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Music And Cultural Memory

Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal is music director at All Saints Anglican (From All Saints’ website [1])

Any reader of mine knows of my boundless gratitude and admiration for Ken Myers and his Mars Hill Audio Journal [2], the quarterly podcast (a term of diminishment, but I don’t know what else to call it) about culture and imagination, from an orthodox Christian perspective. Before we go any further, allow me to strongly encourage you to consider a gift subscription for the intellectual and artistic-minded Christian in your life. The digital-only version is only $25 now.  [3] I can’t think of a single other source of Christian commentary that has been more formative of the way I think as a Christian, and that has introduced me to more brilliant, life-changing books (not all of them Christian, I should say; this is not an apologetics podcast, but an interview show exploring the intersection between faith and culture).

Ken is a friend, but I don’t think you have to know him personally to grasp that his greatest passion is for music. He loves it so intensely that it is hard for him to understand how people like me don’t share that passion. I’ve told him before, and I tell you now, that I consider my complete lack of a musical education to be the greatest lacuna in my life. It’s one that I don’t really know how to repair, to be honest. This is a problem that is quite widespread in our culture — and a problem it is, for sure.

I was not raised with music, other than what was available on the radio. Classical music might as well have been something that existed on another planet. As a young person, I didn’t know anybody who listened to classical music at all, much less seriously. As I grew older, I came to appreciate it somewhat, but I have never been able to cultivate a serious taste for it. Come to think of it, I am a middle-aged person who moves more or less in intellectual circles, yet I couldn’t list on one hand the people I know well who are serious classical music listeners. My encounters with it usually consist of putting it on to listen while reading by fireside. That’s better than nothing, but it’s more a matter of creating a mood than serious appreciation.

Ken Myers, who is the music director at his Anglican parish (All Saints, in Ivy, Virginia), has launched a new website, Cantica Sacra [4], which is about sacred music, and is designed to enrich the life of sacred music at his parish. Here’s a clip from an essay Myers wrote about Monteverdi. [5] It begins like this:

Douglas Adams, best known as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once offered a brief catalog of the possible range of musical expression. “Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human,” explained Adams. “Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.” Like all caricatures, Adams’s summary contains a valuable insight into something that happened in music history, and in Western culture more generally, between the early eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. Bach (who died in 1750) still represented a view of human experience that could be comprehended in the context of a divinely sustained cosmic order. In Beethoven (1770-1827), we hear a personality more in synch with the ideals of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on freedom and subjectivity. Hence Adams’s contrast (with Mozart somewhere in the middle) between musical expression that portrays all of reality (in a joyous dance) and the later, more modern uttering of the inner uniqueness of the individual. These characterizations are matters of emphasis, not stark black-and-white contrasts, but they are helpful in describing and understanding the genealogy of our own time, in which the self has eclipsed the world almost entirely.

Of all the arts, music has a unique ability to integrate objective order with the subjective response to that order. In music at its best, form and freedom are reconciled. The rationality and intelligibility of the universe can be affirmed musically by means that employ the will and emotions. The actions of body, intellect, and spirit in the giving and receiving of music refute in joyful practice the fragmentation of the human person that modernity promotes. And the eternal purpose of God to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:9f.) is actualized in the shared experience of harmony.

But music has also been used in attempts to assert freedom without form and self-expression without submission to the gift of symphonic order in Creation. Music can be abused to simulate primordial darkness and chaos rather than eschatological light and glory. (The fact that many people would balk at the idea of the “abuse” of music shows how modernity’s emphasis on the autonomous self has penetrated our cultural lives.)

Maintaining the balance between affirming the order that precedes us and the experience of subjects who participate in that order — who find their freedom in submission to the order — has always been tricky, in the arts and everywhere else.


Cantica Sacra is not a comprehensive sacred music site, nor does it aim to be. It really is geared to serving his parish. But I hope Ken will from time to time post essays and other pieces that take musically uneducated but eager-to-learn listeners by the hand, and help us understand sacred music and how it works.

Any of you readers who love sacred and/or classical music, can you recommend any resources on the web for people like me? It is a serious problem in our civilization’s life that we are losing the cultural memory of this highest form of music, losing the ability to access it, and losing the ability to know why it matters. I am a part of this problem.

