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From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone


Musical Reprise by Ken Myers

Musical Reprise

Throughout redemptive history, shepherds entrusted with the care of God’s people have wrestled with the question of how to configure the shape of life in the community of the redeemed in light of the patterns of life in the surrounding society. Before the advent of self-consciously modern culture, when cultural change proceeded at (by comparison to today) a glacial pace, church leaders could take more time to reflect on such questions. When cultural conventions and forms remained constant for generations—even for centuries—their meaning and significance could be examined more carefully.

Two of the many distinct conditions of modern culture have made this project of discernment much more difficult. First, the rate of cultural change has increased significantly with each passing generation for at least a century and a half. Second, during the same period, the Church has lost more and more influence in shaping cultural life, even in shaping the cultural lives of its own members.

These two factors put pressure on church leaders both to neglect the hard work of cultural discernment and to avoid being too culturally prophetic. If clergy once capitulated to the pressure to endorse the status quo of aged traditions, today they are under at least as much pressure to accommodate the status quo of being fashionable, of embracing the latest cultural novelty. For modern clergy, welcoming novelty is the jealously guarded tradition they challenge at their peril, so there is little incentive for taking time to explore the significance of cultural changes.

Music & Cosmic Meaning

A third factor has further attenuated thinking about Church and culture: the dominant contemporary assumption that cultural forms are inherently meaningless, that their meaning is something we impose on them, that all cultural meaning is merely conventional. This axiom is one of the sacred fundamentals of the postmodern spirit, but its origins are really very modern, as it is a corollary of the modern assertion of the sovereignty of the individual and of the cosmology that vindicates that sovereignty: the belief that the universe is just a lot of meaningless stuff.

Philosopher of religion Louis Dupré has summarized the premodern view as a confidence in cosmic meaning: “The entire universe [was] conceived as a gift endowed with a meaning that is man’s task to discover and express. In fulfilling this task man finds at the same time his own meaning, the content of which is given in the two books of nature and revelation.”

It was in the context of this confidence of discernible cosmic meaning that the Western musical tradition took shape, from plainchant to Palestrina, Bach to Brahms and beyond. The modern loss of that confidence in cosmic meaningfulness caused great confusion within that tradition. And in the late twentieth century, confusion about the nature of meaning in music (among other factors) resulted in the significant lowering of prestige for what had come to be called “classical music.”

Consider: in the early 1960s, CBS ran a number of programs featuring Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic’s “Young People’s Concerts,” in which Bernstein introduced young audiences to the work of Beethoven, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Copland, and many other composers; the scripts for many of these programs are available at the Library of Congress website and offer a fascinating glimpse at a very different cultural moment. For three years, CBS ran the shows in prime time because their cultural significance was considered so weighty.

Needless to say, this repertoire and its rich “common grace” blessings are no longer honored so unapologetically in American media, nor in American education, nor (most sadly) in American religious life. Which brings me (somewhat belatedly) to the book I want to commend this time, a book that examines why that musical tradition—in which the Church and its musical servants played such a crucial role—is now held in such low esteem in contemporary Western societies (and, imitatively, in our churches).

From Natural Law to Individual Taste

The book is Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value, by music critic and composer Julian Johnson. It is a slender but powerful examination of this huge cultural change; in its 130 pages, Johnson explores how various aesthetic, social, philosophical, commercial, and technological changes have pushed the most artful forms of music to the margins of American cultural life.

Central to his study is the question of objective aesthetic value; in the opening pages, he challenges the dominant democratic belief in the “equal validity of all cultural products,” noting that it is generally assumed in modern cultures that, “in matters of musical judgment, the individual can be the only authority.” Johnson puts this assumption in some historical perspective:

This is in sharp contrast to the relatively minor status of individual “taste” in Western musical practice and aesthetics from the ancient Greeks until the late eighteenth century. To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about music than about science. Music was no more “a matter of taste” than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form. Its success was no more a matter of subjective judgment than the laws themselves.

Johnson’s survey of the cultural status quo vis-à-vis music goes beyond the question of cosmic order and objective aesthetic value to discuss the nature of aesthetic experience, the effects of recording and playback technologies on our emotional expectations, the role of markets and democracy in shaping our assumptions about music, and the complex interaction between thought, emotion, and embodiment made uniquely possible in music. I can think of no better introduction to the significance of the changes in American musical culture (and in the life of churches) over the past 40 years. •

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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