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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Elvis: "There is a bigger King . . ."

A selection of posts from St. Blog's and across the net commemorating the anniversary of Elvis Presley's passing (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977):
  • Fr. Nicholas Schofield (Roman Miscellany) recalls "Five Catholic Facts About Elvis".
  • "The King is Dead, Long Live the King", by Jay Anderson. Pro Ecclesia
  • New York Times' Peter Guralnick asks: How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist? -- challenging a common (but sadly mistaken) assumption of the African-American community. (See also Elvis & Racism, a detailed exploration by Christopher Blank @ Elvis Australia).
  • Thinking About Elvis - Powerline writes about Elvis' charity to soldiers returning from service in Vietnam, and his letter of appreciation for (and subsequent meeting with) President Nixon to express "concern for our country. The Drug Culture, The Hippie Elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I Love it. Sir I can and will be of any Service that I can to help the country out." From a memo detailing Elvis' meeting with the President [.pdf format]:
    Presley indicated to the President in a very emotionial mamner that he was "on your side." Presley kept repeating that he wanted to be helpful, that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag, which was being lost. He mentioned he was just a poor boy from Tennessee who had gotten a lot from his country, which in some way he wanted to repay.
Live in Hawaii - Elvis performing "An American Trilogy":
Elvis died when I was three years old, and my music tastes leaning to the harder and more extreme side, it was not until later that I learned to appreciate his contributions to the world of music and Elvis Presley, the man himself.

From 2003 -- a re-post:

Senior pastor of the Bruderhof and social critic Johann Christoph Arnold devoted a recent column on "Remembering the King" recently. No, not that King, but rather Elvis Presley. It might strike some as strange for a writer from a countercultural Christian community like the Bruderhof to be covering a mainstream cultural icon like Elvis (much less a blog devoted to Cardinal Ratzinger), but Christoph Arnold reminds all of us to look beneath the surface:

"Good" Christians often self-righteously dismiss celebrities because they are turned off by the glamour, fame, and excess that surround them. How many remember that behind the frenzied publicity and the scandals cooked up by tabloids is a vulnerable person with emotions—a real person with a heart—and not just a two-dimensional cardboard cutout? 1

Back in March [of 2003], PBS television ran the documentary He Touched Me - The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley. Featuring plenty of live footage and interviews with close friends and gospel quartets that backed him up, it chronicles Elvis Presley's spiritual roots in Southern gospel music and aspects of his life that are seldom publicized -- like the fact that he insisted on singing "Peace in the Valley" during one of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show (some say it was to "tone down" his rebel image; the documentary claims it was on behalf of his mother), or that after concert performances he would invite his friends to join him in literally all night gospel singalongs.

Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of "Amazing Grace", a collection of Elvis' religious performances (spanning a variety of genres -- soul, country, rock, gospel), and I was hooked. The world will remember Elvis Presley for his rock and roll, but from all accounts it appears that there was nothing he enjoyed more than singing gospel. As Gospel Music Association President Frank Breeden recalls:

"After the shows he would routinely sing with the gospel quartets that were used as his backgrounders . . . It was the gospel music that he turned to for inspiration and consolation. He was a person who appeared to be in conflict; he was not doing what he loved for a living ... he had a career that had just taken him captive." 2
Or as Cheryl Thurber writes of the "Million Dollar Quartet" (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash & Elvis Presley) -- the recording session at Sam Philips' Sun Studios in Memphis:
. . . When those rising stars of rock 'n' roll sang together the songs they chose to sing were largely gospel songs. It was the shared repertoire that they all knew. They sang other songs as well, such as current rock 'n' roll and recent and older country hits, but they seemed to sing more complete versions of the gospel songs. With gospel songs they knew all the words, not just snatches of the choruses. . . . It is clear when listening to the session that Elvis was the dominant force that day -- he was the one who started the singing of each song. It is also evident that he enjoyed the singing. This was Elvis having fun. 3

Of course, there are many who -- not without reason -- see Elvis Presley as the harbinger of moral decay and the corruption of America's youth. (Fr. Jerry Pokarsky, for example, uses Elvis as a convenient metaphor for the narcissistic character of abuses in the post-Vatican II mass). 4 And by no means should one applaud every star(let)'s excursions into spirituality (I expect Christoph Arnold would have a much different reaction to Madonna's dalliance with watered-down Kabbalah). But for all of his flaws, and the nature of his tragic demise, there is something about Elvis Presley which Christoph Arnold finds praiseworthy:

Here was a unique individual struggling to find his true identity. I am certain that it was through this struggle that God gave him the humor, humility, and kindness that endeared him to millions of people. These traits were even more important than his music . . .

Elvis knew his shortcomings. He was an ordinary guy who battled all the normal temptations. But he also had a vision, as expressed in a comment he made to a reporter:

"I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God. I figure all any kid needs is hope and the feeling he or she belongs. If I could do or say anything that would give some kid that feeling, I would believe I had contributed something to the world."

In other words, for him, relationships were much more important than the glitter, fame, and money he is mostly known for.

I'll close this little tangent with a quote I found -- from an account of one fan's encounter with Elvis (or rather, a close call with his limo). It may or may not be true, but it's something I can easily envision coming from Presley:

"I know you consider me your king, but I am not worth dying for, there is a bigger King who is God whom you should be preparing yourself for."


1. Remembering The King: The Soul behind the Celebrity, by Johann Christoph Arnold. Bruderhof.com.
2. Gospel Music and Elvis: Inspiration & Consolation, by Helyn Trickey. CNN.com. August 26, 2002.
3. Elvis & Gospel Music, by Cheryl Thurber. REJOICE! The Gospel Music Magazine. (1988).
4. Elvis Sightings in the Roman Rite, Catholic World Report January 2002.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

On rockers who find God (and the devil's music)

Now for a light-hearted post . . . Jeff Miller (Curt Jester) takes note of the apparent conversion of guitarist Brian "Head" Welch from the popular band, Korn (See: "Korn Guitarist Finds God", by Michelle Malkin. Feb. 23, 2005).

Those immersed in the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" lifestyle tread familiar and all-too-predictable paths. While some are content to wallow in the mire of a prolonged adolescence (or reviving sagging libidos with reunion tours ), a few miraculously rise above and turn over a new leaf. Repeated viewings of 80's "Hair Metal" bands on VH1's "Behind the Music" confirms this development is provoked by either "hitting rock bottom" psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, or awakening to new social responsibilities (marriage and parenthood), culminating in the realization that -- contra William Blake -- wisdom cannot be found in the relentless pursuit of hedonism.

Some discover meaning in the works of mercy, a recent example being David Lee Roth's apprenticeship as a New York City paramedic. Others "find God", "find Jesus" -- or, at least, some approximation of the ethical or religious life. Brian Welch joins Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, former lead guitarist for Anthrax Daniel Spitz, and other prodigal sons disillusioned by a career of moral decay.

* * *

Jeff muses:

I use to listen to Korn prior to my conversion. They even appeard on a recent episode of Monk. Their lyrics are laced with profanity and I stopped making excuses to continue to listen to them. I even use to play some of their songs on my guitar. It does make me wonder how many head-banging and Gregorian Chant loving traditionalist like me are out there?

Nice to see another head banger among the ranks of St. Blog's parish. =) I listened to a lot of Korn in the early 90's. Enjoyed the first album, but found the rest pretty repetitive, like a lot of rock these days. Very few bands rise to the stature of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd (well, perhaps The Verve). Like Jeff, I also favored the Seattle sound, particulary SoundGarden. My musical tastes pretty much span every genre (these days I'm a big fan of Elvis and Hank Williams. Never thought I'd admit to liking country music!).

