Ignorance of the great works of music is as bad, for someone who seeks to be educated in Western culture, as ignorance of Dante and Shakespeare in literature, and Plato and Aristotle in philosophy…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Peter Kwasniewski, as he considers the importance of great music to a liberal arts education. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
So important is it to have some sort of understanding of how the noble art of music works, and so important is it to become familiar with at least some of the great composers of the Western tradition, that all of the students at Wyoming Catholic College (where I taught) are required to take two semesters of Music Theory and History. True, this is only barely a beginning, but a serious beginning must be made—one that stretches from the fundamental ingredients of music (rhythms in simple and compound time signatures, pitch in bass and treble clef, key signatures, the circle of fifths, scales and intervals) all the way to some of the greatest masterpieces of the art, like the Missa Papae Marcelli of Palestrina and the St. Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Unlike less complex forms of aural stimulation, “artful music”—a better term than “classical music”—needs, and deserves, to be given multiple hearings, with full attention. One needs to give this rich music a chance to speak to one’s soul, to convey its beauties to one’s mind, to mould one’s heart. It’s not supposed to be instant gratification; there’s more intellectual substance to it than that. A cartoon, for example, tells you right away what it’s about, and you laugh at the joke. In contrast, an artfully written novel or play takes time to enter into and appreciate. Like a good wine, it must “breathe.” Indeed, a cultivated person would not rush through a gourmet French dinner, but would take plenty of time, savor each course, and enjoy the entire ambience, most especially the conversation with other human beings.
Just as there are great books, which are known to be great by the common consensus of thoughtful people across the ages, and just as there are great paintings and great sculptures, so too there are great works of music, known and felt to be such by educated musicians and music lovers—works notable for their depth of feeling, nobility of sentiment, and exquisite artistry. Ignorance of these is as bad, for someone who seeks to be educated in Western (and Catholic) culture, as ignorance of Dante and Shakespeare in literature, Plato and Aristotle in philosophy, Augustine and Aquinas in theology.
One often hears a false claim: Today’s popular music is “more emotional,” some say, while traditional music is “less emotional.” In reality, the emotions evoked in today’s popular music are more crude and monotonous. The emotions elicited by the music of Palestrina, Bach, or Mozart, being more intellectual, are actually more profound and pure—therefore, more variegated, subtle, and rich. There is no expression of joy or sorrow as profound as what you find in Victoria’s Passiontide motets, Bach’s cantatas, Mozart’s piano concertos, or Beethoven’s string quartets. Intellectual pleasures are the highest pleasures, as Aristotle notes, but awareness of them requires a certain process of maturation, which must be accompanied by a purifying of the passions. Nevertheless, the final result of this journey is the ability to experience passions that are more subtle, more all-encompassing, more fully what passions are supposed to be. In that sense, the best music is also the most emotionally satisfying.
Ponder the difference between a great expression of emotion and the expression of great emotion. The former is an intellectually refined or purified expression, one might say emotion spiritualized or conformed to logos, while the latter is a raw outburst, a sort of exhibition of animal vitality. The question is: Which is most proper to man as man, to man as imago Dei, to man as redeemed by the Blood of the Logos and sanctified by the indwelling Trinity?
A sign of the difference can be seen by comparing real dancing with the aerobic flailing that passes for dancing in the youth anti-culture—a difference traceable to the styles of music that accompany these activities. The Baroque gavotte, the classical minuet, even a Strauss waltz, are embodiments of order, pattern, symmetry, and gracefulness, examples of disciplined motion that is more human, more social, and more aesthetically pleasing than individualistic gyrating. Which of these exercises is more truly dancing? Ballet, when all is said and done, is more beautiful, requires more strength, exhibits more fully the inner potentiality of man and woman, than rock or pop “dancing.” Being a more rational and more unified activity, it is more fully the perfection of the activity itself and of the human person who performs it. Needless to say, we can learn a lot about the nature of music itself by observing the human excellences or abominations to which it gives rise.
Although one cannot train the ear in a day, a week, a month, or even a year, a beginning must nevertheless be made in developing the skill of what we might call “attentive listening to beautiful sound that is inherently worth listening to.” That is what we attempt to do in our music curriculum, and it is certainly my hope and prayer that our students will become, over time, not only witnesses to what is true and lovers of what is good, but also ambassadors for the beautiful, captivated by the reflection of the face of Eternal Beauty. In this way they would abundantly magnify the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, whom posterity is likely to remember as the Pope of Beauty—the Pope, that is, who opened up new fountains of beauty in a pilgrim Church, parched and thirsty, wandering through the desert of modernity.
An earlier version of this essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in September 2016. It was republished with gracious permission from Views from the Choir Loft (March 2013).
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Concert for flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci” (1850-52) by Adolph von Menzel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.