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 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.