Archives For Music

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).

Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 27 Comments

There’s good “church music.” There’s mediocre church music. (And, there’s even terrible church music.) Read on and I’ll provide a link to an article I wrote about one questionable ditty that wormed its way into a military hymnal.

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of most church music. I’ve written about his musical tastes previously.

His assessment is no secret. He deemed most hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

When it comes to hymns, there is general agreement on what’s good. These songs have passed the test of time. They have proven edifying and inspirational for generations. Some contemporary music is also biblically faithful and possesses the potential to join the ranks of the church’s lasting hymnody.

Then there are the others. Uninhibited redundancy, for example, suggests a corresponding shallowness. I forego the idiom about something being broad but shallow, since such songs are actually narrow and shallow. Case in point, the song “Yes, Lord.”

It begins promisingly enough:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

Then the theology gets a wee bit blurrier, especially for believers who still suffer after praying for healing:

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

But it’s the chorus that undermines the song’s edificatory potential.

And we say
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

The last two chorus breaks are replaced by the less challenging:

La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la la

La la la laLa la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la laLa la la la

To those of you who adore this particular song—please accept my apologies for singling it out. Yet I stand by my view of these lyrics. And I can certainly imagine what C.S. Lewis would have thought of it.

The Power of Music

Various Christian leaders have expressed the opinion it’s more important to write the church’s hymns than its theological books. Hopefully that’s hyperbole, but few would deny the words we sing directly influence our thinking.

Arius, one of the early heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, knew this. His movement created tremendous confusion and resulted in much persecution. One of his most successful tools consisted of composing heretical songs. The words were “religious,” and the tunes were catchy, so people were singing them even when they didn’t agree with his doctrine.

C.S. Lewis & Church Music

As mentioned above, C.S. Lewis was very candid about his own disaffection for most church hymnody. In “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis answers the question of whether it’s necessary to attend worship services. He describes how duty rather than desire brought him to congregational worship.

When I first became a Christian . . . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag . . .

[However,] I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In light of Lewis’ attitude toward religious hymnody, it’s ironic that in 1946 he was invited to help evaluate new hymns.

The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is opening a file of new hymns to which modern hymn-writers are to be asked to contribute. I have been asked to write to you and ask if you will be a member of the panel to whom new hymns may be submitted in order that their merit may be assessed . . .

Lewis’ response to the invitation is as revealing as it is (unintentionally, I’m sure) curt.

The truth is that I’m not in sufficient sympathy with the project to help you. I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but I am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don’t know.

To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service. Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns. Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

Two months later, the men exchanged letters again, and Lewis clarified his thoughts.

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that . . . hymns, were bad in principle. . . . In modern England, however, we can’t sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.

That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’ But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns . . .

The Gospel Coalition has an informative essay on Lewis’ broader view of worship here.

The Armed Forces Hymnal Scandal

At the outset of this column I promised readers a link to a recently published article. If you would like to read about a bizarre hymn that (temporarily) slithered into the Book of Worship for United States Forces, check it out here. The article begins on page fifteen of the new issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

The hymn in question may be thought-provoking, but it belongs in a discussion group, not in a worship service. The lyrics are placed on the tongue of thief crucified beside Jesus. The criminal who was not invited by Jesus to “be with [him] in paradise” (Luke 23). The first stanza will amply illustrate the spirit of the piece.

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, It’s God I accuse.
(Refrain)
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

If you read the article, and consider me unfair to the song’s writer, please leave a comment below. I would love the chance to respond. Likewise, if you think I’ve been too harsh in my evaluation of “Yes, Lord.” Given a choice between mediocre and terrible hymns, there’s no contest.

One wonders how Lewis would have rated “It was on a Friday Morning.” I suspect it would not even rise to the bar of being a “fifth-rate poem.”

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.

 

albumHave you ever written something that inspired a musician to compose new music? J.R.R. Tolkien hoped to do so one day, and had he lived to hear the scores of the Lord of the Rings trilogy created by Howard Shore, he would have been in awe.

I was reading Tolkien’s correspondence last week and came across a fascinating letter he wrote to a musician who was requesting permission to write a serious composition based on The Hobbit.

This would have been quite different than the quaint “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” made famous by Leonard Nimoy. (I wish their choreographer had read the book, so we could have been spared the tiny T-Rex arms sported during the chorus by the dancers.)

Anyway, returning to more serious musical ventures, in 1964 Tolkien received a request for permission to write a “Hobbit Overture.” It came from British composer Carey Blyton (1932-2002) who would become best known for his song “Bananas in Pyjamas.”

Tolkien’s response to the composer’s query is fascinating, on several levels. First, he is gracious in extending his permission, without any restrictions. And, in 1967 Blyton did compose “The Hobbit” Overture, opus 52a. It appears on the CD, British Light Overtures 3.

Secondly, he shares his unspoken desire that his work might someday inspire music. Then he makes a curious comment about the illustrations of Pauline Baynes, which would similarly grace the work of C.S. Lewis.

After that, Tolkien describes his own, musically impoverished, upbringing. Finally he expresses his deep appreciation for good music, despite his lack of knowledge on the subject.

And Tolkien accomplishes all of this in just a handful of sentences!

You certainly have my permission to compose any work that you wished based on The Hobbit. . . . . As an author I am honoured to hear that I have inspired a composer. I have long hoped to do so, and hoped also that I might perhaps find the result intelligible to me, or feel that it was akin to my own inspiration—as much as are, say, some (but not all) of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. . . . .

I have little musical knowledge. Though I come of a musical family, owing to defects of education and opportunity as an orphan, such music as was in me was submerged (until I married a musician), or transformed into linguistic terms. Music gives me great pleasure and sometimes inspiration, but I remain in the position in reverse of one who likes to read or hear poetry but knows little of its technique or tradition, or of linguistic structure.

It is common for people of sincere Christian devotion, such as Tolkien and Lewis, to express an appreciation for the divine capacity of music to touch the human spirit.

luteMartin Luther, for example, wrote much about music. “Music is God’s greatest gift,” he proclaimed. He was not only a composer of hymns, but also an acceptable player of the lute, which he used to accompany his children during their family devotions.

Music is deeply intertwined with the heart of Christian worship.

C.S. Lewis on the Subject of Music

One of the modest challenges in contrasting fellow Inklings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis results from the significantly different natures of their literary corpora. While they both wrote fantasy, though of a vastly different magnitude, Lewis’ vocation as one of Christianity’s chief modern apologists necessitated that he defend the faith in diverse contexts. Thus, he wrote numerous essays and a number of texts addressing a wide range of considerations that his friend Tolkien never discussed in print.

Because of this distinction, it is relatively simple to discover what Lewis thought about the nature and powers of music. Typical of the man’s practical orientation, Lewis appears little interested in the abstract attributes of music. What interests him is its confluence with human existence. The following profound insight comes from his essay “On Church Music.”

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.

Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

This discussion about church music is particularly interesting due to Lewis’ personal dislike for much of the music used in worship, which I’ve written about before.

Lewis described his own church music pilgrimage in “Answers to Questions on Christianity.”

My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches . . .

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament [holy communion], and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it.

I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis addresses this notion that we must look beyond the music itself, to assess its influence on our humanity.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis recognized the deep influence and mystery with which music communicates and inspires. It is no accident that Narnia’s creation itself comes through Aslan’s song.

The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool.

It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer.

Returning to “On Church Music,” Lewis expands on the importance of our intentions as we approach music.

It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way, or ways, in which music can glorify God. There is . . . a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them. . . . An excellently performed piece of music, as natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with the ‘dragons and great deeps,’ with the ‘frost and snows.’

What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends.

When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall. . . .

We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. To which an answer came, ‘mine are the cattle upon a thousand hills,’ and ‘if I am hungry, I will not tell thee.’ If God (in that sense) wanted music, He would not tell us. For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.

At the outset of this column I declared Tolkien would have been “in awe” of the musical score written to accompany the Lord of the Rings movies. Lewis too, I believe, would have been impressed by the scores composed for the three Chronicles of Narnia films made thus far. We owe a debt of gratitude to three composers: Howard Shore,* Harry Gregson-Williams,** and David Arnold***.

An Historical Postscript

In the spirit of Lewis and Tolkien, who appreciated the importance of music, we’ll close now with another engaging quotation from the wry pen of Doctor Martin Luther.

I wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.

A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.

_____

* Howard Shore has nearly a hundred credits as a composer, conductor and orchestrator on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In addition to the Tolkien cinema projects, he has also worked on a number of other very successful films and ninety-six episodes of Saturday Night Live. Shore won three Oscars for his work on Lord of the Rings.

** Harry Gregson-Williams has nearly a hundred credits on the IMDb, including a number of box office successes, a variety of popular video games, and several productions in the Shrek series. He won awards for his work on the Chronicles of Narnia series and another of my favorite films, Kingdom of Heaven.

*** David Arnold, wrote the score for the third Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has seventy-three credits listed on IMDb, ranging from this year’s Independence Day: Resurgence, all the way back to a BBC made for tv picture entitled Mr. Stink.

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 13 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.

Obscenic Words

April 21, 2015 — 8 Comments

paskalevThere is something obscene about the title of some recent recordings of a Norwegian/Bulgarian musician. He labeled the collection “Obscenic Sessions.”

Now, I realize that English may be his third or fourth language, but surely someone involved in the project knew that obscenic is not really a word. And, if a person is attempting to coin a new word, there are more creative ways than simply changing the ending of an adjective to alter it into another adjective. (I suppose there is a slim chance it’s either a Norwegian or Bulgarian word, but I suspect not.)

There’s something else about the collection that also strikes me as potentially obscene. Apparently the music was recorded during a live performance at an actual Anglican church. The full title reads: “Obscenic Sessions Live From St. Margaret’s Of Antioch (Liverpool, UK).”

Why, I wonder, would a priest allow his sanctuary to be used for obscenic sessions? Certainly no Christian congregation could be that desperate for income. They could, however, be proving their open-mindedness by hosting just such an event . . . but that’s another matter.