I tell you, if I were a conservative Protestant in the Charlottesville area and was looking for a good church, I would get myself to All Saints Anglican [1] for Advent services, if only to worship with that music.

74 Comments (Open | Close)

74 Comments To "Music And Cultural Memory"

#1 Comment By charles cosimano On December 7, 2018 @ 2:19 am

Taste in music is a highly individual thing. When I was in grad school I discovered medieval and Renaissance music, a taste that continues to this day with the buttchant of T. Galen Hieronymus Bosch. (Extra points for those who get the joke there.) Never did care much for rock and its various spinoffs and side roads. I think it is because it was popular, vulgar and common, which is not the image I was aiming for.

It was rather disdain for music that worked very well for me. In the old days, when meeting a prospective playmate one of the hopeless cliches was, “What kind of music do you like?”

My response was a simple, “I hate music.” One would have expected that would have ended the conversation but it had the opposite effect, it made me appear unconventional, independent, and just a little sinister and dangerous–exactly what I was looking for and what she was looking for. And then when the time came to play music, well, imagine the psychology of a good Catholic girl undressing to a Gregorian Chant.

Music is for the mind, it sets the scenes for our lives. It brings out those gloriously dark moments that bring such joy to the soul, whether in preparing for glorious youthful ultraviolence, or in the reveries of age remembering the ultraviolence of youth. The piece does not matter. What matters is does it resonate with something in the listener?

#2 Comment By Allen On December 7, 2018 @ 2:43 am

Listen to the Bach cantatas, preferably at the time of the liturgical year for which they were composed: you would start now with the Advent cantatas – Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, etc. Read the liner notes (I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s from his Bach cantata pilgrimage) and the translation of the lyrics as you listen. It is a powerful musical and religious experience.

#3 Comment By Steven On December 7, 2018 @ 4:32 am

I second John Dowland, especially his lute songs. Try these: Flow My Tears, Can She Excuse, In This Trembling Shadow, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, Come Heavy Sleep, Thou Mighty God.

#4 Comment By Rob G On December 7, 2018 @ 8:31 am

My gateway into classical music many years ago was the soundtrack to Amadeus. Slightly later excursions included Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

As far as sacred music goes my first real loves were Bruckner’s Motets and Palestrina’s Masses. I don’t remember how I stumbled across the former, but I think I may have heard “Os Justi” on some compilation or other, and then followed up.

My favorite contemporary composer is the Latvian Peteris Vasks.

#5 Comment By Brendan On December 7, 2018 @ 8:39 am

Rod, the key with classical music is active listening — not as background or mood music, but actively listening to the music, with full attention in the same way you would pay your full attention to a book or a film.

A good initial resource is “What to Listen For in Music” by Aaron Copland, which stays away from jargon and technical terms but guides you through the kinds of things you want to be looking for as you are attentively listening.

The best pieces to start with are the pieces you are already drawn to, whether that’s something by Beethoven or Mozart or Wagner or Handel or whomever else strikes your fancy. Something that you intuitively like. Then sit down and listen to it very attentively. Then listen again, perhaps to a recording of the same piece by a different performer/orchestra/conductor. Here it will help immensely if you have a music streaming service, like Spotify, where you will have easy access to many recordings of the same pieces, including virtually all of the most famous recordings.

The appreciation will develop over time, and it will also take time to develop. But it will ultimately be very rewarding, and once you are used to listening to classical music that way, you won’t really be able to “put it on in the background” again because you will instinctively want to listen actively when you hear it.

Another resource to introduce some of the more well-known works in an irreverent way, yet one that is tailored towards newcomers to a deeper appreciation for classical music is Phil Goulding’s book “Classical Music: the 50 Greatest Composers and their 1,000 Greatest Works”.

#6 Comment By SB On December 7, 2018 @ 8:52 am

I am going to take a different tack. Instead of suggesting composers and pieces, or approaches to the forms of classical music, I think what is called for in this instance is:

(1) Something that will get RD used to thinking in terms of harmony and melody in a way that begins to approach the complexity of good classical music;

(2) Something that will get him thinking in terms of drama, which is also implicit in the interaction of lines in good classical music.

