How God Saved My Soul Through Music
I was inspired to transfer my brain goo to the computer screen over the last couple of hours. Here are the results. Here’s to a more fruitful discussion.
I haven’t talked extensively about why I rejected atheistic communism and made my way back to Catholicism. There were a number of reasons; being shown the logical and moral bankruptcy of materialism, the corruption I personally witnessed in the movement, the fact that I could never bring myself to really embrace any of the tenants of the cultural agenda, and so on. The idea of fighting for anything in a universe that did not, and could not care about the outcome of human events could no longer captivate me. I suppose some people are able to convince themselves of the possibility, even the certainty, of “goodness” in a reality that owes nothing to consciousness and will; to me, such a belief, no matter how comforting, would be a lie. And I cannot live a lie.
These arguments were the building blocks of my rejection of materialism, but there was a mortar running through them, one that appears to be wholly subjective, but is not upon further inspection. That binding agent was music. And not any music, but the greatest music ever written, the religious music of Western civilization, of the Catholic Church. No, I don’t mean the uninspired hymns that resound throughout Novus Ordo auditoriums every Sunday, but the music of the 16th-18th centuries, and some beyond (such as the Vespers I am listening to as I write, by Rachmaninoff, which words cannot describe).
I have been a fan of “classical” music since high school, as I grew out of a phase during which all I would listen to was loud, violent, heavy metal music. I would listen to no other genre because no other genre (that I knew of then) still embraced virtuosity as metal did, through its solos. A lot of metal soloists would not only play fast and with great skill, but would incorporate classical motifs in their playing. This was my first contact with sounds above the mundane. A lot of kids my age liked music that “had a good beat”, or that had angsty lyrics to which they could relate. Well, of course I wanted those things as well. But I wanted something more because I knew there could be more. Why would anyone listen to punk or alternative songs with the same three chords over and over again when they could listen to something with multiple layers of harmony and amazing technique?
In other words, I knew that music was not something entirely subjective, it’s aim was not merely to set loose raw animalistic passions, to promote political agendas, to “speak to me” as a member of some cultural, racial, or socio-economic demographic (though metal does all that), but to appeal to my capacity to recognize objective truth and beauty, even if only for a moment in a genre that is usually brutal and immoral (which, among the music the kids listen to, only metal did).
I was not raised in a culture of classical music. I didn’t hear it growing up, except perhaps in cartoons. For some reason I still don’t fully understand, my mother bought a bargain set of classical CDs when I was about 17. There were 12 of them, and I still have them to this day. The first time I heard Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, et. al, I could only ask, “where have you been all my life?” It took very little time for me to forget about the existence of other genres, even the metal I used to love (though I’d still pop in Megadeth every once in a while because the lead guitarist really was great). I built up a classical music collection that soon dwarfed my metal collection. While other kids were out partying on the weekends in college, I was at the music section of Boarders, looking for my next purchase in what used to be a wonderfully large classical music section. The last time I went there it had been so pitifully reduced that it hurt to look at it.
In a certain way, the Marxist philosophy with which I had become entangled established a truce with my love of classical music. The group with which I was involved was throughly modernist, priding itself on the Enlightenment heritage of Marxism instead of shunning it as do so many other groups, in favor of post-modernism, identity politics, etc. Classical music was an acceptable indulgence. Mozart was a genius, Beethoven, a revolutionary. We could admire their work the way Marx admired Shakespeare or Greek mythology. They were milestones journey out of the muck and filth of primitive times into the light of science, democracy, and eventually socialism.
But I understood more fully the limitations of, and inevitable conflicts with, this humanistic, historicist, and humanist view of music when I mentioned Rachmaninoff, my favorite composer, to a ‘comrade’ one day, only to be informed of how reactionary he was. Of course I knew he was a reactionary; his family fled Russia during the Revolution. His music was denounced as “backward looking.” Commie favorites were Soviet composers such as Shostakovitch or Prokofiev.
The deeper I dug into classical music, the more I realized how profoundly drawn I was to every sort of “reactionary” form, and how repulsed and disgusted I was by all things modern. Modernity has cured physical diseases but poisoned the well of human creativity. It enables billions to be fed and clothed, but fills their minds and adorns their spirits with mediocre filth. I saw the contrast quite clearly in two separate symphony performances one year. One week, we were treated to a choral performance of Morten Laurdisen’s rendition of “O Magnum Mysterium” – an amazing, beautiful religious piece that so struck me that I bought the album the next day. It was an unusual performance, in that the choir filed in through the isles and surrounded the audience instead of taking the stage. I don’t exaggerate when I say it almost brought a tear to my eye.
Another week, we were subjected to a “modern” composition by a modern composer. It was a horrific, frightening experience. The music was absolutely brutal in its ugliness. It was as if someone took a perfectly fine score and smashed it repeatedly with a sledgehammer. I had no idea what I was in for when I went to the concert hall that night. Throughout the entire painful ordeal I was tempted to stand up and leave in disgust. Not wanting to insult an otherwise fine symphony orchestra, though, I held myself in check and listened to every ear-stabbing, soul-wrenching sour note. But I couldn’t bring myself to applaud.