Now, I am aware that the use of the neologisms may simply be provocative. There might not be anything at all that’s edgy about the music or performance. I wasn’t there, and I haven’t taken the time to read the lyrics to all of the music.

Returning to the subject of coining new words, it’s a rather tricky venture. You have to be just creative or witty enough to do it well. Falling short of that is either completely confusing, or simply lame.

Some people have a knack for this. Lewis Carroll, for example, created a handful of words in a single literary piece that have remained vibrant for many years. In his 1871 Through the Looking Glass, he included the nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” Some of the words Carroll created as nonce words—intended for a single use—have lived on beyond their appearance in the poem.

Not long ago, as a matter of fact, I read about someone “chortling.” That would not have been possible before Carroll minted this means of communication. “Mimsy” and others have found their way into dictionaries, as well.

We have written in the past about the Bandersnatch on these very pages. C.S. Lewis described J.R.R. Tolkien’s stubborn resistance to editorial suggestions by saying “you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch.”

Returning to the music of Mr. Paskalev, if his music is more uplifting than the adjective implies, I wish him the best of luck in his career. However, if it is truly obscenic (in the sense the root of that word implies) I wish him an epiphany that will transform his work. And, finally, in light of the picture above (from his official website), I suggest that he try to get a little more rest.

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

Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

April 27, 2013 — 8 Comments

flocabDo you ever have trouble remembering the key elements of a story? Well, you may not now, since you’ve become an accomplished writer. However, there was once a time when you were just learning about such matters. And that learning might have been far easier than it was if some of today’s teaching resources existed then.

This week I stumbled across a very unusual approach to teaching the fundamental building blocks of stories. You might want to bookmark the page, in case you ever experience difficulty remembering those five pesky elements required for your short fiction, or want to teach a young learner. You need look no further than Flocabulary’s innovative lesson “Five Things.”

The song is less than four minutes long, so go ahead and watch it now, before reading on. (Barring a small typo, it’s quite educational, and their website includes testimonials from teachers affirming how well it connects with young people.) Despite the fact that it’s got a hip-hop beat—not my favorite musical genre—it’s actually quite entertaining . . . and it’s easy to see how well it would connect with today’s younger students.

[Warning: If you watch the following video, you may well be singing along with the chorus before it ends.]

Plot, Character, Conflict, Theme,

Setting, yes these are the 5 things

That you’re going to be needing

When you’re reading or writing

A short story that’s mad exciting.

Music is a powerful medium, and when it is harnessed for educational purposes, it can accomplish wonderful things.

Music can be enjoyed for itself . . . its own inherent loveliness.

Music can also be used to communicate holy things. I believe this is the very reason it exists. Divine grace and our response to our Creator’s love are too majestic to be restricted to simple words.

The brilliant African Bishop Augustine of the city of Hippo is cited as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Many have echoed these words. I have no doubt Augustine believed this, but the more accurate quotation is: “he who sings well prays twice” (bis orat qui bene cantat). Lest those of us with less than professional vocal chords be dismayed, I am confident the “well” here refers here to worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23).

I have no doubt which of these two pleases God more. The most wondrous voice ever created (a gift itself from our Creator) flawlessly navigating three octaves and singing of the cares of this world—or the feeble, cracking, off-key strains of a tone deaf beggar who is praising the Lord for the gift of his daily bread.

C.S. Lewis famously expressed his disaffection for most church hymnody in a 1950 letter where he wrote:

I naturally loathe nearly all hymns; the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them, teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.

We must forgive Lewis his condescending comment here, which was only meant for a private communication. And, if read in context it can be interpreted almost as a sort of confession. While he disliked the quality of contemporary Anglican hymns, he was acutely aware of how insignificant the matter was in light of the vital importance of  knowing Christ. (His description of the glorification of the modest Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce reveals how well he recognized that the charwoman beside him, despite her musical preferences, could easily dwarf him in holiness and religious courage.)

In a letter written in 1916, Lewis alluded to the wonder of music, and it’s relationship to particular words. “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis invested much time in a literary study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was actually published after his death, based upon his notes, as Spenser’s Images of Life. It includes a sparkling description of the book as a musical masterpiece.

A story of this kind is in a way more like a symphony than a novel. Corresponding to the themes of the musical form, the literary form has images, which may be delicious or threatening or cryptic or grotesque, but which are always richly expressive of mood.

The images are in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like, just as the musical themes are. But the ostensible connection between them all—what keeps the meddling intellect quiet—is here provided by the fact that they are all happening to someone.

They are all worked into the experience or the world of the characters “whose” story it is. That, no more and no less, is the raison d’étre of characters in the characterless story.

I have no doubt Lewis would have found the video above jarring. Yet, I suspect he would have approved of the fact that the music was creating a bridge to some for whom traditional learning is incomprehensible. He was a traditionalist. In many ways, a medievalist. But he was, above all, a redeemed child of God. And, because of that, he desired the best for his neighbor, his nation, and our world.

That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!

_____

If you are interested in checking out the official website for Flocabulary, you can view their lesson “Wordplay” (on figurative language). I understand, however, that some of their lessons with political dimensions have been considered superficial.