And not merely “Glories of the West” – the Glories of Christendom! East as well as West. Beautiful music, and a remarkable assemblage of magnificent European churches, in a variety of traditional styles. Lovely!
Don’t get me wrong, there is a fair bit of “pop” music which I enjoy… in small-to-moderate doses. As Scruton himself notes, “there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop” – and let’s face it, there are times when everyone wants a doughnut, or an ice cream cone, or maybe even cotton candy. Few of us can consume only healthy food, all the time, and the same is true of music. On the other hand, if one’s diet is made up primarily of junk food, one’s health will suffer; and that is true also in the musical realm.
What the late Sir Roger is objecting to, here, is the ubiquitous, all-pervasive nature of pop music in today’s society – much of it vapid, banal, and musically uninteresting, and some of it lyrically offensive – and the way in which (much as salt- and sugar-loaded junk food numbs the taste-buds of those who regularly consume it, until they can’t even enjoy more healthy fare) it numbs the listeners’ appreciation for higher-quality musical “cuisine.”
This matters for more than merely aesthetic reasons. It is remarkable the degree to which the music one listens to not only reflects, but helps to shape, the listener’s outlook on life, one’s worldview. I can speak to this from my own experience, as I made the conscious decision, in my 20s, to stop listening to most rock and pop music, because I did not like the headspace it was putting me into.
Now, one can argue the precise chicken-vs-egg connection between music reflecting and shaping a person’s subjective reality: suffice it to say that it serves both roles. And the fact remains that those who were rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore – to cite just two examples among many – were likely not listening to Bach and Beethoven, Handel and Vivaldi, Ralph Vaughan Williams or John Rutter, through their ear-buds as they trashed cars, burned refuse cans, broke windows, and beat up random bystanders.
These are extreme examples; but nonetheless, music matters. “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” as William Congreve noted in The Mourning Bride (1697), but it also has the ability to trouble a serene one. The kind of music with which we fill our ears, heads, and souls matters. And in this talk, Sir Roger explains the problem we are facing, as music of quality and distinction is supplanted by “pop.”
(He deals with the matter from an aesthetic perspective, as one would expect; but since this blog is concerned in large measure with the defense of the West – Western civilization, Western Christendom – against several breeds of savagery, I have pointed out its application to the challenges we are facing.)
Best of all, he doesn’t just complain: he sketches out a road-map for how one can re-program the neural pathways of the young, when it comes to music, making this discussion especially helpful for parents, teachers, and others who may be in a position to help shape the musical education of young people.
Excerpt from Vivaldi’s “Summer,” from his incredible The Four Seasons. Berliner Philharmoniker: Herbert von Karajan, Conductor, and Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin soloist.
Traditional Irish step-dancing as it used to be practiced, before it became “cross-fertilized” with influences from Highland dancing, to ballet, to American clogging and tap – and probably a few more, to boot. Not that “Riverdance“-style Irish step-dancing isn’t absolutely amazing! It is. But I very much like to see old-style, from time to time.
Over the last 20 years, fewer people are learning how to read and compose music. What impact has that had on the music we listen to?
“Oh yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute:
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet!”
These famous lines, from the still-popular secular Christmas song “We Need a Little Christmas” (1966) are not just me longing for Christmas, in this steamy central Maryland August (although neither would I deny it), but an illustration of the linked essay‘s point: that although most people listening to it today probably gloss right over the line without a clue as to what is meant, the song would have been unlikely to contain those lyrics, if “carols at the spinet” (a once-popular type of small, drop-action piano) had not been an easily-recognizable feature of Christmas cheer at the time it was written.
It’s certainly recognizable to me! Born in 1965, the third and much the youngest of three brothers, I grew up with a “spinet” (actually a furniture console piano) in our home: one which my father had purchased for my mother years before – at a time when they were still struggling financially – because he knew how much music meant to her. Continue reading “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality) | Intellectual Takeout”
Thomas Arne’s song “Rule Britannia” was performed for the first time on this date, 159 years ago: August 1, 1740. Historic UK notes that
“The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall.”
Ignoring certain historical inaccuracies , this is an awesome rendition by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly!
Believe it or not, though I have liked Jethro Tull for many years (and passionately loved their album Songs from the Wood, which has been one of my favorites since late high school / early college days), I just listened seriously to this one, and read the lyrics, for the first time the night before last. Wow! I did not know what I was missing:
Let me find you a filly for your proud stallion seed
to keep the old line going.
And we’ll stand you abreast at the back of the wood
behind the young trees growing
To hide you from eyes that mock at your girth,
and your eighteen hands at the shoulder
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry
and the nights are seen to draw colder
They’ll beg for your strength, your gentle power
your noble grace and your bearing
And you’ll strain once again to the sound of the gulls
in the wake of the deep plough, sharing.
