HE VERY FIRST paragraph of an article is supposed to communicate to the reader what to expect. I know this sounds like a truism, but—whether we like it or not—this has become crucial; it’s what readers expect. I confess I often fail here. On the one hand, I like to keep my articles unpredictable (some would say “zany”). On the other hand, my articles often meander like crazy. Today, however, it’s important for me to be clear vis-à-vis what my article will cover, because I want to make it easy for you to follow: (1) The First Type of Lie; (2) The Second Type of Lie; (3) The Solution to Lies for Church music.
Part 1: The First Type of Lie
Friends, we live in a society where almost everything we hear is a lie. Formulating my “outline” for this article, I was struggling to determine how I could demonstrate this reality without sounding like lunatic and going down too many rabbit holes. Well, it turns out yesterday I had an appointment with Bank of America to close an account, and the representative gave me the perfect example because he lied to my face 4-5 times. For instance, he promised he would be waiting for me at 3:45pm (he kept me waiting 15 minutes). He said it would take 12 days to close my account (that was a lie). The week before, he’d said the account could be closed over the telephone (that was false). He said there was “no way” to stop funds from being taken from the account once it was closed (another lie). He continued to lie until I finally spoke to a manager.
I probably don’t need to convince our readers of the “first type of lie.” But lies are still disturbing! And we see them even in the field of Church music and the sacred liturgy, where too many “professional Catholics” provide commentary on items about which they are not qualified to speak. So many lies! And when you try to address them, nobody cares. You don’t hit denials; you hit complete apathy. The person who lied doesn’t argue; he treats your complaint with total indifference. (Adding insult to injury, he will often secretly take the points you made and pass them off as his own creations!)
Part 2: The Second Type of Lie
The second type of lie takes advantage of the human craving for a “narrative.” In the past, I have mentioned the completely false narrative given to the Watergate scandal, although I probably explained this in a very inarticulate way (since I’m not a good writer). Without rehashing all the details I tried to explain in the past, let me simply say that the “accepted” narrative about Watergate is fallacious. Bernstein recently released his original notes from the matter, and author Max Holland—who is not a Nixon supporter!—wrote an entire book explaining how false the “accepted” narrative is. Moreover, many of the truths revealed by Max Holland were known at the time, and this is proven by a 1975 interview of H. R. Haldeman by Mike Wallace. But none of that matters because people like the narrative; they don’t care about the truth. In 1976, Robert Redford made a movie (“All the President’s Men”)—a silly fabrication—but nobody cares! They like a good story! 1
“Narrative lies” can’t exist without a storyteller. The storyteller is the guy who twists the truth into a lie. This is common practice when a film is “based on a true story.” If the hero is a successful athlete, the movie director will say: “Let’s pretend he was born missing a leg, because that would make his success even more impressive.” It’s a total lie, but it makes a good story! In the movie American Gangster (2007), the director made the hero have all kinds of marital problems—which was a lie—and his justification was: “Because it made the story more interesting.”
Here’s a photograph of Ignaz Friedman, standing next to Wilhelm and Alma Backhaus:
What do you see in that image? I simply see a photograph. But Allan Evans (d. 2020), author of the only biography on Ignaz Friedman, had this to say: “A photo of Friedman with the Backhaus couple finds the younger pianist gazing at Friedman with admiring reverence.” Did you catch that? Allan Evans looks at a photograph and sees a phantom, something which isn’t there; and that’s precisely how “narrative lies” work. Instead of simply describing the photograph as “Backhaus is looking at Friedman,” he perverts the truth, tossing in “admiring reverence.” (For the record, Ignaz Friedman and Wilhelm Backhaus were on the same level as pianists; but Allen’s love for Friedman often caused him to make ridiculous statements.)
Part 3: Solution to Lies
What should we do? What can we do? How can we function in a world full of lies? Well, Cicero said Dum spiro spero (“while I breathe, I hope”). I think we have a reason to be optimistic as church musicians; please let me explain.
No matter how many lies people tell, nobody has been able to confuse musicians about what is “garbage” music. No serious musician would confuse a composition by Father Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599) with music by David Haas. There is no comparison. Artists like Guerrero wrote music that is teeming with beauty, genius, purity, and freshness. Composers of the “David Haas” school write trivial, embarrassing, predictable, cheap garbage that sounds like a toothpaste commercial. In spite of all the lies in our world, no serious musician would confuse the “David Haas” school of composition with true art—just as nobody interested in Physics would confuse a toddler saying “Goo Goo Gah Gah” with a lecture by Albert Einstein.
I have many faults, but one thing I will never do is feed my singers “garbage” music. Everything we sing—even if it’s very simple—is great art. Even when we sing hymns, the melodies come from the Brébeuf hymnal, which contains truly great music which is very simple. 2
Friends, let us not spend our time arguing about lies and fighting the darkness. Let us do good! Let us pursue holiness! Let us try to ignore the “professional Catholics” online who are only interested in scandal, discord, and negativity in their relentless pursuit of “clicks.”
And let us stay close to our friends…especially when they are suffering. Sometimes, the best antidote to online lies is laughing with a friend. Church musicians in particular must cultivate good friendships!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 When I speak of “lies,” please notice that I am not addressing nuanced truths. The reality is, sometimes statements can seem to be contradictory but actually aren’t. People can be—and often are—misquoted. Moreover, statements can be made based upon a false or immature understanding of something. And other realities can lead to apparent contradiction. For instance, Benno Moiseiwitsch described Ignaz Friedman as tremendously talented but “a lazy artist, not a pusher.” Ignaz Tiegerman, Friedman’s greatest student, claimed that Friedman became bored with playing the piano in the 1920s and 1930s and ceased to practice. Yet, other Friedman students say he practiced constantly, rehearsing the Brahms “Paganini” Variations and the complete Chopin etudes for 4-5 hours each day even while on vacations. In the final analysis, human beings can be confusing: e.g. Ignaz Friedman was a truly great musician, yet he said during a 1940 lecture that the English composer Henry Purcell (d. 1695) was “as great as Bach or Beethoven”—a statement which is truly bizarre. Then again, certain things just aren’t easy to comprehend. For example, Ignaz Friedman was without question one of the most talented prodigies of all time, and was already transposing Bach fugues at sight at the tender age of 8. Yet Theodor Leschetizky was not impressed by the youngster when he first heard him, and advised him to take up a different profession. Of course, later on Friedman became one of the greatest of all Leschetizky pupils, alongside Ignaz Paderewski, Artur Schnabel, and Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Indeed, the unbelievable feat related by conductor Georg Lennart Schnéevoigt (d. 1947) places Friedman’s musical memory alongside that of Gieseking, Liszt, and Hofmann.
2 More than a decade ago, when I was working at a major Cathedral, sometimes the people in charge would force me to perform “garbage” music at Mass, and I had no choice but acquiesce. But I never lied to my singers, and pretended this was great music.