Oh Had I Jubal’s Lyre

Not every child is teachable, as I once taught a piano teacher. A certain Miss Promela had boasted that she could teach any child to play. I did not set out consciously to confute her at the age of six.

Indeed, she was a charming lady, and I aimed to please. But I have always had difficulty following instructions. I go my own way.

You see, I’d been left alone with a piano before, and thought I had it figured out. I could already play, with some gravity, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and was working towards a broader repertoire. Often the fifths and octaves appealed to me in themselves and, of course, I couldn’t both hear them and hear the instruction at the same time.

While I no longer recall the precise “issues,” I do remember the moment when Miss Promela gave up in despair. Thereafter, she had to admit that her method would not work on every child.

Let me fast-forward to a school choir, some years later, and a very patient man, a Mr. Harrison, governing our rehearsals. Again, my propensity to go my own way interfered with good order. There was a moment when this kindly man asked me only to move myself one position to the left. I could not guess whether he meant his left or mine, and in the subsequent confusion, he, too, who had been sorely tried by my previous misunderstandings, succumbed to exasperation.

Naturally, I have developed a pedagogic theory. It is that mimesis works. It must, because it worked even on me: when asked to copy, to “do as I do,” I could usually get it. Whereas instruction, “do as I say,” was nearly pointless. At least in my own case, my mind was twisted away from the subject, and towards contemplation of the instruction itself. Pratfalls followed.

To this day, I have noticed, the standard pedagogical model remains instruction. Children, as dogs, are instructed to obey, then what to obey. When Lesson One fails, all subsequent are abandoned. We have a discipline problem, and reach for the Ritalin.

I love listening to music – notwithstanding my painful experience of instruction. If, to this day, I cannot worthily sing, nor play a piano, I can still hear.

My first strong attachments in childhood were to jazz and to baroque, my first instinctive disattachment from the “romantic era” through which, I have come to believe, Western music itself became detached from the sacred heart of things. For music uncorrupted is pure gift from God. The self-exaltation of man has replaced this.

         First page of BMV 739 in Bach’s own hand
        Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

The theme of my life as a music listener has been, “getting behind the baroque,” to the recovery of what seems to me the chaste beauty of more ancient polyphony, and chant. Once one has truly heard this, one begins to realize that self-exalting man is vulgar; that he is trapped in the vulgar; that he cannot rise. We are surrounded today by deafening sonic walls of obnoxious popular music; music actually at war with the melodic and harmonious.

Looking back over the chasm of six decades, I now deeply regret my failure to reach an accommodation with my music teachers. I did have, I think, the innate disposition to hear and to repeat what Miss Promela presupposed. I believe the human organism was designed for music – the throat to sing and the hands to pick out notes. I think one may find this even in the sparkling eyes of small children, whom, we have rediscovered, take to music even from the womb.

The topic of this lay sermon is, incidentally, the new, new, new evangelism. We all know the impediments in our “culture.” The world around us is not very well disposed to God, or rather, it is distracted – by crashing sounds and mechanical background noise, sordid cravings and ugliness in all other dimensions.

It is a world ill taught. It has acquired shameful habits by mimesis, and there has never been much point in arguing with it. The world is full of arguments, with “do as I says” to which no one is listening. It is accustomed increasingly to volume alone, to compulsion by loudness.

Our impulse is thus to become more loud, with our crashing arguments; to engage more fully in this dialogue of the deaf. But as the despairing John Berryman put it, “We are using our own skins for wallpaper, and we cannot win.” (He was echoing Gottfried Benn, who was echoing Thomas Mann, who was echoing a long procession of poets and artists.)

The true, the good, the beautiful cannot in the end be argued, because each passes beyond human reason, to a simple and inseparable union, in God. They can be shown, only. They can be taught, by example. They may require us to strain: to listen and to see. Only in moments do they speak in thunder, which itself emerges as all sound from silence, as all motion from stillness, and returns into the silence and stillness, of God.

Through the centuries, and even to the present day, the faith of the Church has been communicated by music, as much as by words; the very Word, through the Church, embodied in music. The training of choirs, of organists and harpists, of practitioners in every musical art, has been a constant function.

It is an essential function; it was never merely decorative. The Mass in its nature is sung, chanted; and the innumerable musical settings of the Mass are intrinsic to its meaning, to its universality, to the dimensionality: it is not “just words.” They are έπεα πτερόεντα – “winged words” – and music has borne them aloft.

I am convinced that the recovery of the musical traditions, within Holy Church, can do more to evangelize than any quarrelling with the world. For what we must do is not argue, but proclaim; and music in its nature does not argue. It proclaims.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

  • Myshkin

    Exactly right.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Amen Mr. Warren.

    My little son, 8 years old, cannot sit still through many things, such as Mass. On Palm Sunday, he was having a terrible time, especially with the prolonged reading of the Gospel. It was shaping up as one of his most difficult Sundays, and at Communion, I was on the verge of taking him out. At that moment, the organ intoned the introduction to “O Sacred Head Surrounded.” The whole Church, choir and faithful together, began slowly and mournfully singing the ancient, beloved hymn. I was immersed in song, moving from verse to verse. My son was sitting beside me, to my left, and I was for the time somehow unaware of his distractions. The hymn ended, and there was silence. My son sat, facing the Altar and the great crucifix, transfixed. You could hear a pin drop in that moment. He said one word softly: “Beautiful.” I asked, “What was beautiful son?” He said: “The song. My eyes have tears.”

    8 years old. Children are indeed made for this. All we children.

  • debby

    i would like to suggest a current talent that some of the TCT readers may not know (i am assuming everyone knows about the Benedictines of Mary….)
    Check out Audrey Assad’s music.
    if i had to name a single favorite artist, it would be her.
    (and she just had her first Baby-a boy!-last night, May 1st)
    Her latest full release CD is Fortunate Fall and she has a new EP coming May 6th – Death Be Not Proud.
    She is extraordinary.
    I, who rarely is at a loss for words, cannot describe what happens deeply within my soul when i listen to her.
    Her first two cds are bouncy and fun, very good and i do love them. Her latest music is thoughtful and mature. She is a True Poet.
    And a Convert. You will hear Church teachings (St. Augustine, Bl. John Henry Newman, etc) and a profound respect for old hymns worked through her lyrics and music.
    oh – just give it a listen….samples can be heard at Amazon.

  • Tony

    Absolutely true.

    I play (poorly) Bach’s chorales on the piano, and it always astonishes me to consider that I am only playing what the four-voice choir would be singing, with or without accompaniment. That is what ordinary people were capable of doing … everywhere in Europe, too. They were capable of singing Christ Lag in Todesbanden, and then, as complex as that hymn is, if they were really well trained, they could follow it up with its far more complex and beautiful “fulfillment” in Christ ist Erstanden.

    When we sing slovenly or stupid or secular-sounding “hymns” at Mass, we are saying to ourselves and our young people, “This is not important, this is no different from everything else you’ve seen, this is actually rather silly.” That is deadly.

  • Carol

    Thank you for your story! I had a similar relationship with my piano teacher when I was seven. I could play the little three note tunes by ear and I could say what all the notes on the staff were, but the day came when she discovered that my ear overrode my brain hopelessly. In the choir, I could sight read, which made me successful. I memorized Handel’s Messiah in high school. My favorite group was an a capella chorus, where my ear reigned and my veins buzzed like champaign when we sang. I hope I’ve been a grateful caretaker for the ear God gave me. I try to remember that a child needs room to find his talent and a seed planted often grows.

  • Jack,CT

    Mr Warren,
    Thanks so much for a wise story!

  • schm0e

    I suppose that, being uneducated and vulgar, I have missed the point. But, being uneducated and vulgar, that won’t prevent me from making my own.

    If you’re speaking of the music one hears at worship, I cannot agree more: purity is what I long for.

    But when I get home and plug in my Stratocaster, turn up the gain (which I rarely do for the neighbors) and play something of blues or rock, my physical heart resonates in a way I don’t bother trying to explain anymore. And I thought I began to understand something of the phenomenon when understood that that Catholic theology teaches that some ordinary wafer can become God: He sanctifies the mud. Even the sonic mud from the Mississippi Delta.

    And I suppose it’s because I’m vulgar and uneducated that I’ve never wept at a Bach concert at Carnegie Hall, but I frequently do on hearing good rock and roll or jazz or anything else that somehow carries truth, love, and joy on its invisible wings over those invisible waves. Indeed it must be.

    It’s pointless to describe what you feel when you crank that amp up and bend that note you just hammered with your right hand. But you can see it in their faces.

    Pardon me for straying…

  • Chris in Maryland

    Jill – I think it was the nearest I’ve ever been to heaven.

    In Christus Veritas

  • Graham

    Another fine piece from Mr. Warren (who I understand is Anglican not Catholic but like this former Episcopalian was probably exposed to great liturgical music from the CofE). If you go to YouTube and call up the Assumption Grotto Church in the City of Detroit (not the suburbs) you can get a taste of the music from the parish where I now regularly attend Mass and go to Confession. The music is Mozart’s Coronation Mass from the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, 2013. But it was Cesar Franck’s Mass in A at Christmas Eve Mass the left me so moved and content that I would have gladly made it my last moment on Earth. Schumann’s Missa Sacra Op 147 on Easter Sunday was another extraordinary experience. The pastor, Fr. Eduard Perrone, conducts the chamber orchestra and parish choir (he is the son of a jazz musician). He is also a trained classical pianist and the parish music director. It is impossible to say how grateful I am as a Catholic for this extraordinary expression of worship of Our Lord.

  • Robert Royal

    Graham, for the record, David Warren is a convert to Catholicism.

  • Randall

    Beautiful and encouraging story, Chris.
    Debbie, thanks for the word on Audrey Assad!

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    I echo what Chris in Maryland writes above. While visiting my son’s family in NJ, we all attended Mass together – including our 7 month old grandson. He was restless throughout the Mass – restless that is until the organist began playing a classical piece during communion. I watched as his entire demeanor changed. He calmed down and was clearly interested in locating the source of these sublime tones. I thought, “infants intrinsically recognize what is beautiful. It’s not until they are older that the vulgar sets in.” I wonder whether this is what Jesus meant about “Unless you become as little…”