I can also relate to the need to distance myself from earlier musical tastes -- not so much the form of the music, but the lyrics. As somebody noted on Jeff's blog:

"One of the more painful parts of the conversion process was realizing that most of my music collection, much as I loved it, was either satanic, sexually disordered or nihilistic and not good for me."

For a convert in the latter part of the twentieth century, growing as a Christian usually entails a careful pruning of one's CD collection (Napalm Death's Fear, Emptiness, Despair doesn't exactly jive with Paul's admonition in Philipians 4:8: "For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline: think on these things").

* * *

But one cannot possibly blog on rock music and Christianity without giving mention to the criticism expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger himself. In p. 148 of Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger offers a brief summary of the state of music today:

Modern so-called "classical " music has maneuvered itself, wish some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter -- and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path. One the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock", on the other hand, is the expression of the elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a sometimes cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of the crowd and by the emotional shock of rythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstacy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.

Given his emphasis on the dionysian aspects of rock music, I think the Cardinal would have appreciated Allen Bloom's critique of rock in the excellent Closing of the American Mind (or vice versa, were Bloom alive today). Even Catholics who enjoy rock and roll would be hard pressed to dispute the truth of the Cardinal's account of a concert. Perhaps this is may explain why, as much as I enjoy the music of some bands, I'm less and less inclined to attend live performances -- that, or perhaps I'm just too old to mosh.

I do not think that rock has any place in religious liturgy, and strongly detest any attempts to 'modernize' or 'acculturate' Catholic worship in such a manner. Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate to have a father who tolerated his sons' interest in Metallica and Skinny Puppy (which he regarded with mild amusement) while pressing us to pay attention to the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach in home-school. It wasn't until after we grew up that I came to appreciate those obligatory weekly sessions in "classical music appreciation."

So, parting question for the readers: Is there something intrinsically wrong -- as Ratzinger seems to suggest -- in the form of rock itself, and not just the lyrical content? Is rock capable of being "morally rehabilitated" once purged of morally objectionable lyrical content, or is there something intrisically wrong with the form of rock itself (as religious critics like Cardinal Ratzinger, and secular critics like Alan Bloom, might suggest)? And does the validity of the Cardinal's critique extend to other genres as well (hip-hop, techno, industrial, et al.)?

I know there are some rock n' roll fans out there in St. Blog's parish. Perhaps Fr. Bryce Sibley (Radiohead fan) will be tempted to weigh in.

  • Why Rock Music is Boring James McCoy. Los Angeles Mission Nov. 1999.
  • The moral power of music, by Fr. Basil Nortz. Homiletic & Pastoral Review April 2002.
  • The Role of Rock: Beauty and truth in the not so fine arts, by Mark Fischer. The University Concourse Feb. 27, 1996 -- see the article and the extended list of links for a discussion of this topic by students at Ave Maria and Franciscan University.
  • Cardinal Ratzinger on Liturgical Music, by Michael J. Miller. Homiletic & Pastoral Review (July 2000).
  • Musicians in Catholic Worship III: Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines. Lucy Caroll asks "Catholic parishes today are homes to rock bands and back-up groups that sound no different from those at the local bar or supper club. While they may be entertaining, are they truly suitable for the celebration of the Eucharist?"
  • Background on Korn Guitarist's conversion from On Track magazine :

    "I have a 6-year-old daughter, and I want her to be able to look me in the eye. I'm a single dad, that's what it comes down to . . ."

    Regarding how his bandmates reacted to the news that he was leaving the group, Welch said, "I think it made the guys mad. It confused them. I left at the worst possible time. We got off Sony, and all the money was there, we were going to own all of our songs, but I had to prove to myself that money wasn't my God," he said. "I talked to Jonathan [Davis] and he said, 'I don't get it, man, you're all happy and we're sitting here grieving because our band is breaking up. And I wanted to tell him, 'Well, for years, you guys were out partying while I was sitting on the tour bus wanting to die.' "