Call this a “two fist” approach.

The Jab: Listen to American popular song (_not_ just jazz improvisation based on the songs) from 1910-1940. This will acquaint you with more harmonic variety than you might be used to, and the words will often play against the harmonies and rhythms in ways that create extra meaning. (This “extra meaning” will help train you for seeing “extra meaning” in the interplay of elements in classical.). Explore more complex arrangements of the same songs and evaluate which “fancy versions” are actually improvements, and which are just cheesy. Then, finally, explore jazz that plays off of these songs. Side benefit: You will almost instantly find community with all the best of 20th century pop culture. Do this 3 times a day.

The Punch: Listen to Bach’s inventions and Brandeburg Concertos, pretending that the instruments are talking to each other. Picture them as characters in your head. Note where his harmonies do and do not match the harmonies in American popular song. Do this once a day.

Note: When I talk about “harmony,” I mean the way notes fit (or don’t fit) into the background chord, and how those chords lead one form another. It is not necessary to read music or to know music theory in order to get a feel for this. Anyone who can feel the chord structure of the blues (see “Jab” above) can develop harmony.

#7 Comment By SB On December 7, 2018 @ 9:07 am

Forgot to say:

Try to internalize the songs as you listen to them. Hum along. Later on, hum the melody or sing the words. If you can’t quite remember a part, make something up that fits and hum it. Do the same with the Bach inventions.

Point is, don’t just listen. This isn’t a movie that you sit back and watch. The ideal audience of all music is not merely an audience, but a musician. (I think that’s the point of “in His image.”)

#8 Comment By Gracie On December 7, 2018 @ 9:59 am

Dear Rod,
With respect, I wish you’d ask Ken about Anglicanism. If by “Protestant” you mean “not Roman,” well, ok, but traditional Anglicans (not Church of England/Episcopal Church of USA) are no more Protestant than the Orthodox, so it’s very misleading. As a commenter above noted, “anglo-catholic” is probably a better term – we hold to the teachings and practices of the undivided church of the first millennium; we recognize ancient lines of apostolic succession, seven councils, seven sacraments. We just don’t consider that the Bishop of Rome has authority over all.

#9 Comment By ScurvyOaks On December 7, 2018 @ 10:21 am

Sorry for the multitude of posts, but one more thought: great music can aid the understanding of Scripture. I wouldn’t really grok the extent to which St. Paul is taunting death and the grave in 1 Cor 15:55 without Brahms’ German Requiem. His setting of 1 Cor 15:51-55, ending with a key change that seems to snap death in two, then straight into a triumphant Rev 4:11, is not to be missed.

#10 Comment By Cynthia K. Wunsch, M.M. On December 7, 2018 @ 11:27 am

Thank you for sharing the Cantica Sacra website and confessing your own shortcomings as a music listener. As a music teacher, I have been collecting resources and a lacuna I noticed in the comments is TuneIn. This is an app/website that streams radio stations from around the world and many of those stations offer 24/7 classical music, often from that country’s own perspective (something I find valuable).
If you want to own recordings, you may want to consider the digital “Big Box” collections on Amazon. The whole album (sometimes 200 tracks or more) is only 99 cents–a trivial enough amount for most people that if you happen across a composer you don’t like, you haven’t wasted a lot of money to find out.

I wish you all kinds of interesting diversions on your path to become a serious listener of classical music. What an inspiring New Year’s resolution that would make (and a lot more fun than the traditional ones of diet and exercise).

#11 Comment By K in Portland On December 7, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

I also was raised without an education in classical music. On my 40th birthday, I decided to begin my classical music education. Lacking a blog readership to guide me, I just chose a composer (Mozart to start) and purchased 1 CD per month for a year. That is what I primarily listened to. On my next birthday, I chose another composer. This lasted about 15 years. In later years I grouped composers, i.e. “Italian Baroque” composers, but mostly just one per year. I was satisfied with my “education.” Toward the end of the 15 years, I joined an Eastern Orthodox Church. I became primarily drawn to the music of the Eastern Church. Today, I listen primarily to Orthodox music through CD’s, Ancient Faith Radio, The Rudder.

