by Anthony Esolen
I sometimes feel when I examine the habits and the works of people of the past—and often the not very distant past—that I've come upon a message from a different world. I don't mean that the people did what we do but went about it in a way we find hard to imagine. I don't mean, simply, that they had to have many practical skills of household and workshop that we no longer have, because we get our food and other goods by mass production. It's that their lives were steeped in spiritual colors that we cannot see, colors both human and divine. That is not to say that they were morally better than we are. Often they were worse. It is that they were more fully human, with all their glory and their shame, more obviously the creature made in the image of God.
In 1568, Felice Anerio, an eight-year-old boy, joined the choir of the Cappella Giulia, in Rome, to sing for Mass and for the daily office. There he came under the direction of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, perhaps the greatest composer of choral music who ever lived. It isn't that the boy Felice would be learning to sing what grownups sang on their own. Palestrina and the other composers specifically wrote for the unique voice of the boy: clear, pure, simple, without the mature vibrato and timbre of the woman's voice. In other words, you had artistic masterpieces that could not be made real without children, and they sang the most important part, the soprano leading in the melody and soaring above the voices of the grown men.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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