocal sound? The proper formation of a vowel and articulation of a consonant? How does the interpretation of Brahms differ from the interpretation of Rachmaninoff? Answers to these sorts of questions were inevitably personal. We would do things the way Robert Shaw did them, or based on Weston Noble’s experience. When question arose about the execution of Bach, Helmuth Rilling did the talking. These were three men under whom Bruce had sung. But their insights were also grounded in personal recollections of great figures of the previous generations, notably Toscanini in Shaw’s case. Similarly, when Bruce and I would discuss art song (especially French chansons), a passion that we share, standards were grounded in the advice and experiences of older contemporaries like Elly Ameling, Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin, who in turn knew people who knew Fauré, Poulenc and others. Charles Rosen, a faculty member at the U of C until his recent death, has similar observations in his copious writings about piano performance, how his early study was grounded in the sensibilities and techniques of famous turn-of-the-century pianists, notably Josef Hofmann, who cribbed from Anton Rubenstein and Franz Liszt.
Then I began studying composition with Easley Blackwood. His way of speaking about right and wrong in composition was akin to Bruce’s reasoning when it came to choral and art song performance. Why treat variation on a theme in such-and-such a way? Because that’s what Tchaikovsky would have done, according to Nadia Boulanger, who had heard it from Stravinsky (Easley studied under Boulanger and Olivier Messaien in Paris). My first exercises were to write a few short piano pieces in the style of Chopin. I wasn’t allowed to get fancy yet. I had to change the way I wrote and heard music, in order to align my taste with that of established masters of the craft. And Easley would be the judge of whether I was succeeding.
Both of these experiences required me to become a different kind of person than I had been before exposure to this tradition-based manner of learning. In order to learn certain things, I had first to dispose myself to be able to have certain kinds of aesthetic experiences. This requires that one trust one’s teacher, and assume that the teacher has your good in mind rather than self-aggrandizement. One guarantee of the teacher’s purpose is his own deference to certified masters of the past, as well as the general recognition of the quality of his work in the present by other established master-craftsmen.
From this perspective, tradition no longer appears as an irrational block of customary observances that abrogate one’s critical faculties. In fact, a genuine grappling with tradition ought to sharpen one’s critical faculties by constantly calling out the narrowness of one’s own previous education, upbringing and exposure. Not everyone has the opportunity to enter into a truly critical engagement with a tradition like the Western classical music tradition, but even for the amateur, a willingness to trust the insights of such a tradition will make one more reasonable rather than less. And all traditions ought to function in this way.
Human life being what it is, imperfect and prone to the fickleness of Lady Fortuna, traditions do get tangled, fall into dysfunction and disrepair and all the rest. But this is not a good reason to forswear all tradition. Yet it is one of the myths of the post-Enlightenment Western world that we should not ever trust traditions. Is it any wonder that we struggle to carry on anything like a rational debate in public life?
A corollary follows, with a stronger bearing on the purpose of this blog. Christianity, and within in it, monasticism, is a tradition. And to understand what the Church teaches requires from the disciple an act of faith that the Tradition and those charged with teaching it have the disciple’s good in mind. It also requires the disciple to become a different kind of person, which is to say, that we must undergo a conversion of life to enter more and more deeply into the truths that the Church means to convey to us. It will require us to leave behind the narrowness of our education, exposure and upbringing (especially that which took place “in the flesh”) so that we “may comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ [Ephesians 3: 18].”
Update, July 28: It just happens that yesterday Classical Minnesota Public Radio did a big piece on Weston Noble, who, I realize, is not a household name outside of American Lutheran college choral aficionados. Here’s a link, if you are interested in learning more about him.
Seven or eight years ago, I was invited by a group of priests of the Marquette (Michigan) diocese to give a series of talks on music and morality. They were very receptive to my approach and suggested that I might set down my thoughts in a book. Hence the memoir I mentioned in the previous post. I chose the memoir format because music and morality are so difficult to write about in the abstract. And indeed, I more recently gave a similar talk at the University of Virginia’s St. Anselm Institute and faced some tough questions which, to be honest,
I’ve mentioned ‘discontinuity’ a few times in recent weeks. This is what happens when a tradition like monastic life or liturgical music suddenly takes on a strikingly different form than what came immediately before. Why does this interest (or concern) me? If you are allergic to long quotations, you probably can read the first and last sentence of what follows, and still get the gist: