Searching for Musical Grace

CHAPTER 28 – Searching for Musical Grace: Lost Opportunities

By the 1990s, the Western musical vacuum had grown to such proportions that only nostaglia for the pop past remained: endless repeats of the Beatles, of Blues, and of pop standards, all to the point when many songs just became advertising gimmicks. The Romanticism of the old pre-60s world of Jazz and pop was certainly dead. And the dream of the late 60s of a new musical revolution gaining some new universal form had died as well. Only the democratic persistent beat remained.

Through the years, I had played rhythm guitar mainly as an accompaniment to singing nostalgic, sentimental, “silly love songs,” but I yearned for more depth. Playing Beethoven and Bach on a guitar was not an option. Just when I started to appreciate Mozart string quartets, indulgence in the Beatles revolution swept that opportunity away: indulgence in wanting to be a part with others of something new and big. And then in Pahiatua, just when I started to enjoy Haydn symphonies and especially his minuets, the immediate pleasure of playing rhythm guitar in a rock band swept away that second opportunity.

But these lost opportunities to understand and to enjoy fully “classical” music left a deep impression. There was a world of music in the past which my soul yearned to be a part. Why? In Bach there was the similar structure which I had enjoyed in studying Maths at Uni. In Haydn minuets there was a grace, reflecting a gentleness and strength of a lost civilisation. My musical, Orpheus and the Lyre, written for St John’s College, was an expression of this conflict: modern pop versus classical, the godly chorus singing in classical fifths in heptameter lyrics against the pop solos.

Through the years, Dominic, Clarissa and Rosalind learnt the piano, and as they practised classical music, those memories of lost opportunities kept returning.

The Cultural War about Music

The victories of modernism over my teaching subjects and my school and parish life had gradually made me aware of the greater battle: a universal cultural war much, much deeper and wider than what I had believed. Music was part of the cultural war as well.

The French Revolution was an occasion to celebrate Romanticism and Man and Freedom, freedom from the traditional past, and from anything which implied “privilege”. The label, “Classical” music, applied specifically to the music of Haydn and Mozart – the late 18th Century Age of the Absolutist Monarchs and of the Rationalist Enlightenment. The modern world would “keep” Mozart because his life could be interpreted as one of a Romantic hero, struggling against the “powers-that-be”. Haydn was too comfortably a part of the old world. Furthermore, Classical music was too structured, too predictably formal and secure. Music had to be adventurous and a reflection of man’s struggle for freedom. The artist-hero. Musical form became secondary to its emotive effect, centred on the performer, and reliant on imposing feelings on the listener. Beethoven was the first “rock” composer. Liszt the first “rock” performer. There is a straight line of development from these Romantics through to Jazz, Pop and the performing Rock Guitarist. “You will hear what I feel whether you like it or not.” It will be loud. Those were also the basis of complaints of the early Beethoven audience.

The Joy of Baroque

But there was another world of music, the world of Baroque, of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel. Baroque music was studiously ignored for over 250 years, and when it was played by moderns, it was played in the soulful style the moderns, and until of late, for church. Vivaldi’s music was not discovered until the 20th Century.

Baroque music is a relief from the modern world. It is dance music. Joyful and sorrowful. Graceful. Refreshing. It is the music of our roots: Europe and Christendom. It is truly democratic for it was the music of pubs and courts, of the street and of the people. It is at once the organic parent and the child of country and folk music. Musicians were free to improvise. And the music consisted of independent lines (polyphonic and contrapuntal) forming a whole so that each instrument was just as vital to the whole as the lead, unlike Classical or modern music.

Baroque music does not rely on a pre-conceived ideological stance. The form carries the emotion within without imposing individual style or interpretation on the listener. This music was despised by the Rationalists of the late 18th Century. They could detect a “godliness” and “unnecessarily gloriousness” in the ornamentation of even a simple gavotte! Just as they foisted upon us the moral monumental seriousness of Neo-Classical architecture. And yet the people loved Baroque in spite of the ideology of the day, as they still do today: Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Passions, Vivaldi’s Seasons. Modern musicians started to turn to this form late in the 20th Century. Authentic Baroque groups have sprung up out of the chaos of modernism. “To whom shall we go?” To music which lifts one’s heart and soul! To music which gentles with strength.

Recovering Lost Opportunities

By the late 1990s, there was now time to recover those lost opportunities. I had become very tired of the Beatles and pop music. Playing self-indulgent blues riffs on guitar with relations and friends had lost its appeal. Listening to Rosalind practise Bach reminded me of all those years ago when I started to learn the cello and been side-tracked by the pressures of a new teaching position.

To me, at the time, a cello was the closest stringed instrument to my familiar guitar. So, by learning the cello I could try, in these beginning of the end years of my life, to learn to fly along with music to accompany my heart.

I was so fortunate to get a cello teacher in Hawkes Bay: there were only two of them and both preferred young students, not adult learners. I bought a cheap cello so as to test the waters of my determination. And so I became a cello student. My main problems were sight-reading and timing. Guitar chords and playing music by heart held me back, yet after five years I reached Grade Six, without taking the formal exams. In Australia, I was fortunate to be given a 19th Century German trade cello, which lovingly beckons me to keep practising.

It is a real joy now to play Baroque Largos (I am not yet in Lento mode). And, as well, I have a number of modern pieces to play when I am feeling self-indulgent.

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