Prohibited Words

“The deadest words are the merely ‘poetic’ ones, words once alive but now embalmed long since. Some readers, seeing them only in poetry of the past and thinking of them as uncontaminated by daily handling, may believe them especially worthy of the poet’s attention. But devotion to such words or phrases…is a kind of necrophilia.” (John Frederick Nims, Western Wind, Random House (1974), 148)

“The norm for a poet’s language is the way his contemporaries talk.” T. S. Eliot

The following words ought to be prohibited in all church music because either (1) they are so overused that their effectiveness has been totally destroyed or (2) they are not used in any diction today except for hymnody.

bounteous
bountiful
plenteous
plentiful
boundless
wondrous
matchless
radiant
terrestrial
celestial
gladsome
wandering
enthroned
starry
ethereal
meadow
vale
well-spring
dew
scepter
Jehovah (this should be removed from everything, actually)
balm
the deep
spheres
crystal
pearl
golden
maiden
splendor
gild
gleam
beam
resound
ills
ails
vault
verdant
hail
lo
behold
accord
decked
clime
billow
assail
henceforth
o’er
‘twixt
doth
hast
art
wilt
-eth
-th
-est
-st
-folgd
be-
’tis
thy
thine
thee
thou
ye

Many of these words are anti-words. They subvert the entire point of words. They have ceased to signify some meaning greater than themselves. Instead of thinking of an objective idea when we hear these words, we think “hymn words” when we hear these words, because they only appear in hymns. Correlation requires real-world corollaries and these words have none. And that, more than anything else, is why you are always bored and never think about what you’re singing when you sing hymns.

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Just Once

Ask a music historian, and he will tell you that Josquin’s 20-odd masses, Palestrina’s 104, Bach’s 500 cantatas (of which we have around 200 still), Haydn’s 104 symphonies, any of Mozart’s beautiful piano sonatas—none of them were intended to be performed again after the premiere. The composers might well have found it strange that a corpus of their works would be familiar to people after their death.

There is no idea quite so new as traditionalism.

We Love Boredom

Those who don’t like classical music think it’s boring because they expect it to be boring.

Why do they expect it to be boring? Because those who do like classical music want it to be boring and try everything in their power to make it that way.

Being bored attending a concert is essentially a cathartic experience. A member of an older generation wants the concert to be boring because he wants to be able to disconnect from our culture. He wants a confrontation with something disconnected from the sordid now, something older and something difficult to understand. But he also does not want to understand it.

Undergoing an hour or two of entertainment where are you not entertained, where you are bored stiff, is a choice and a sacrifice, but it is a potent way to register complaint with alternative forms of entertainment that you don’t approve of. In some ways, after an hour or two of something you did not understand, you feel you’ve paid penance for allowing yourself to be inundated and even sometimes amused by modern entertainment. For every binge of pop culture, you purge with some classical.

But it is all a delusion. We think listening to Katy Perry is being mindlessly disengaged and listening to some long 19th century piece is being mentally stimulated. But the exact opposite is true: the very fact that you can recognize that Katy Perry is mindless entertainment means you have, on some level, engaged with the music enough to recognize something is wrong. Exactly how are you engaging with the Brahms 1st piano concerto? At any given moment during the concert, you could not tell me where you were in the form or structure of the piece; you could not tell me what the cultural connotations at the time would have been; you could have given me only the vaguest description of what Brahms was trying to accomplish in this or that measure, assuming you were awake and paying attention. But let’s face it: how much of the concert are you actually paying attention to the music?

Do you even know what it means to pay attention to the music? What are you supposed to be paying attention to? What are you even supposed to listen for? How do you find out what to listen for?

Listening to classical music is, for many people, the most selfish aesthetic activity of their aesthetic lives. It isn’t done out of a love of the music, but out of a love of the feelings the music produces in you. These feelings may be feelings of orgasmic pleasure, which self-proclaimedly was true of the early French audiences of Wagner’s operas, or it may be the cathartic act of boring yourself, or feelings of the numinous and the spiritual for people who don’t understand either, or the sort of music that awakens sexual discontent in love-starved, middle-aged women. Sometimes, ironically, classical music even inspires the most exhilarating feeling of all, the knowledge that you are superior because you imagine yourself to be listening to music for its own sake, and not for the feelings it produces in you.

Once I happened to be at a dinner in the better part of Scottsdale, and the wife of a famous recently-retired newspaper editor asked me to play Clair de Lune on the piano. During a particularly emotional part, she leaned over to my mom, groaned, and said, “Oh, this piece is better than sex.” (My mother, apparently, didn’t know quite where to go with the conversation at this point.) The observation, however, was on some level a trenchant one: this woman was engaging with the music enough to at least be aware of its purpose. Debussy would probably be happy to know that this lady most likely represents the largest demographic of listeners to Clair de Lune.

There are three sorts of musicians—players, composers, and critics. A musician is all of them.

There is only one solution to all our problems: we must change the audience into musicians. They must become themselves players, composers, and critics.

Everyone is trained to read. Everyone is trained to write. Not everyone becomes a writer. Not everyone reads for a living.

So too it used to be with music. Was it coincidence that it used to be that way in the cultures that produced Praetorius, Schütz and Bach?

Who Is Your Audience?

For a while now, I’ve been wrestling with how I should deal with early Medieval polyphony in my own mind (isn’t that something we all go through at some point?), and now it’s becoming imperative since I’m called upon to teach other people about it. The obvious question most people—including myself—have is, how could this music really be intelligible to the listener? You have three separate, complex poems being sung at the same time, and this is supposed to be intelligible to the hearer. Not only was one of the texts usually in Latin and the others in French or some other vernacular, but at periods the rhythm reached a complexity not seen again until Stravinsky. (Not my own assertion, but a widely recognized fact.)

So, with Person A singing his melody, his text underlay, his poem, and then Persons B and C doing the same thing on different notes, different texts, different rhythms, can you, the listener, really understand? This really bothers us modern listeners. Maybe Medievals just achieved a level of musical complexity that can’t be fathomed by the human brain.

I’ve pointed out before the Medievals’ concern wasn’t always to provide an audience with music. The goal was simply to sing the music. The performance was given to no one but those performing. The stage didn’t exist, only the ensemble. An audience was simply witnessing, vicariously enjoying, an act that they were not an integral or necessary part of.

But, if we’re being honest, early motets wouldn’t even have been fully understood by the singers themselves. It’s hard enough in rounds and canons to sing your part and have a sense for the whole. It is an exhilarating and mind-boggling experience even for musical minds. But a three or four-part Medieval motet is on an entirely different level of complexity. Polyphony is all about enjoying each melody for itself while realizing that it is never by itself and can never be understood until it is with its fellow melodies. Polyphony means understanding the whole and each part simultaneously. As I said, no human mind, either in the audience or in the singing ensemble, could possibly comprehend all melodies and their texts at once, enjoying them individually and communally, enjoying them as one ought to enjoy polyphony.

And then it struck me: that’s the point. No human mind can. Maybe the audience for this music is not any human at all. Maybe the composer’s intended audience is Divine. After all, isn’t that just Medieval? The art is only peripherally for us humans; primarily, it’s an offering to God, who alone can comprehend individuality and community simultaneously. Maybe the struggle to understand complex counterpoint is similar—in its exhilaration and its confusion—to understanding the Trinity. Can you understand each one without the three, and is an understanding of the whole being complete without an understanding of each person? And it’s incredible to me that humans could come up with art so complicated that they themselves cannot understand it apart from a sort of Trinitarian confusion.

Think about Gregory Nazianzus’ quote and consider how perfectly it could apply to the most complex motet or 8-part Bach chorales.

No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.

Composing counterpoint with that in mind seems either the most blasphemous or the highest of all our fashioning.

Maybe that’s why Muslims only chant.

An Educated Audience

“In my youth, living in the proximity of Brahms, it was customary that a musician, when he heard a composition the first time, observed its construction, was able to follow the elaboration and derivation of its themes and its modulations, and could recognize the number of voices in canons and the presences of the theme in a variation; and there were even laymen who after one hearing could take a melody home in their memory.” (Arnold Schoenberg, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea)