Archives For Good Music

Degrees of Importance

March 29, 2018 — 9 Comments

swiss horn

Not all college degrees are created equal. Some are “marketable,” and lead to well compensated careers. Others do not necessarily make one “employable,” but offer intrinsic satisfaction.

Engineering degrees would probably be in the first category. Creative writing degrees typically fall into the latter.

If I had the good fortune to study at Oxford when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien taught there, I would have savored the opportunity to sit in their presence and explore the wonders of Medieval Literature or Old English. (In America, at least, both of those degrees would fall into the second category identified above.)

As it was, my initial degree was in journalism. It seemed that every quarter our professors at the University of Washington would remind us that five years after graduation, no more than five percent of us would be working in that particular field. (I referred to those sessions as de-motivational chats.)

Still, learning how to write is a skill that serves one well in nearly any field.

Learning to yodel, on the other hand, probably possesses far fewer applications.

This year the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts will introduce a course on alpine “singing.” The University has expressed hope they will inspire enough Swiss yodelers to establish a degree program. If their efforts really pay off, they dream of offering a graduate degree in the rarified field.

The BBC reports “Yodelling is enjoying something of a resurgence in Switzerland, even featuring on successful chart albums last year.” I guess that answers the question about what the Swiss do beyond banking and making confectioneries.

If you have led a life so sheltered that you are uncertain exactly what yodeling is, the BBC describes it as “a form of singing which involves wobbling the voice up and down in a rapid change of pitch.”

An online dictionary defines yodel as a verb meaning “to sing with frequent changes from the ordinary voice to falsetto and back again, in the manner of Swiss and Tyrolean mountaineers.”

While most of us prefer our falsetto music in small doses, yodeling capitalizes on the full range of the human larynx, and then some.

The course will be taught by a famous yodeler, Nadja Räss. I’ve linked to one of her performances below.

I was curious as to what Lewis and Tolkien would have thought about this subject’s suitability for academic study. I suspect it would have provided the Inklings a chuckle, but they would affirm the value of studying one’s unique cultural heritage.

I did find one curious encounter Lewis had with a Swiss traveler in 1927. It has nothing to do with yodeling, and only tangentially touches on the university, but it is rather interesting. In a letter to his brother he mentions that Minto (Janie Moore) who lived with him, was being visited by an acquaintance.

You will be surprised to hear that while I write this, Minto is out to dinner. This results from the chief event since you left—the arrival of ‘un ami’ of Florence de Forest—not staying here, thank heavens.

He is a little Swiss commercial traveller, ‘Villie Goût,’ as smart as a bandbox, and very polite. Beyond making horrible noises in clearing his ‘pipes . . .’ and being intensely ugly, he is really quite harmless, tho’ of course very vulgar. He and Florence absolutely insisted on Minto’s dining with them at the Eastgate tonight, and won the day.

They know how to move their monde, as you will see from this fact and also when I tell you that they made me take them up Magdalen Tower this morning—as well as round the College. When I showed them the deer he made one of those extremely simple French jokes with which Maurice and M. Zée have familiarised us.

I had explained that these deer were descendants of a herd wh. had been there before the College was founded (that is quite true by the by, or as true as a College tradition need be), and I added ‘So you may say they are the oldest members of the College’.

‘And ze most intelligent?’ returned M. Goût.

I am confident that Mr. Goût and his companion enjoyed their visit to Oxford. Perhaps he returned home to Switzerland hoping that someday their universities would rival those of Britain.

Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts was not founded until 1997, but their bold academic vision would have made Goût proud.

_____

You can enjoy a sample of Nadja Räss’ singing here.

 

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 11 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

_____

You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

Bach’s Lost Classics

November 20, 2014 — 11 Comments

csl bach

 

Were you aware that scholars believe half of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been lost to the world due to the carelessness of his relatives?

I was unaware of that sad fact until recently.

J.S. Bach was the preeminent prodigy of a gifted musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the leader of the musicians in their German city. All of his uncles were professional musicians. Two of Bach’s sons also became noteworthy composers.

Bach (1685-1750) held a number of important posts. These included serving the courts of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen and Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

It is not uncommon for gifted men and women to remain unrecognized during their lifetimes. In such cases, it is not surprising that many of their works would be lost.

Bach, on the other hand, was appreciated during his own lifetime. Despite that fact, many of his creations would pass into oblivion. Why?

Amazing, only a single early cantata was published during his lifetime.

Upon his death, all of his precious musical manuscripts—chorales, motets, arias, sonatas, suites, fugues, concertos, canons and more—were divided among his family. Some of the manuscripts were sold, and others presumably were saved and eventually lost to time. Perhaps someday more pieces will be rediscovered, but that remains to be seen.

Bach was a devout Christian (of Lutheran persuasion). While the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he wrote more than 300 cantatas inspired by the Gospel readings for Sundays and church festivals. One hundred of these musical gems have not survived.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed Bach. In An Experiment in Criticism, he uses the composer’s music as an example of something so profound that it continues to satisfy.

Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently.

In his Diary, Lewis’ brother Warnie describes the inauguration of a new record player in 1933. “This after my long expected new gramophone arrived . . . I am delighted with it . . . After supper Jack, Minto and I sat cozily in the study and I played them the Pastoral Symphony and a sonata of Bach.”

In our modern world, the increase in leisure time has allowed many people to pursue their creative dreams. Some write, others paint, and a smaller number compose music.

Bach’s tale makes one wonder what will happen to their labors of love once they are gone. Will our family or friends divide them among themselves? Will they ever be read?

Rather than be depressed by these questions, let me encourage you to share your work with others now. Perhaps a blog would be a suitable avenue for publishing your thoughts? There are also a number of options for publishing ebooks, including some that do so at no cost.

Of course, not everything we write merits publication. We should strive to write something worthwhile, and edit it to the point where we can be suitably “proud” of our literary offspring. No doubt Bach spent many hours revising his compositions until they sounded perfect to his own ear.

And, for those of us who share the faith of Bach, it is worth noting the words he wrote at the close of each of his religious works (and many of his secular pieces): Soli Deo Gloria . . . Glory to God Alone.

The Bible’s Songbook

October 10, 2013 — 15 Comments

psalmistI experienced an embarrassing moment many years ago while taking a broadcasting media course at seminary. I had used a passage from the Psalms as the basis for an assigned devotional, and when the professors (from several different seminary faculties) critiqued it, a distinguished professor dismissively pointed out that I had mispronounced the word “psalm” itself!

I had foolishly pronounced the “l” sound in the word (the way I’d always heard it pronounced). I don’t know whether any of the other students were as ignorant as I, but no one denied that the condescending correction was correct.

The first thing I did upon returning home was grab my dictionary to see if the doctor of theology was right. It turned out, of course, that he was right with how to pronounce the word [i.e. sahm] . . . but he was definitely wrong about how to properly correct a student.

On a more positive note, the Psalms are the foundation and epitome of worship music for Jews and Christians alike. One could read a Psalm each day and since there are one hundred and fifty, when you returned to the first psalm five months after beginning, it would be utterly fresh.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed the Psalms. The following passage comes from a letter written in 1940.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

And glorious poetry it is. The beauty of the songs extends far beyond the family “Lord is my shepherd . . .” And yet, it would be impossible to comprehend the number of grieving souls that have been comforted with the words “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Most Christian traditions greatly value the Psalms, and many include them as a portion of the regular service or liturgy. And individuals who include them in the personal devotions are never disappointed.

C.S. Lewis included them in his prayer and devotion. In fact, he enjoyed the Psalms so much that in 1958 he wrote a book entitled Reflections on the Psalms. There he proclaims, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.”

The Church has added an immense repertoire to the Psalms during the past two millennia, but they will never be replaced. In fact, many inspired songs owe a major debt to the Psalms themselves. This includes the Odes of Solomon, the first (post-Psalms) Christian hymnal (composed circa 100 A.D.).