Standing like tanks on the brow of the hill
Up into the cold wind facing
In stiff battle harness, chained to the world
Against the low sun racing
Bring me a wheel of oaken wood
A rein of polished leather
A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky
Brewing heavy weather.
Again, wow. Lifts the hair on the back of my neck! For someone who loves the great draft horses as I do, this is a deeply moving song. Magnificent!
“Come on, priests, musicians, and singers. Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read. You need not feed on slop all your life long when you might enjoy real meat and potatoes and vegetables. And sometimes—more often than you suspect—you might feast like kings.”
A typically excellent treatment of the subject, by the inimitable Professor Anthony Esolen.
“Not every carpenter in 1800 could make tables fit for Windsor Castle. But he made what would stand the test of time, because it required great skill and practice to make any kind of table at all. The sifting would already have occurred when the man was a boy, learning the feel of wood and tool.
“So, too, with the old hymns. A person would have needed certain skills not only to write a good poem in meter and rhyme, but to write any such poem, and he would have been accustomed to writing such poetry from his youth. Poetry was a big part of the ordinary person’s life. For some people it was only the poetry in folk songs and hymns, but for literate people—and I am not talking about college graduates—it was far more…
“Modernism is nearly synonymous with disruption from and dismissal of the past. The modernist says the clock’s hands have turned, that there’s no going back, and we must look to the future. Its results have been meager, and at worst a spree of destruction. I am not speaking merely of quality. Whole genres of poetry, to name one branch of art, have disappeared.
“This is not to say that modernist poets write poor dramatic monologues, poor epics, poor songs, and poor narratives; they do not write them at all. Poetry has shrunk to the confessional or political lyric, usually in free verse. Never in human history has poetry meant less to the ordinary man. It is a tree torn up by the roots.”
Click through and read on for more! It’s well worth it.
Of course, having identified and described the problem, the next issue is figuring out what to do about it. Professor Esolen’s recommendation – “Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read” – is an excellent place to start! But how to get people to actually do that is a bit more of a conundrum.
As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And you can lead a writer of “worship songs” to classic hymnody, but you can’t make him appreciate it, still less internalize its lessons, in such a way as to enable him to write in the same tradition… or at least, it doesn’t seem so.
It also helps to come from a faith tradition that actually is a faith tradition. Far too much of what passes for Christianity today is in point of fact what Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner refers to as “jesusy” worship “experiences.” (He also refers to a lot of it as “masturbatory worship,” calling it a “self-worshiping, self-referential, nearly auto-erotic pursuit.” I don’t think he’s far wrong, but I’m trying to be nice.)
For a church – or a would-be hymn-writer – to have an authentic faith tradition, they have to be part of an authentic faith tradition: and for that, you need something like the Anglican tradition. Or the Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or (God help us… after all, I am an Anglican!) Presbyterian / Reformed traditions: traditions that have developed over the centuries, even the millennia, of the Christian era.
You won’t find it in the “community church” model, which almost seems to take pride in not being part of any tradition, which seems to practically glory in being cut off from the past (which, of course, is what inevitably happens when you hitch your wagon to the “contemporary” star).
There are a few such churches that seem to be trying to graft themselves back onto the Great Tradition, and I wish them all the best! But they are still relatively few and far between, and they’ve got their work cut out for them.
And of course, far too many of those who are members of churches that have historically been part of the Great Tradition have, for the last four or five decades (or more), been doing their best to cast off those connections. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have nearly all seen a steep decline in membership.
But I digress. The point – for the purposes of this post – is that to write hymns that have both theological and poetical depth, one must be steeped in both the poetical tradition and in an authentic, historical faith tradition.
It is said that the old Celtic Bards had to study for 21 years to become masters of their craft and trade. They had to learn not only the musical arts, but history, folklore, genealogy, myths and legends, and much more. Even law codes! Then and only then were they seen to be ready to ply the bardic arts.
Yet now, it seems, everyone who can string together a few lines of doggerel thinks they can write “worship songs” or “praise music.” Maybe we need a more Bardic approach to Christian hymnody! We had something like it once, though we may not have called it by that name: Tony Esolen explicates it, and the fertile soil in which it grew.
I pray we can get it back.
This, and pretty much anything else written by J.S. Bach!
The “cover photo” is a bit unfortunate; the poor woman looks like she is in pain. But the music is utterly magnificent, as might be expected!
Best-known to those of us of a certain age as the opening theme of PBS’s wonderful “Masterpiece Theater,” this is a splendid piece of music, played in a manner well-suited to do it justice. As one commenter put it,
“I always thought of this beautiful tune as being archetypically English, but I guess I gotta give the French full credit on this one!”