T CAN BE HELPFUL to have a complex worldview broken down into a number of distinct theses to be pursued. My worldview, as readers of this blog will have discerned, is that our mental and spiritual health depends radically and essentially on listening to and producing beautiful music, by which I mean music that is in continuity either with the rich Western tradition of authentic folk music or with the even richer “classical” or high cultural music of the great composers from the Middle Ages to the present day―“from Perotin to Pärt,” one might say.
The following theses are an attempt to focus attention on distinct elements of this view; each, of course, would require and reward a fuller consideration.
Thesis #1. Music is the most telling expression of cultural health and spiritual vigor. By taking its pulse, one evaluates an entire age and people.
Thesis #2. Genuine folk music―that is, music produced live by amateurs on natural instruments, in continuity with local tradition, and in connection with real human events of communal importance―is intrinsically superior to technologically produced and mass-marketed music, even if the latter claims to be folk or folk-inspired.
Thesis #3. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is superior to that of his German contemporaries, for all of their undoubted excellence; Mozart’s to Salieri’s; Brahms’s to Rheinberger’s, Busoni’s, or Rubinstein’s. Such examples could be multiplied for all of the fine arts, but the point is clear: there exists a real hierarchy of genius, of mastery and merit, of universal appeal, in the artistic world. It is not purely by chance that certain composers’ works have stood the test of time and continue to be enjoyed centuries later.
Thesis #4. The great composers of Europe wrote the noblest and most beautiful music the world has ever known, and their greatness had everything to do with the phenomenon of Christianity and, more specifically, the Catholic Church, in its cultural ramifications.
Thesis #5. Periods of cultural vitality, intellectual acuity, and spiritual depth produce correspondingly vital, profound, and complex music. Think of Renaissance polyphony, Baroque concerti, classical string quartets, Romantic symphonies. A corollary: periods of cultural stagnation and retrogression, intellectual morbidity, and spiritual anguish produce two kinds of music: ugly nonsense and the rebellion of searching souls. Think of twentieth century pop music versus the always earnest and often sublime music of such composers as Pärt, Górecki, Tavener, Vasks, Rautavaara. Some composers are a mixed bag because they cannot make up their minds between the genuine musical impulse and trendy popularity or avant-garde exhibitionism―John Cage comes to mind.
Thesis #6. The music of each major historical period is not susceptible to a judgment that is altogether outside all periods and therefore capable of claiming absolute objectivity―an illusion to which nineteenth-century historians and theorists were especially vulnerable. Rather, the organically evolved and artistically adept music of each period is incommensurable with that of any other; each period can therefore manifest “the greatest works,” the best music ever written with its musical language and its distinctive purposes. It can never make sense to say “Which is greater: a Byrd piece for viol consort or a Beethoven string quartet?” They are incommensurably different. To the question “Who is your favorite composer?,” an entirely appropriate response would be: “Of which period? And in which genre?” Unlike the goodness of the God who is simple, greatness among creatures is greatly multiplied and varied, as, indeed, are mediocrity and triviality.
Thesis #7. It is a matter of immediate and certain intuition based on educated sense-experience that the music of Byrd, Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, or Brahms (just to stick with B’s) is infinitely more beautiful, skillful, and rewarding, not to mention perfective of the spiritual soul, than any atonal noise or so-called popular music. For this reason, in our times of leisure and recreation we would be foolish not to prefer, as a general rule, music that is more beautiful, skillful, and rewarding, within the confines of its period and purpose. There is only so much time in one’s life―barely enough to become familiar with the greatest works of art in any domain or from any period, let alone all of them. Let us take up the best and make it the exemplar, the teacher, the inspiration and the consolation of our interior life as aesthetic beings. We need not condemn the less worthy when it has a due place in our recreations, but we should avoid what is cheap, shallow, frivolous, or ugly.