  • Ex-Korn Guitarist Baptized in Jordan River Associated Press, March 5, 2005.
  • Further information on Brian Welch on his website HeadtoChrist.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Bob Dylan's Spiritual Journey

[Subtitle: "Or, A Desparate Attempt by an Exasperated Catholic Blogger to Demonstrate the Existence of Other Topics on the Internet besides Mel Gibson's The Passion and the Alleged Anti-Semitism of The Director"]

Jewsweek is running a fascinating 4-part series on the spiritual life of Bob Dylan, titled "Bob Dylan's Unshakeable Monotheism", by music journalist Scott Marshall. Parts II and III cover Dylan's encounter with Jesus in 1979 and his "gospel period" during the early 1980's. Apparently Dylan had some kind of spiritual epiphany (what evangelicals might call a "born-again" experience), prompting his baptism and study of scripture under the tutorship of several pastors from the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. He would preach the gospel over the span of several albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love), even collaborating with Christian gospel artist Kieth Green.

I have heard people mention Dylan's conversion before, dismissing it as a "Jesus phase" which he eventually grew out of. While there is much speculation as to whether Dylan returned to his Jewish faith in later years, Marshall insists that this was never confirmed by the musician, as he has "never formally announced his departure from (or return to) Judaism." Dylan no longer sings exclusively gospel songs as he did during the 80's, and eschews religious labels and denominational affiliations ("Jews separate themselves like that: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform ... as if God calls them that. Christians, too: Baptists, Assembly of God, Methodists, Calvinists. God has no respect for a person's title. He don't care what you call yourself"). In many ways he runs counter to the typical notion of a "right-wing fundamentalist" -- and yet, judging from the copious excerpts from interviews he continues to affirm a literal belief in the Bible ("You can't get away from it, wherever you go. Those ideas were true then and they're true now"), the existence of [original?] sin ("We're all sinners . . . Most people walking around have this strange conception that they're born good, that they're really good people -- but the world has just made a mess of their lives. . . . it's not hard for me to identify with anybody who's on the wrong side. We're all on the wrong side, really"), and a conception of "the Messianic Age" that is distinctly Judeo-Christian. Moreover, when challenged, Dylan displays a willingness to defend his faith, as in this amusing encounter with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997):

Bob Dylan: "Allen, do you have a quarrel with God?"
Allen Ginsberg: "I've never met the man."
Bob Dylan: "Then you have a quarrel with God."
Allen Ginsberg: "Well, I didn't start anything!"

Two interesting points stand out in this article: the first is the the explicit and unrelenting hostility of the secular media towards Christianity, manifested in their ridicule and biting criticism of Dylan's religious expression during his "gospel period" -- a hostility rooted, I suspect, partly in confusion and fear. After all, what can a contemporary journalist do when confronted by a musician (and 1960's folk/rock icon no less) who displays a literal belief in the scriptures and the Messiah, and proclaims the validity of right and wrong, sin and divine judgement? (Or as Dylan puts it: "Make something religious and people don't have to deal with it, they can say it's irrelevant. 'Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.' That scares the s**t out of people. They'd like to avoid that. Tell that to someone and you become their enemy.")

The second point I found especially interesting was Dylan's personal experience as a Jew who -- while maintaining a belief in Jesus as the Messiah -- insists that he hasn't "abandoned" his Jewish faith, despite all assertions to the contrary by his colleagues and critics. As one of the Vineyard pastors says, "I think he [Dylan] is one of those fortunate ones who realized that Judaism and Christianity can work very well together because Christ is just Yeshua ha' Meshiah [Jesus the Messiah]." Orthodox Jews may disagree with this assertion, and may consider the Jewish convert to Christianity as one forever lost and dead, but one cannot deny the fact that those Jews who embrace Christianity nevertheless feel a tangible bond to their Jewish faith and tradition. Consequently, it felt natural for Dylan to lend his support to Jewish causes like Chabad and attend his son's bar mitzvah in 1983 at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem . . . and at the same time, play overtly Christian songs like "In The Garden," which "amounted to a narrative about the arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus."

