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Music And Cultural Memory

What do we lose when we lose the ability to understand and love classical and sacred music?
Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal is music director at All Saints Anglican (From All Saints’ website)

Any reader of mine knows of my boundless gratitude and admiration for Ken Myers and his Mars Hill Audio Journal, 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.  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, 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. 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 for Advent services, if only to worship with that music.



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