OR THIS POST, I am indebted to correspondence with a friend, who began discussing with me the definition of beauty as applied to music. I don’t claim to have any definitive answers, but the following train of thoughts might be of value to those who enjoy thinking about such questions.
To my mind, the “beautiful” is largely distinguished by the degree to which the beautiful “thing” is in accord with nature. nature in itself and untouched by man―as God’s direct creation―is simply beautiful, so then is art, architecture, and human life in general beautiful, insofar as it is in “accord with nature,” both the metaphysical laws that run throughout creation and the natural moral law that specially abides in man.
One might think here of the older usages of the terms “monster,” “monstrosity,” or even “freak of nature.” Things called by these names in the past due to their departure from the natural forms have practically become glorified in our time, in every part of human activity. Ugly art, ugly buildings, ugly music, ugly literature, and even literal “monsters” in movies/TV fill our senses with so much anti-beauty that even the very lives of humans forced to live in this environment can become unnatural and ugly. Interestingly, this decay appears directly proportional to the extent to which any given society has succumbed to Western modernization, which translates roughly to giving up the spiritual life and the rural life in order to live the high-tech material urban life.
I agree with the ancients and the wisdom of the ages: in melody and harmony, nature gives us the natural harmonic series. The further harmony deviates from the concord of these natural vibrations, the less beautiful it is. In rhythm and meter, nature gives us the gentle flowing of water or of human speech, the steady beating of the heart and cycle of respiration, as well as the vigor of the wind and of fleet-footed animals, and so we find beauty in Gregorian chant as well as in the “Ride of the Valkyries.” In timbre, nature gives us the songs of birds, the whistling of the wind, the roaring depths of canyons, the nearly-angelic human voice, and so the choirs and orchestras of the world bring us man’s best attempts to reflect nature’s awesome beauty―but the electrified, noisy chaos of Western modernization stands out in stark contrast.
St. Pius X rightly put the human voice and Gregorian chant on the sacred music pedestal: the more distant any instrument or music stood in relation to these models, the less sacred it was, the less fitting for the temple of God. As plainchant most perfectly exhibits the three qualities of sacred music―holiness, goodness of artistic form, and universality, chant should therefore be the model and inspiration for the best sacred music, as it was for Renaissance polyphony, and as it continues to be for a new generation of Catholic composers today.
Wherever we find people trying to classify ugly music as “beautiful,” or secular music as “sacred,” we also find agendas being pushed: whether it be self-aggrandizement or peer-aggrandizement or material profit or what have you, the encroachment of the ugly and the un-sacred always has the feeling of being “forced” (which is, un-natural), and it always seems to be appreciated and supported only by those who share the same agenda. And yet the frustrating difficulty is that these folks would say that Saint Pius X and those who agree with him are pushing their own “agenda.” How does one convince them that this agenda is for the truth? At least we can say this much: it brings little or no financial benefit, social status, or job security to those who pursue it!
In contrast, I always find telling what the musical “layman” thinks of a certain music. The person with no vested interest or agendas seems to have no trouble accurately identifying what sounds beautiful and what sounds sacred―it’s only natural!
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