Speaking of the Odes, I wrote a thesis on them many years ago, and have been considering writing a book about these treasures. Perhaps I’ll share more about them in the future.

_____

The lovely window pictured above is from a church in Fringford, England. David was likely a bit younger when most of the psalms he composed were written.

snailEons ago, when I was attending college, I suffered from that common plague—a chronic lack of time.

Between my studies, my job and romancing my future wife, I never had enough hours in the day.

So I did what everyone in that situation does . . . I worked harder. It didn’t solve my dilemma and probably worsened my exhaustion.

During that indescribably busy season of my life God spoke to me through a song. It was recorded by an early “contemporary” Christian group called “Love Song.” At the end of this column you can listen to a recording of the song “Slow Down,” by Chuck Girard. (Don’t skip to it now though, since the link won’t work unless you read the entire post.)

It sounds a bit dated now, forty years after it was composed, but it still conveys a powerful calming message. I hadn’t heard it for years until I just uncovered it for this column, but listening to it today has stilled my sense of urgency as I rush to complete this post before our four grandkids arrive for a weekend visit, in just an hour.

The importance of slowing down and resting is never far from my consciousness, since I am always overextended. Like many of you, I find it extremely difficult to say “no,” so I end up committed to more things than I feel I’m able to do well.

This week I received word of another song, which is what actually inspired me to write on this subject. It’s by a delightful young artist and is much peppier than Girard’s more prayerful message. I believe you’ll enjoy watching the music video below (after you finish reading, of course).

In light of this human need for being reminded to rest, I wondered where C.S. Lewis lamented his own overburdened state. His courtesy in responding to all correspondence is legendary. In addition to teaching, writing, corresponding and (near the end of his life) husbanding, Lewis was far busier than I am.

So, I explored some of Lewis’ words. (That’s never “work,” by the way, since it never fails to reinvigorate me, just like physical rest.) I found the following passage delivers a brilliant insight into why many of us are so compelled to work—work—work.

In the following passage, from a 1930 letter, Lewis relates how our drive to succeed can be linked to our personal ambitions. He couches the discussion in the context of his own desire for renown as a writer. And, Lewis declares, it is only when those misdirected impulses are quelled that we can truly find rest and peace.

From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition [to succeed as a writer], from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really & deliberately staked my whole contentment: and I recognise myself as having unmistakably failed in it. . . .

The side of me which longs, not to write, for no one can stop us doing that, but to be approved as a writer, is not the side of us that is really worth much. And depend upon it, unless God has abandoned us, he will find means to cauterise that side somehow or other. If we can take the pain well and truly now, and by it forever get over the wish to be distinguished beyond our fellows, well: if not we shall get it again in some other form.

And honestly, the being cured, with all the pain, has pleasure too: one creeps home, tired and bruised, into a state of mind that is really restful, when all one’s ambitions have been given up. Then one can really
for the first time say “Thy Kingdom come:” for in that Kingdom there will be no pre-eminences and a man must have reached the stage of not caring two straws about his own status before he can enter it.

Think how difficult that would be if one succeeded as a writer: how bitter this necessary purgation at the age of sixty, when literary success had made your whole life and you had then got to begin to go through the stage of seeing it all as dust and ashes. Perhaps God has been specially kind to us in forcing us to get over it at the beginning.

At all events, whether we like it or not, we have got to take the shock. As you know so well, we have got to die. Cry, kick, swear, we may: only like Lilith to come in the end and die far more painfully and later. . . . I would have given almost anything—I shudder to think what I would have given if I had been allowed—to be a successful writer. . . . I am writing as I do simply & solely because I think the only thing for you to do is absolutely to kill the part of you that wants success.

Powerful words to ponder. Now, without further delay, the aforementioned songs. Profound lyrics in both. Listen to them in either order, keeping in mind that Myla Smith’s is energetic and Chuck Girard’s is meditative. Enjoy . . . and slow down!

“Slow Down” by Myla Smith

“Slow Down” by Chuck Girard