Sunday, May 09, 2004

Recently Over-read

For what it's worth, herewith some interesting things I've read in the past few weeks. I call it "over-read" because, now that you're reading it, it's like "overheard."

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Of course there are specifically Christian forms in all the arts but, nevertheless, architecture, sculpture, poetry and painting had all reach sophisticated levels in the ancient world. Even a thousand years before the ancient Greeks . . . we can see at Knossos highly developed art and architecture. In comparison with all this artistic activity, music alone remained largely undeveloped. There were, of course, various instruments that existed in pre-Christian days such as the lyre, drums and elementary woodwind instruments. But from what we can deduce, ancient music was of the very simplest kind: basic tunes, perhaps with one or two accompanying chords. Plato mentions music briefly in The Republic, referring to the power of the ancient musical modes and their ability to alter human moods. This is certainly evidence that the ancients had worked out musical scales. A double flute was used to keep rowers in time, or to provide a rhythm for gymnastic exercises, just as pop music is used today for aerobics. A strumming lyre would be used to accompany lyric poetry. But the fact remains that anything beyond the very simplest harmonic blocks, let alone polyphony, was unknown. We have to skip forward into the Christian era, and to Catholic Europe, to find the invention of what we would understand as music.

I realize in this very simple description that I have left out what is loosely described as ethnic or folk music. I am also leaving out the vast subject of plainsong, which was part of the worship of the early Church -- not because it is unimportant, but because what I want to focus on is the whole notion of music as chordal progression or several voices singing together in different parts. What I am saying is that music as we know it, music sometimes referred to as "art music", was an invention specifically of the Catholic Church -- and that a similar claim could not be made for any other art form. I am talking here about the motets and masses of Machaut, Josquin des Pres, Palestrina, and then on through Byrd, Monteverdi, to Vivaldi and beyond. The world never saw anything like it before, and it staggers me to think that it all happened so recently in relation to the history of civilization. It has all happened in the last five or six hundred years.

Bearing in mind that it was under the auspices of the Church that music exploded into being with little or no reference to the ancient world, unlike every other art form in the Renaissance period, I want to ask how this could be? Is it coincidence or luck? Or is there something unique about Christianity, or even about Catholicism, that allowed music finally to come of age in Europe?
-- Frederick Stocken, "Music as a Christian Art." Second Spring, No. 5
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Not only does meditation on these mysteries nourish faith; it also promotes virtue. Observing that there are three influences which effect the decline of society, Leo points to the rosary as their remedy. These evil influences, he declares in Laetitiae Sanctae are: " . . . first, the distaste for a simple and laborious life; secondly, repugnance to suffering of any kind; thirdly the forgetfulness of a future life."

In treating the distaste for a simple, laborious life he applies the cure of the joyful mysteries. The examples "of humility, hard working endurance and of other virtues -- once they have made their influence felt -- gradually take root in the soul, and in the course of time fail not to bring about a happy change of mind and conduct."

To the repugnance to suffering he urges meditation on the sorrowful mysteries. Beholding Christ "overwhelmed with sadness, so that drops of blood ooze like sweat from His veins . . . bound like a malefactor . . . torn with scourges . . . nailed to the cross . . . who is there who will not feel his heart grow warm with the desire of imitating Him?"

The evil chiefly characteristic of the men of our time, he contends, is to pursue the false goods of this world in such a way that they banish from their memory the everlasting happiness of heaven. "It is from this danger," he exhorts, "that they will be happily rescued who in the pious practice of the rosary, are wont, by frequent and fervent prayer, to keep before their minds the glorious mysteries. Here alone we discover the true relation between time and eternity, between our life on earth and our life in Heaven."
-- Fr. James Buckley, F.S.S.P., "Leo XIII and the Rosary." Pastoral and Homiletic Review, May, 2003.
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"After all, in addition to such worthy accomplishments as making Yale coed and doggedly attending Bilderberg, Aspen Institute, and Law of the Sea conferences, one or more of these men were partly or largely responsible for such disasters as the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, the bankrupting of New York City, and the blight of "urban renewal." (New Haven, the cynosure of that effort, remains abjectly unrenewed nearly four decades later.) Why did these men, who were convinced of their own brilliance, so often make such a hash of things? It turns out that although they were all quick, clever, and poised, their intellectual attainments were negligible. [Kingman] Brewster and [Elliot] Richardson admitted that they didn't like to read -- the preferred to get their ideas from schmoozing. Richardson . . . may have held more Cabinet posts than any other man in history, but he failed to make a lasting mark in any of them. ([McGeorge] Bundy certainly left his mark as National Security Adviser, but probably he wouldn't be pleased to be remembered as the pseudo-tough-guy advocate of the "graduated escalation" of the Vietnam War.) I thought I knew quite a lot about these men before reading this book . . . I was inclined to see them fairly kindly. But what clearly, if inadvertently, emerges from this book is their most unlovely disdain for so many of their countrymen, whom they believed they were born to lead. Although they repeatedly wrung their hands over the plight of minorities . . . they consistently failed to extend the same sympathy to those of their fellow citizens whom they perhaps regarded as less exotic . . . . Richardson sneered at suburbanites in their ‘little houses made of ticky-tacky.' Meanwhile, Bundy characterized the American Legion as ‘composed largely of the same class of people as those who brought Hitler to power -- the penny-proud, ignorant petit bourgeois fold . . . Kabaservice recounts John Lindsay's solipsistically self-righteous response to complaints that ‘all the taxes came out of the white pockets to be spent in black neighborhoods' (the city's welfare spending rose by $600 million during Lindsay's first term). ‘We,' this product of St. Paul's, Yale College, and Yale Law School lecture to his working-class Brooklyn constituents, ‘have three hundred years of neglect to pay for.' . . . [A]fter reading a tome-ful of declarations such as Brewster's ‘We [members of the Yale community] are best equipped to be our brother's thinker,' one finds oneself agreeing with the young and intemperate (and improbably populist) William F. Buckley, Jr., who called this bunch ‘haughty totalitarians who refuse to permit the American people to supervise their own destiny.'"
-- Benjamin Schwarz, review of Geoffrey Kabaservice's The Guardians. The Atlantic, June, 2004.

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