23 March 2007


A recent post by Moretben led to a debate about Romantic Music (say, Beethoven to Richard Strauss, give or take). It was instructive that those of a traditional disposition in matters of the Liturgy see Romantic Music as a childish thing to be be put away - except at those moments when we feel a need to luxuriate in self-indulgent emotion. (I both paraphrase and cariacature.)

I used to like everything: I saw Black Sabbath and Deep Purple live in separate concerts within a couple of months of each other; I used to listen to Radio One; I used to go to folk clubs; I used to go to see the Halle Orchestra live; I used to sing Victorian parlour ballads to my Grandmother; I used to know lots of old music hall songs. I used to think that eclectism was a sign of maturity. "But when I became a man I put away the things of a child." (1 Cor 13)

Pop went first, and rock soon after. (Read the Pope's put down of both forms of music in "The Spirit of the Liturgy", by the way.) "Old songs" were enjoyable enough, but mainly entertained people born at the end of the nineteenth century: my grandparents' generation; and while it was nice to entertain them, I couldn't imagine singing "Believe me if all those endearing young charms" to somebody I loved while meaning it. They're lovely as a piece of nostalgia, but don't really say anything else to me now.

Folk music lasted longer until the realisation that even with really good folk music it only says what it has to say once, no matter with what force it says it. I can still feel an echo of that force when I listen to, say, the Chieftains, now; but it's an echo. (And I will run a mile to avoid the "come-all-ye" that I would have once run a mile to join in with.)

So, I was left with classical music - a universe in itself. I have some formal musical training and could spot the meretricious a mile off from an early age. But the developing taste gradually constricted, and even in the ocean of classical music, great swathes closed themselves off. Opera, once a passion, has retreated, leaving in its wake a litter of CDs which I will probably never listen to again: the voice is an instrument, not a protagonist. Modern classical music was fine to annoy parents with when I was seventeen, but my father's asking whether another cat had been thrown into the cellar sounds more like percipient criticsm to me today than the expression of philistinism that I liked to think it was then. The Baroque was wonderful until I realised that there were about ten tunes that mattered, each played in about four ways. And the seas continued to retreat, to the extent that there was no longer an ocean, but a few deep lakes.

I'm left with a few things, but the waters are no longer retreating. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ring truest; chant, of course, and not just Gregorian, but Ambrosian or Mozarabic; almost anything Orthodox; and some things I've rescued from the general retreat: late Beethoven; Bruckner; Sibelius; bits of Vaughan Williams; bits of lots and lots of things, really, but with little consistency, other their striking the same chord inside me that Tallis and Byrd strike all the time.

Music as a pleasant noise is fine: it surrounds me from when I wake to when I sleep; it's good to hear. But there is much less music to listen to and concentrate on nowadays, yet I find myself penetrating deeper and deeper into it.

1 comment:

greatgable said...

We seem to be of the same mind! I have always loved classical music in all its forms. Yet in recent years I have been increasingly drawn to plainchant and polyphony. Just to prove that my latest purchase is The Tallis singers sing Palestrina!

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