VII – Modernity and Music

MUSIC – FROM BEAUTY AND GRACE TO THE UGLY

A. The Foundations

Western music, and by that I mean, the music of Europe, has its origins in the music of the Catholic Church.

Our heathen ancestors – the Celts, Britons, Germans, Goths, Vandals, Franks – you can be sure did not, once upon a time, dance around in joyful jigs and reels of what we know now as popular, traditional folk music. No! they danced to the same kind of shaman-like drums and pipes as all savage peoples did. The same way as African tribes still do. Melody was minimal – orgiastic chanting to a beating drum.

The barbarian tribes conquered by Roman civilisation would only have heard the music of the Greek modes in state occasions – if at all. And when the Empire fell in the West, so did most of the civilising influence of the Romans.

From 400 AD to 1000 AD the barbarian tribes became civilised through the influence of the Catholic Church. The Church set up monasteries and schools, and encouraged the kings and chieftains of Dark Ages Europe to assist in the education of the faithful throughout Europe. There is tons of evidence for this development.

But where did the people – the ordinary mums, dads, and kids hear music? in Church, every Sunday and feast days. Gregorian chant and Latin hymns dominated the musical experience of these barbarians. And especially through the years from 800 AD to 1200 AD these people copied the “feel” of the Gregorian chant and hymns into their own music – folk music became an extension of what they heard in Church.

The “feel” of the ordinary European Christian originating in Church music was for music and art which reflected the doctrines of the Church: love, gentleness, mercy, joy, and grace. The form of music also developed from the liturgies of the Church: the chorus and response, psalmody led to versification and ballads. Marian hymns and Christmas carols soon became popular folk experiences. Dancing evolved from the village “stomp” to graceful dance – the Sarabande, the Polka, the Gigue (Jig), the Sicilienne, a myriad of dance forms expressing the unity of village group or a wedding dance among nobles – and there was no difference in the music in a multi-ranked society.

There grew a felt need for art forms to exhibit grace and so the traditional dance and music forms developed into what became so popular many centuries later.

From the liturgies of the Church – the chorus and response form – harmony, polyphony, madrigals and secular opera developed. And together came instrumentation, so that by 1650 Baroque – a musical style stretching for another hundred years – became the fully-matured expression of Western and Christian civilisation. It is not contrived. There is no theoretical foundation but the organic growth of traditional forms of chant, discovered harmony, dance and song. Baroque was both the music of the people and the music of the nobility. There was a free flow of the music of the beer hall “ditty” to its scoring and performance by any one of a number of Baroque composers for a performance at the beer hall or in front of a noble in his court.

Gone is the pagan, savage “stomp” to the drums and pipe. Common to all of the development of our Western heritage in music is the ascendancy of melody over the beat. Church music had no fixed beat but was based on the natural rhythm of Latin. The orgiastic beat of non-Christian music mainly disappeared from Western music.

Grace, gentleness, decoration, the contrasting of joy and sorrow, mercy, goodness and yearning for the beautiful: all kept the base demand for orgiastic expression to a minimum.

B. Classicism

There was a very brief period of Western music called the “Classical” period, when limitations were placed on the development of music. The evolution of Renaissance Rationalism led to the Modernist Enlightenment experiment of Classicism. The intelligensia of the late 18th Century worshipped the Deistic god of “Reason” and this god demanded order, control, and structure above all. Music became deliberately artful, and simplified, as if to tell a story, to be constructed rationally with a narrative beginning, middle and end. Beauty of form and noble delicacy dominate this form. “Effete” is the word for this kind of music.

But it has lost Glory and Joy (“Glory and trumpets” as Sam Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings would say) and the graceful sadness which comes with glory and joy of salvation but the realisation of loss – in death or in love. And much of Baroque music is dance music, dance music which echoes all ranks of a society still in touch with each other – peasant to noble. The joyful play of the Baroque disappears and so does the connexion with the people.

Classical music is for an “informed” audience, for the nobles, for the rich, for concert halls. The “grace” in much of classical music is informed by hundreds of years of Christian civilisation and still present among the elite even in those who may have rejected the practise of the Faith. It will take another 100 years for that grace to gradually disappear.

By 1600, Gregorian chant had disappeared in the major churches of Europe, replaced by polyphony at best, or by Catholic or Protestant hymns, or by original compositions – none of which captured the inner beauty and grace of Gregorian music. Unless it was a hymn, music now heard in Church no longer was simple but “complicated”. However, Bach was famous to the everyday Lutheran because he captured the “feel” of the old Catholic music in his weekly Cantatas.

By 1800 the huge increasing division of Europe between the landed class and the commoner, also created a huge division in music: between the “music of the court” and traditional folk music and dance. The latter became even more isolated as the Industrial Revolution broke up village life. Remnants survived in nostalgic family occasions, in pubs, in remote country village halls.

C. The Revolution and Music

There is only one revolution – Modernism’s French Revolution. This revolution and its mutations through the next 200 years had a significant effect on music.

Firstly, the Romantic movement. Early Beethoven is still in touch with the old grace-filled world, and he is brilliant. But the Enlightenment worship of man dominates his music. He dares not only to break the rules but also to thrust his emotions on to the listener: “You will feel what I feel!” The Who and Elvis naturally follow from this. Beethoven’s “Song of Joy” became the anthem of the worship of Man, and signified the rise of strident, popular nationalism. At first, the range of these feelings were still reflective of the Christian past, but over 200 years later – without a living Christian culture – grace, purity, goodness, nobility, gentleness disappear, and have been replaced by sentimentality, or the rage of social and political commentary, or blatant sexuality.

Rebellion and Nostaglia become the dominating motifs through the 19th Century. Wagner creates a world of the dying gods. Deep, ever deep, sadness dominates. The soul lost in the greatness of the universe, alienated, hopeless. Great images of past glory. But all lost. Amazingly grand and sadly beautiful music. And why? Because Modernism has destroyed hope in glory. It is the music of sentimental atheism. It is the music of the man  heroically observing the universe, raising his fist to the non-existing God, and challenging the non-existent God that he will never surrender. A great mythical construct to justify the Great Rebellion.

Secondly, the worth of music is now to be judged according to the authenticity of the composer’s emotions. The stronger the emotions, the greater the demands on both the composer and the performer to reach the audience. Form must give way to the emotional force of rhythm. The performer and the instrument must become more strident. Gut strings give way to metal. Harpsichords give way to pianos. Singers search for volume and power. Orchestras become larger. And electronic assistance raises the level of performance and alters the relationship between the production of music and the receiver – now passive to the demands of the performer’s emotions.

If there is no control on emotions, then “raw” becomes the final step: the rage of rebellion, the screaming uncontrolled lover’s lament, the plain shouting, and finally, chaos. Plato was right: music is the most dangerous art. He wanted it banned from his ideal state. On the other hand, Aristotle wanted music included as a necessary component for the education of virtuous citizens to train their emotions and to enable citizens to be more amenable to reason. There is an urgent need for Aristotle’s advice to be heeded!

D. A Divided Culture

Thirdly, music is now divided into two main kinds: “Classical” – a total misnomer, and “pop”. So-called “Classical” music becomes totally intellectualised, abstract, and requires ideological explanations in order to attract the intelligensia. By the end of the 19th Century, atonalism ended the connexion between Nature and Music. It had to happen. Modernism destroys Nature, by divorcing the mind from nature. Modern man can create its own constructions regardless. Music is tonal – scientifically, naturally, historically. A played note contains all the tones within it. To create atonal music is to deny nature! So-called “classical” music died then. Let’s face it. Music gets ugly.

“Classical” music at present is now a non-judgmental “selection” in orchestras and radio stations around the world. A smorgasborg of “taste”. It is seen to be cool to mix “pop” dress, or culture in presentations, for young musicians to join in with “pop” groups. “Classical” music is seen as “snobbish”, of the aristocracy (not true of Baroque – but who cares?), reactionary, even obscurant.

On the other hand, the music of the people, once traditional village folk music, now becomes “urban” music, divorced from the old Christian culture. During the 19th Century, it is derived from the old “Classical” forms, but is debased by heavy sentimentality and above all, by the ever-increasing dominance of the beat – the orgiastic grows in Western “pop” music. One can see why now that Johann Strauss’ father hated his son’s popular compositions: the 3/4 Viennese waltz was the victory of dominant first beat over the grace of the 3/4 Minuet. Even the music of the Catholic church echoed modern forms. Sentimental hymns fully replaced chant, and the final anomaly of the 20th Century was the total replacement of chant in the liturgy with “hokey” folk music.

Dance music changes drastically. Urban dance bands in the first half of the 20th Century, would still include a waltz, a Maxina, a “Gay Gordons”, but the modern, snuggling, insinuatingly-smooth Fox Trot soon gave way to swing, and to the beating pulse of jazz. Eventually, Jazz itself divided into two. The urban intelligensia follow the jazz of the 1950s – the “cool” – another intellectualised form; and the folk, self-referential “blues” develops into the “raunchy” sexualised music of “rock and roll”. And the gross savage “stomp” soon reappears. Ugliness returns to the world.

Attempts at uniting the Classical forms with Pop have failed to take root in modern culture. Gershwin’s opus “Rhapsody in Blue” and his musical, “Porgy and Bess” soon became dated and died when jazz died out, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals lose their inventiveness. Some pop forms attained cult status like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven” because parts of them refer back to forgotten traditional forms and motifs.