Bob Dylan was before my time and I confess to having little knowledge or experience of his music, so I'm very appreciative of these articles. Scott Marshall has also written a book on this topic, titled: Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (Relevant Books, 2002).

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Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Remembering The King

Senior pastor of the Bruderhof and social critic Johann Christoph Arnold devoted a recent column on "Remembering the King" recently. No, not that King, but rather Elvis Presley. It might strike some as strange for a writer from a countercultural Christian community like the Bruderhof to be covering a mainstream cultural icon like Elvis (much less a blog devoted to Cardinal Ratzinger), but Christoph Arnold reminds all of us to look beneath the surface:
"Good" Christians often self-righteously dismiss celebrities because they are turned off by the glamour, fame, and excess that surround them. How many remember that behind the frenzied publicity and the scandals cooked up by tabloids is a vulnerable person with emotions—a real person with a heart—and not just a two-dimensional cardboard cutout?1

I had the opportunity to do just that earlier this year. Back in March, PBS television ran the documentary He Touched Me - The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley. Featuring plenty of live footage and interviews with close friends and gospel quartets that backed him up, it chronicles Elvis Presley's spiritual roots in Southern gospel music and aspects of his life that are seldom publicized -- like the fact that he insisted on singing "Peace in the Valley" during one of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show (some say it was to "tone down" his rebel image; the documentary claims it was on behalf of his mother), or that after concert performances he would invite his friends to join him in literally all night gospel singalongs.

Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of "Amazing Grace", a collection of Elvis' religious performances (spanning a variety of genres -- soul, country, rock, gospel), and I was hooked. The world will remember Elvis Presley for his rock and roll, but from all accounts it appears that there was nothing he enjoyed more than singing gospel. As Gospel Music Association President Frank Breeden recalls:

"After the shows he would routinely sing with the gospel quartets that were used as his backgrounders . . . It was the gospel music that he turned to for inspiration and consolation. He was a person who appeared to be in conflict; he was not doing what he loved for a living ... he had a career that had just taken him captive."2
Or as Cheryl Thurber writes of the "Million Dollar Quartet" (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash & Elvis Presley) -- the recording session at Sam Philips' Sun Studios in Memphis:
. . . When those rising stars of rock 'n' roll sang together the songs they chose to sing were largely gospel songs. It was the shared repertoire that they all knew. They sang other songs as well, such as current rock 'n' roll and recent and older country hits, but they seemed to sing more complete versions of the gospel songs. With gospel songs they knew all the words, not just snatches of the choruses. . . . It is clear when listening to the session that Elvis was the dominant force that day -- he was the one who started the singing of each song. It is also evident that he enjoyed the singing. This was Elvis having fun. 3

Of course, there are many who -- not without reason -- see Elvis Presley as the harbinger of moral decay and the corruption of America's youth. (Fr. Jerry Pokarsky, for example, uses Elvis as a convenient metaphor for the narcissistic character of abuses in the post-Vatican II mass). 4 And by no means should one applaud every star(let)'s excursions into spirituality (I expect Christoph Arnold would have a much different reaction to Madonna's dalliance with watered-down Kabbalah). But for all of his flaws, and the nature of his tragic demise, there is something about Elvis Presley which Christoph Arnold finds praiseworthy:

here was a unique individual struggling to find his true identity. I am certain that it was through this struggle that God gave him the humor, humility, and kindness that endeared him to millions of people. These traits were even more important than his music . . .

Elvis knew his shortcomings. He was an ordinary guy who battled all the normal temptations. But he also had a vision, as expressed in a comment he made to a reporter:

"I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God…I figure all any kid needs is hope and the feeling he or she belongs. If I could do or say anything that would give some kid that feeling, I would believe I had contributed something to the world."

In other words, for him, relationships were much more important than the glitter, fame, and money he is mostly known for.

I'll close this little tangent with a quote I found -- from an account of one fan's encounter with Elvis (or rather, a close call with his limo). It may or may not be true, but it's something I can easily envision coming from Presley:

"I know you consider me your king, but I am not worth dying for, there is a bigger King who is God whom you should be preparing yourself for."


1. Remembering The King: The Soul behind the Celebrity, by Johann Christoph Arnold. Bruderhof.com.
2. Gospel Music and Elvis: Inspiration & Consolation, by Helyn Trickey. CNN.com. August 26, 2002.
3. Elvis & Gospel Music, by Cheryl Thurber. REJOICE! The Gospel Music Magazine. (1988).
4. Elvis Sightings in the Roman Rite, Catholic World Report January 2002.

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Sunday, August 03, 2003

Robert Reilley & the 'revival of modern music'

Our local cable station recently added EWTN to its list of channels, and this Sunday morning I had the opportunity to see Deal Hudson interview Robert Reilley on his show The Church & Culture Today. Readers might recognize Mr. Reilley as a music critic and frequent columnist for Crisis Magazine, and who has recently published a collection of his critical essays entitled Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.1.

The content of Reilley's dialogue with Mr. Hudson is derived from an essay for Crisis magazine on the question "Is Music Sacred?"2. According to Reilley, until the twentieth century "it was generally accepted that music approximates a heavenly concord, that it should attempt to make the transcendent perceptible and, in so doing, exercise a formative ethical impact on those who listen to it." (And as Jean Sibelius and Igor Stravinsky demonstrated, one did not necessarily have to be a believer to hold this conception).

The metaphysical ground upon which this conception of music was rooted dissolved with the onset of philosophical nihilism and the disintegration of belief in an intelligible order. Reilly quotes the popular American composer John Adams, who said that he "learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche's God died, and I believed it." Says Reilly:

The death of God is as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy. Tonality, as the pre-existing principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order. If there is no pre-existing, intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it—which is the Creator—what then is music supposed to express? If external order does not exist, then music collapses in on itself and degenerates into an obsession with techniques. Any ordering of things, musical or otherwise, becomes purely arbitrary. . . .


Arnold Schoenberg
Reilly places the blame for the degeneration of Western music chiefly upon the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who renounced tonality in favor of an "emancipation of dissonance" by way of his own method of twelve-tone method of composition, or "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Related Only to Each Other":

[Schoenberg] contended that tonality does not exist in Nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras claimed, but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical character of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of Nature. Schoenberg was irritated that "tonality does not serve, [but rather] must be served." He preferred to command. As he said, "I can provide rules for almost anything."

Schoenberg took the twelve equal semi-tones from the chromatic scale and commanded that music be written in such a way that each of these twelve semi-tones is used before any one of them is repeated. If one of the semi-tones is repeated before all eleven others are sounded, it might create an anchor for the ear, which could then recognize what was going on in the music harmonically. The twelve-tone system guarantees the listener's disorientation. . . . Of his achievement, Schoenberg said, "I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic." This is nowhere more true than when he declared himself "cured of the delusion that the artist's aim is to create beauty."

Reilly goes on to explain why Schoenberg's denial of tonality had such a devastating effect on the composition of contemporary music:
The loss of tonality was also devastating at the practical level of composition because tonality is the key structure of music. Tonality is what allows music to express movement away from or toward a state of tension or relaxation, a sense of motion through a series of crises and conflicts, which can then come to resolution. Without tonality, music loses harmony and melody. Its structural force collapses. Gutting music of tonality, as Schoenberg did, is like removing grapes from wine. You can go through all the motions of making wine without grapes, but there will be no wine at the end of the process. Similarly, if you deliberately and systematically remove all audible overtone relationships from music, you can go though the process of composition, but the end product will not be comprehensible as music. This is not a change in technique; it is the replacement of art by an ideology of organized noise.
It is interesting to note that Schoenberg's believed "arbitrariness" could only be attained by a decisively non-arbitrary adherence to his twelve-tone system, the slightest deviation from which might result in the frustration of his plan by harmony. In so doing, Schoenberg merely replaced the alleged convention of tonality by willfully imposing his own (ultimately conventional) method of composition.

Predictably, some of Schoenberg's disciples opted to do away with convention altogether. As Reilly says: "If you're going to emancipate dissonance, why organize it? Why even have twelve-tone themes? Why bother with pitch at all?" -- citing as an example the compositions of John Cage, who believed "that the goal of music was a 'purposelessness,' and that the role of the composer was to create situations in which sounds could 'simply be.'"3


George Rochberg
Fortunately, says Reilley, the last few decades have witnessed an "extraordinary recovery from the damage that was inflicted by Schoenberg and his disciples." Moreover, those behind this recovery are -- "almost without exception" -- composers who had previously adhered to and were now rebelling against Schoenberg's system, advocating a return to tonal music. The first to turn against Schoenberg was George Rochberg, dean of the twelve-tone school of composition in the United States, whose reevaluation and eventual return to tonality was provoked by the death of his son:

in 1961 the Rochbergs' seventeen-year-old son, Paul, fell ill with a brain tumor. He died three years later, throwing his father into despair. Confronted with his son's death, Rochberg struggled to give that tragedy some meaning through his music, but the serialism upon which his career had been built he now found empty and meaningless. It was a language that could not bear the weight of his sorrow.4

According to Reilly, Rochberg's Third String Quartet was a turning point in that it signified a return to tonality, and was accompanied by a manifesto repudiating his earlier preoccupiation with Schoenberg's method:

The pursuit of art is much more than achieving technical mastery of means or even a personal style; it is a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artists ego. In my time of turning, I have had to abandon the notion of originality in which the personal style of the artist and his ego are the supreme values; the pursuit of the one-idea, uni-dimensional work and gesture, which seems to have dominated the aesthetics of art in the 20th century; and the received idea that it is necessary to divorce oneself from the past ....

In these ways, I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with re-activated powers of melodic thought, rhythmic pulse and large scale structure; and, as I see it, these things are only possible with tonality.


John Adams
Another composer who rejected atonal composition was John Adams, who while emulating the antics of John Cage found his aesthetic experience of such unfulfilling:
[Adams] had been studying the writings of John Cage and began organizing elaborately anarchic Cagean happening. For one piece, "lo-fi," he and his students assumed various positions around the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park and played 78-r.p.m. records that had turned up in Goodwill stores. This activity proved no more satisfying than the highbrow work that he had done at Harvard. In an autobiographical essay, he wrote that "the social aspect of these events was piquant, and the post-concert parties were always memorable, but the musical payoff always seemed 'lite'. I began to notice that often after an avant-garde event I would drive home alone to my cottage on the beach, lock the door, and, like a closet tippler, end the evening deep in a Beethoven quartet."5
Discovering that "tonality was not just a stylistic phenomenon that came and went, but that it is really a natural acoustic phenomenon", Adams went on to compose the symphony Hamonielehre ("Theory of Harmony"), which according to Reilly nothing less than "a total repudiation of Schoenberg."
[Hamonielehre] powerfully reconnects with the great Western musical tradition. In this work, he wrote, "there is a sense of using key as a structural and psychological tool in building my work." . . . Even more importantly, Adams explained, "the other shade of meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the sense of spiritual and psychological harmony." Adam's description of his symphony is explicitly in terms of spiritual health and sickness. He explains that "the entire [second] movement is a musical scenario about impotence and spiritual sickness; . . . it has to do with an existence without grace. And then in the third movement, grace appears for no reason at all . . . that's the way grace is, the unmerited bestowal of blessing on man. The whole piece is a kind of allegory about that quest for grace." It is clear from Adarns that the recovery of tonality and key structure is as closely related to spiritual recovery as its loss was related to spiritual loss.
I confess that most of this is new to me, as I grew up listening to pretty much anything but classical music. I don't have much of an appreciation for John Cage, although I do enjoy experimental and some minimalist music. I was fortunate enough, however, to be blessed with a father who imposed upon his sons the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Antonin Dvoràk such that I've developed some measure of appreciation (which has increased with age). But having majored in philosophy in college I've found the underlying worldviews of the musical theories in Reilley's essay most intriguing, and I'm looking forward to reading his book on the revival of modern music.
  1. Here's a review of the book by Joshua Gelder National Review Online Feb. 20, 2003.
  2. "Is Music Sacred?", by Robert Reilley. Crisis Sept. 1999.
  3. Cage, John (1912-1992). Entry - essentialsofmusic.com.
  4. "George Rochberg's Revolution", Michael Linton. First Things 84 (June/July 1998). pp. 18-20.
  5. The Harmonist: John Adams takes the agony out of modern music, by Alex Ross. The New Yorker Magazine, January 8, 2001.

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Monday, June 23, 2003

Great Hymns

One of the members of the RFC mailing list recently requested submissions of "strong hymns from any age which can help us keep our faith strong." Given my Protestant background I posted some of my favorites:

"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" - Edward Perronet (1726-92)
"All People that on Earth do Dwell" - William Kethe (d. 1594)
"Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" - Charles Wesley (1707-88)
"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" - Charles Wesley
"O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing" - Charles Wesley
"Rejoice! The Lord Is King" - Charles Wesley
"Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty" - Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
"Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise" - W. Chalmers Smith (1845-1908)
"Just As I Am, Without One Plea" - Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871)
"Now Thank We All Our God" - Martin Rinkart (1586-1649)
"O God, Our Help In Ages Past" - Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
"When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" - Isaac Watts
"To God Be The Glory" - Frances Jane van Alstyne (1820-1915)

Regretfully, since my conversion my general experience of music in the Catholic Church echoes Thomas Day's famous scathing polemic Why Catholics Can't Sing. Perhaps some readers can alleviate my distress by recommending some good Catholic music?

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Monday, April 28, 2003

Here's an interesting historical note on the Jewish roots of Gregorian Chant:
Paragraph 114 adds: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” Then in paragraph 116 we find another shocker: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” That’s what the Council actually said. If you are in a parish which prides itself on living the spirit of Vatican II, then you should be singing Gregorian chant at your parish. And if you’re not singing the Gregorian Chant, you’re not following the specific mandate of the Second Vatican Council.

Now, just a little footnote on the Gregorian Chant. In reflecting on these things about Church music, I began to think about the Psalms a few years back. And a very obvious idea suddenly struck me. Why it didn’t come earlier I don’t know, but the fact is that the Psalms are songs. Every one of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and was sung by the Jews. When this thought came to me, I immediately called a friend, a rabbi in San Francisco who runs the Hebrew School, and I asked, “Do you sing the Psalms at your synagogue?” “Well, no, we recite them,” he said. “Do you know what they sounded like when they were sung in the Old Testament times and the time of Jesus and the Apostles?” I asked. He said, “No, but why don’t you call this company in Upstate New York. They publish Hebrew music, and they may know.”

So, I called the company and they said, “We don’t know; call 1-800-JUDAISM.” So I did. And I got an information center for Jewish traditions, and they didn’t know either. But they said, “You call this music teacher in Manhattan. He will know.” So, I called this wonderful rabbi in Manhattan and we had a long conversation. At the end, I said, “I want to bring some focus to this, can you give me any idea what it sounded like when Jesus and his Apostles sang the Psalms?” He said, “Of course, Father. It sounded like Gregorian Chant. You got it from us.”

I was amazed. I called Professor William Mart, a Professor of Music at Stanford University and a friend. I said, “Bill, is this true?” He said, “Yes. The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody.” So, you know something? If you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary. They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian Chant.

"The Mass of Vatican II", by Fr. Joseph Fessio.
Catholic Dossier 5 no. 5 (September/October 2000): 12-20.

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