#12 Comment By Locksley On December 7, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

It’s a strange situation (to me), but I have noticed that few people 20 or 30 years my junior (I’m 73) seem to listen to classical music or know much about it, whereas when I was in high school and college almost everyone I knew did. I think it was because we were docile enough to believe that cultured people were supposed to know about it, so we dutifully listened to it and came to like it. We also listened to Buddy Holly, doo-wop, and the Beatles (I still listen to them too), but we took it for granted that classical was the apex of the musical world. Back then, classical music even influenced rock–remember the Left Banke, ELO, and Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Different Drum’?
For goodness’ sake, don’t start with Gus Mahler or Chuck Ives. A better bet would be Gilbert and Sullivan, especially ‘Iolanthe’ and ‘The Mikado’, in the D’Oyly Carte recordings of Isidore Godfrey featuring Martyn Green. Then you could move on to the Italian Bel Canto operas; you don’t really need to know Italian, but that would increase your enjoyment of them. Move in gradually: don’t try a full-blown Wagnerian opera until you have learned to like the preludes and overtures, which are quite tuneful. H. L. Mencken, who was a great music-lover, famously said that there are two kinds of music, German music and bad music, but that ‘Puccini is the best of the wops’. I don’t agree: Verdi was, but Donizetti is mighty listenable. You have a beautiful and fun world to explore.

#13 Comment By A Hopeful Trad On December 7, 2018 @ 12:47 pm


Peter Kwasniewksi (who is a terrific writer on the subject of the Catholic Mass) just recently wrote a good article (link above) about how to get started in listening to classical music.

It is also a subject of great and recent interest to me. I have a profile very similar to Rod’s (late 50s religious social conservative who during secular youth listened only to Top 40 radio music). After a life time of listening to only pop music into middle age and then no music, I started listening to classical music approximately 2 years ago. I now have become a fanatic – I listen to it incessantly. A few observations:

1. Classical music is not easily accessible. It requires time and listening that does not yield immediate pleasure. However, the pleasure it ultimately yields is far richer and deeper than the pleasure that pop music yields.

2. The best of classical music, in contrast to much pop music, is good for the soul. Great classical music, particular that of Mozart and Bach, puts one in touch with divine beauty.

3. My interest in classical music meshes with my interest in the traditional Catholic Mass, from which classical music derives.
As for how to “get into it”: Purchase a compilation that includes the best of classical music and find a time to listen to it repeatedly while doing something else that is relatively mindless — driving, or doing the dishes are two candidates – but do not worry about whether or not you like it. It takes time but it eventually sinks in. When it does then you understand what all the fuss is about.

If I ran an elementary school, I would set aside during each school day a 20 or 30 minute period during which the kids could color or read or do whatever they wanted so long as they stayed quiet and during that period play classical music. This would inculcate the music effortlessly.

#14 Comment By Ted On December 7, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

grumpy realist: “And then of course there’s the Requiem by Verdi.”

Yes. I think that’s the place for Dreher to start. And the backstory. It was written to the memory of Alessandro Manzoni, the great novelist, and notable Catholic. By his death Italy was a united nation, a process to which Manzoni and Verdi had both contributed. Verdi’s wife said he wasn’t much of a believer. Tosanini, who knew him, said he was an atheist.

Then start listening.

For a performance I’d recommend Toscanini, but the sound might put you off. I don’t think you can do better than Giulini in stereo, and you get the very late and very beautiful Four Sacred Pieces thrown in. One of them is to text from Dante.


#15 Comment By Ted On December 7, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

Gracie: thanks for that.

#16 Comment By Locksley On December 7, 2018 @ 3:45 pm

Here’s an amusing story, although it was highly embarrassing to me when it happened. I was in Chicago on business, but had an evening to kill, and I saw that a bus would come to the hotel to take guests to the Lyric Opera for a performance of ‘Tristan und Isolde’. I had time to walk to the box office and buy a ticket beforehand. On the bus, Wagner fans from all over the Midwest were reminiscing with each other about their favourite performances of ‘Tristan’, and the name of Kirsten Flagstad came up. Trying to fit in as best I could, I said aloud, ‘I hear that she’s coming back to the United States now that her problems with the I.R.S. have been settled.’ A stunned silence let me know I had made an egregious faux pas. Then someone kindly informed me, ‘You’re thinking of Birgit Nilsson; Flagstad died in 1962.’

#17 Comment By grumpy realist On December 7, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

And if you want something really good, check out Anna Russell and her analysis of music. “How to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera” and of course, her analysis of the Ring. As she says at some point: “I’m not making this up, you know!” (“Fafner. He’s a dragon now; don’t ask me why.”) I had the great pleasure of in fact seeing Anna Russell in person many years ago at one of her farewell concerts and she was a master of comic timing.

#18 Comment By mdc On December 7, 2018 @ 7:18 pm

I’ll take backseat to no one in my love and admiration for Mozart. But ‘what it’s like to be human’ strikes me as off. He was not one of us, as someone said.

#19 Comment By A Hopeful Trad On December 7, 2018 @ 11:09 pm

I too found that assessment of Mozart odd. He with Bach is on the side of the angels. As Karl Barth reportedly put it: “”When the angels praise God in Heaven I am sure they play Bach. However, en famille they play Mozart, and then God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them.”

#20 Comment By Gene Godbold On December 7, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

I’m a deacon at All Saints and our liturgy is rather good, too. Ken is a fantastic music director while our organist–Wallace Hornady–is also amazing (he used to be the organist for the American Boy Choir and he teaches music and is the choir master at Woodberry Forest HS).

I have found that Robert Greenberg’s offerings through the Great Courses can quickly get one up to speed on the technical details of classical music.

#21 Comment By Rob G On December 8, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

Don’t know if anyone else saw this but of yesterday’s five Grammy nominations in the Best Choral Performance category, two were for recordings of Russian sacred music: Chesnokov’s “Teach Me Thy Statutes” and Kastalsky’s “Memory Eternal.”

#22 Comment By Mark VA On December 8, 2018 @ 4:48 pm


I really liked your story! In my life I’ve met two types of Wagnerians:

(a) The ordinary kind, who are into all of his operas (seems to be the type you’ve met). As a Mozartian, I’m loosely associated with this, and other such groups of ordinary kind;

(b) The tight inner ring who have a clubhouse in Bayreuth, but only go there when the rites of the Der Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy are celebrated. Think of Uber Religious Traditionalists, and take that to a power of four. The following is a 28 minute long blasphemy in their eyes:

#23 Comment By Joseph M On December 10, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

Old Cartoons.

Bugs Bunny had some great shorts using classical scores.
Disney has Fantasia Fantasia 2000 and the Silly Symphonies. the Score for Sleeping Beauty is mostly cribbed from Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

For a great education in how music can be made sacred since 1929 the Tabernacle Choir has done weekly radio program “Music and the Spoken Word” combining songs both sacred and “profane” with a short spiritual meditation. [8]

#24 Comment By Chris On December 10, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

I have also always thought of classical music (and poetry) as a huge gap in what intelligent and intellectual people engage with today. I’ll never have much sophistication on either topic, but have tried to do what I can to close that gap.

I’m still very much a novice, but Mozart’s Requiem was something I connected to early on and inspired further exploring. Curiosity about what I’m hearing in movies has also been an opening for further exploration. The music featured in “Tree of Life” was very moving. The credits of “Ida” play Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” which I immediately latched on it. I also just saw Moonlight, which had a very moving selection of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K. 339. The first hint I ever got that I might like this world of music was the Mozart Aria in Shawshank redemption (though it took years before I scratched that itch).

I’m amazed how much classical music is available here in NYC that is cheap or free. I just attended St John the Divine’s annual Christmas Concert, with a choir singing religious music from Giovanni Gabrieli and Benjamin Britten, among others. Outstanding. Around Easter, churches also offer a lot of great music. A couple of years ago I saw an Vivaldi’s Sabat Mater also at St John the Divine. You can get tickets to the NY Philharmonic and Carnegie hall for $25, basically every night of the week.

I second some of the reader’s recommendation of Robert Greenberg – a perfect mix of historical context, some basic technical discussion, and overall passion and enthusiasm. I