Of “Modern Music” and the passions

Thanks to Sonitus Sanctus, I recently found my way to the webiste of the excellent “Institute of Catholic Culture” in Virginia in the US.

You can read all about them here on their website, but the page I want to direct you to is their media librarywhere they have recordings of all their lectures to download. Many of these lectures are both excellent and informative.

Their latest offering is “Music and the Soul: Destroying or Restoring the Inner Man” by Dr John Cuddeback. Dr Cuddeback is, as far as I can gather, a Thomist in his theology and philosophy, and thus he is well read in Plato and Aristotle as well as St Thomas, and has a particular grasp of the theology and philosophy of virtue. For Dr Cuddeback, “good” and “bad” (or “evil”) are not simply categories in the eye of the beholder, but correspond to objective reality.

Perhaps this point of view makes him a good choice to speak to us on the matter of music and culture – or perhaps not. I found myself following him in the initial part of his lecture, where he presents Plato’s conviction that there really is such a thing as “right” and “wrong” music, and the education of the young in “right” music was an essential part of a full education in virtue. But he began to lose me towards the middle of the talk when he began to apply his perceptions to “modern” music. He lost me completely when he suggested in a question time at the end that “polka” is “good” music!

You can download Dr Cuddeback’s handout of quotations on music here. As you can see: Plato, Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, Second Vatican Council, Confucius, John Lenin, Little Richard, and John Paul II. See if you can pick the odd ones out. Yes, my complaint is that while Dr Cuddeback has relied upon thoughtful reflections of classical philosophy, he has generally failed to quote any correspondingly thoughtful reflections from modern philosophers on music. Little Richard’s throwaway line about “Rock’n’Roll” being “demonic” is juicy, but milked far beyond its capacity to provide any helpful substance.

Critiquing music is a lot harder than critiquing literature (itself a difficult task), because music doesn’t always come with words. Dr Cuddeback makes a good point that when critiquing popular songs, we should do more than look merely at the words – it is the combination of words and music that makes a song and gives the song its character. And I agree absolutely with Dr Cuddeback (and by extension, with Plato) that music has a profound effect upon the soul by virtue of its ability powerfully to stimulate (and indeed simulate!) the state of one’s emotions. I am of the opinion that the diversity of one’s taste in music relates more or less to the diversity of one’s readiness to enter in particular states of the soul. When we put a piece of music on in the car or the home stereo or the ipod, we choose it according to the state of soul that we seek to stimulate in ourselves at that point in time.

Hence I am curious about the limits of one’s musical taste. I have a very large and eclectic collection of music. It is strong on Gregorian and Early Renaissance, on Baroque and Mozart, on hymns and spiritual songs (“ancient and modern”), on contemporary pop, jazz, folk, electronic and choral music, and even a fair smattering of what is collectively known as “alternative music”. It is a bit light on in the Classical department – I can see that Beethoven and Hayden were good composers, I just don’t find myself often wanting to listen to it. I own no Wagner or country music or heavy metal rock. I particularly enjoy modern film soundtracks (which, given the nature of the genre, is very good at encouraging a wide range of emotive states). I own many recordings of musicals, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

My complaint with Dr Cuddeback’s presentation is that he is dismissive of “modern music” as “bad” music on a rather sweeping scale. He seems to have a very limited appreciation of the breathtaking breadth of genres and qualities of “modern music” – beyond popular rock’n’roll. I am glad to say that in general, my children are very happy to listen to my music with me just as I am happy to listen to their music with them. Shared music-listening often takes place in the car, where we discuss the composition of the music, its meaning and its effect upon our feelings. Abba and The Beatles are a shared genre, as are the four (so far) soundtracks and scores of the Twilight films (okay, now you might laugh, but if you haven’t listened to these collections, I strongly recommend them even if you can’t stomach the novels or the films).

I can pretty safely say that Abba, The Beatles, and the Twilight soundtracks would not be on Dr Cuddeback’s list of “good music”. There is indeed some “bad music” in these collections, but there is also some very, very good music. John Lennon wasn’t a Christian (do we need to be reminded?) but together with Paul McCartney they put together some truly great material (I have several collections of orchestral versions of the Beatles – stirring stuff indeed!). Dr Cuddeback objects to music that is “sensual” or appeals to the “lower senses” and sometimes the “lower body parts”, to music that stirs up strong sensual feelings. Do I detect a little bit of Manichaeism at this point? Am I wrong to think that sensuality has a good and proper place in music, just as it has a good and proper place the human psyche? And he warns against music that stirs up feelings of anger or disturbance, recommending instead music that calms and soothes, but do not the stronger emotions also have a place in our lives?

Of course, this relates to the kind of music we use in liturgy. Dr Cuddeback gives a particularly funny example of what would happen if the strains of a Mozart clarinet concerto were suddenly to find its way onto the play list of a nightclub, by way of illustrating how music with a “rock’n’roll” beat is incompatible with divine worship. I fully concur, as I have said elsewhere, with the opinion that Gregorian chant is most appropriate to the Roman liturgy for its prayerfulness and ability to engender a contemplative mode for worship – but a good rousing (eg. “We stand for God”) or emotive (eg. “Sweet Sacrament divine”) hymn also have their place.

In the end, while there is much valuable material in Dr Cuddeback’s reflections on “music and the soul”, I find his presentation limited by his lack of appreciation of the breadth of available genres and qualities of “modern music”, and by his tendency to dismiss music that stirs up deep passions. Take the time to listen to his presentation, and tell me what you think.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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One Response to Of “Modern Music” and the passions

  1. vincent sully says:

    Hi David

    The article is of interest to me because I have recently picked up some choral conducting responsibilities. I have an interest in early music and would like to learn more about Gregorian chant (especially how to sing it well). I was wondering if you could help me with a question that is indirectly related to the topic. It concerns an early piece of music written by William Byrd called Confirma hoc, Deus. As I understand it, the piece has traditionally been sung on the feast of Pentecost as an offertory song. One translatioon I have of the scripture in the piece is “Confirm, O God, that which you have accomplished in our midst; from your holy
    temple which is in Jerusalem, kings shall offer presents to you” (Ps. 67:29-30).

    I am interested in exploring the possibility of the choir I am involved with having a go at this piece.

    I was wondering if you could explain to me the significance of this verse of scripture to the feast of Pentecost.

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