Another attempts to form a “classical” fusion in pop music were the later creations of the Beatles. Much of the early Beatles music was just dance music for teenagers. The lyrics are clever, at times poetic, and music is mostly happy … almost joyful. There are little inventive touches in all their music. The second side of “Abbey Road” is an attempt to make a symphonic whole from a medley. But even when they tried to make “graceful” music, their lyrics reflected the Nihilism of the Age, or to balance “grace” with petty, sexual smuttiness. As they became famous and self-conscious of the huge effect they had on society, they became “artful”. The hubris of fame lead to them preaching the New Revolution. They create “trite” socio-political messages in brilliant music forms.

As Beethoven’s “Song of Joy” became the iconic March of the Revolution of Man against the rule of God for many generations, so has John Lennon’s “Imagine” become the iconic song for the Revolution against belief in God Himself. The older generations could appreciate the “Song of Joy” without giving up their love of God, but Lennon’s “Imagine” makes it all pretty plain where Modern Man is marching. And Lennon’s later songs become pornographic, seedy, sexually-liberated anthems to the New Age of Licentious Modernity.

E. Modern Angst and Pop

So we are left in the 21st Century with popular music reflecting the urban modern angst: alienation! alienation from lover, alienation from society, to basic violent protest at the world. Self-centred violent emotions forced on the listener. Quite horrible and a very bad influence on anyone who participates in music. The language is trite, vulgar and at times, obscene. And sometimes the intent is bestial.

There are refreshing outbursts of popularised joyful dance music from non-Western cultures and from Latin America, but they will never become a uniting force in the everyday life of the Modern world in which we live.

Music stirs the emotions at the deepest levels. Mankind yearns for goodness, wholeness, completeness, to be loved. Only virtuous behaviour – the culturing of good habits of thought, and feeling – make for wholeness. Our weakness is to allow the violence of feelings, the violence of rhythm, sheer rebelliousness, the pride of the life force (which can be turned to the most horrible acts), to dominate our lives. The more we listen to modern music the more we become less good.

F. Promising Trends

There has been over the past 50 years a revival of Baroque music, a revival scorned by the music intelligensia who prefer the Modern, the discordant, the challenging, the ugly. But, against all the trends and pressures to conform to Modernism, many musicians have identified themselves wholly with this revival to the point that they form whole Baroque orchestras and groups, playing with gentle, authentic Baroque instruments. The love of Baroque among all types of people is evident in the 150-year-old appeal of Handel’s “Messiah”, Bach’s “St Matthew’s Passion” and Vivaldi’s “Seasons”.

A good Baroque performer can make a living now from the demand by many around the world to have their hearts lifted and their souls eased by the many newly-discovered works of the old Christian world. And also becoming popular among many youth of the Western world is Gregorian chant, a development which shows that many young people are heartily sick of the decadent music of the Western world. Both these trends, will never again become universal, but at least there will be groups of people able to continue the tradition of good, graceful, beautiful music into the future.

G. My Own Music

I have fond memories of pop music, but my appreciation of them is purely nostaglic. Because music goes to the heart, one’s memories and the music of the time become inseparable. So, although I may say that I “like” a particular piece of music, it is really the memory of that time and place in my life which I like to remember. For instance, as a child, I remember a pop song “How much is that doggie in the window?” It is a cute, trite, sentimental little song. But to me it brought back fond associations of that time in my life. If one challenges me now about my musical taste: “You liked the Beatles!”, all I can say is that their music brought back fond memories. But examining their music objectively, one finds it still is “Modern” pop, admittedly inventive, and they try hard to avoid being trite. I found it hard at the time to enjoy their music and at the same time avoid the radicalisation of Lennon’s preaching; of the cynical put-downs of anything of real value. All you need is love? Free love and then post-coital angst? And now I will no longer listen to them. I prefer instead to listen to music which is pure: Bach, Handel, Corelli, Vivaldi. It is sweet and beautiful, it reaches down into the heart wholesomely and with gentleness. It is uplifting and at times beckons a universal humane sadness which echoes exactly where we all are. “Catholic” in the true meaning of the word.

H. Conclusion

If I were raising a family now, I would ban all modern music in my house, and by “modern” I mean all music after 1800! My children would be encouraged to learn the piano as well as a violin or cello or a woodwind instrument. They would attend Latin Gregorian Mass; they would learn to sing chant and the Latin hymns and they would be surrounded by Palestrina, Vittoria, Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi, etc. The guitar, bass and drums would be banned. There really is no room in a family for angst, rebellion, or violent expressions of emotions or thought. A family needs to be surrounded by virtue – virtuous music, virtuous reading and entertainment.

A family should be encouraged to play (rather than listen to canned) music and sing traditional airs around the piano. Work, pray, and play together.

Leave a Reply