Searching for Hope

A Tale Told in Music
by Calvin Stapert

In “Dover Beach” Matthew Arnold likened the recession of Christianity in the Western world to the “dull, melancholy roar” of the receding tide. By the time he wrote the poem (1867), the recession had long since been underway, and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had given it increased momentum.

The Enlightenment was an optimistic movement that fostered the belief that man could achieve a better world solely with human resources—knowledge, science, and reason. An important product and producer of Enlightenment optimism was the 35-volume Encyclopédie (1751–1780). As Jacques Barzun pointed out in From Dawn to Decadence, “encyclopedia” means “the circle of teachings,” a fitting emblem for an age confident “that the new knowledge, the fullness of knowledge, was in its grasp and was a means of emancipation.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it a time when “hope sprang forth like a full-born Deity,” but that hope was dashed in the violent end of the French Revolution. The oppressed had become the oppressors. As Herman Melville put it in his preface to Billy Budd, “The Revolution itself had become a wrong doer, one more oppressive than the kings.”


Calvin Stapert is Professor of Music Emeritus at Calvin College (now university). He holds a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Chicago and has published five books, the latest being Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn (Eerdmans, 2014). He and his wife live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and are members of the Church of the Servant (Christian Reformed). They have five children and thirteen grandchildren.

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