It was after those performances that I believe I truly began understood the full power of music, the spiritual heights to which it could elevate, as well as the nihilistic depths to which it could depress. Intellectual conceit may prompt a person to mouth words of praise for a violent assault on their senses, but it would be impossible to describe what I sat through as anything else. It was then that I began to explore, a little more, the area of classical music I had willfully avoided as a Marxist – the religious music. Until then I had only known Mozart’s Requiem, and I had always loved it. I began to acquire works such as Vivaldi’s Gloria, Handel’s Dixit Dominus, Bach’s Magnificant (with the amazing “Suscepit Israel”).
There was also another genre of music that I was into, though, and it deserves mention here as well – traditional folk music of different cultures. As a nerd, I am interested in this sort of thing. Because I was a Marxist, I wanted to connect culturally with revolutionary Marxism; this lead me to the work of the Red Army Choir. The military hymns and marches were exhilarating, the renditions of popular Russian folk tunes was exciting. But in my exploration of Russian folk music, I came across the music of Zhanna Bichevskaya, who is quite popular in Russia. This was another one of those moments where the contradiction crept in; I immediately fell in love with her music, which I learned (on the Internet, since I don’t understand Russian), was not only politically reactionary, complete with White Guard battle hymns, but also deeply religious. As a member of a party that prided itself deeply on a linage it traced back to Bolshevism, I was not supposed to like this music. But I did, and to a much greater degree than anything they liked or would recommend.
Through these experiences I realized I had a spiritual connection to music. I could not sit and listen to Bach Masses or Orthodox Russian folk hymns, absorb fully what they were conveying to me, and remain a faithful and ardent materialist. One can tell one’s self whatever fantasies one wishes; in a universe that owes nothing to a conscious, creative force, music is nothing. It is a sort of accident that just as well may not have been possible, a fortunate by-product of some long-forgotten twist or turn of random evolutionary development. And yet since Plato we have known that music, which man did not “invent” but only discovered, can and does affect our souls. We know it, we feel it, we affirm it with every movie or video game soundtrack we create and listen to, and yet, in our culture, we deny it.
For to admit it freely and openly, is to then, for some people, to be bound to a program of censorship. If music affects us deeply, for good or for ill, then it follows that we ought to have policies to promote some kinds of music while prohibiting others. A recognition of the objective effects of music (especially the negative ones) threatens its status as a medium through which everyone, no matter how disordered, rotten, or evil, can “express themselves” or live vicariously through a corporate-generated fantasy. Music is now a product, it now belongs to the consumer, who alone decides its “utility.” Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter, as long as someone can make money and someone else can satisfy their carnal urges.
This is why the degeneration of liturgical music grieves me. It is not about subjective preferences. The choice between Gregorian/polyphonic chant and some dude playing the guitar and singing about rainbows is not the choice between Coke or Pepsi, but the choice between an authentic spiritual experience transmitted to us through an art form perfected over centuries, and a cheap gimmick that a perverted criminal deceived America’s priests into implementing in their parishes (see this excellent summary). It grieves me because when the doubts that inevitably rise from the restlessness of the modern mind assail me in moments of weakness, it is the beautiful religious music of traditional Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, that draws me back. And I know I am far from alone on this matter. I know there are many people who are affected in the same way.
And that means there are many people who were once like me, wandering blindly through a cultural wasteland when just over the hill is a treasure trove of majesty and grace that they can’t imagine. They won’t hear this music on television, at their favorite websites, or at their schools. They should hear it in their churches, if they even go to them, but they don’t. When they go to church, they hear music that sounds, more or less, like music they would hear anywhere else. The words are different. Like Cartman in Southpark, anyone can switch the word “baby” to “Jesus” and have a hit Christian single. But the sounds are the same, or in many cases, if we’re honest, much worse. Novus Ordo Catholic music is God-awful next to Protestant music, which itself is God-awful next to 90% of secular music.
And it is, finally, a tragedy that so many people who recognize the dangers of consumerism, inside and outside of the Catholic Church, fail to see how it is the very force behind the corruption of the liturgy. The argument that “music is just music”, that it is a commodity to be dispensed in accordance with what is profitable to producers and useful to consumers, comes to us in a very specific form from Ludwig von Mises. Not a Catholic, not even a theist, von Mises in one of his works engages an objection to capitalism’s corrosive effect on culture by resorting to relativism. Who can say what is objectively good? Mises doesn’t think anyone can. Supposedly, each generation rejects the new music, only to have the next generation embrace it and validate it.
Well, that is simply, and plainly, a load of nonsense. Aside from the fact that there are certain aspects of music which are measurable and quantifiable, thus making objective comparisons of music scientifically possible, there are also objective studies that confirm what Plato only theorized about, the effects of music on various areas of the brain. Then there is what I clearly see in my own experience – a longing on the part of so many people to recognize and fully embrace what is timeless, which cannot be reduced to a historical setting or to personal preferences, to materialism of either the individualistic or collectivist kind. Only the most intellectually and culturally starved dimwits think that the garbage pumped out by mass media is “good” in some sort of objective sense. I’ve never met a person with even a glimmer of intelligence who could not, in turn, recognize a glimmer of objective beauty. And it only takes a glimmer to eventually become an overpowering glare, if one is willing to push further.
Because the von Mises types present a narrative that could be true, that appears to fit with the known facts, so many of these people will never quite feel at ease in their search. But music is such a powerful argument that its use absolutely must be scrutinized. Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that through the music composed at the high-mark of history, the works of Bach and Mozart, one might even see the image of God. If this is so, then we must learn to communicate, to evangelize, through the promulgation of such music. We must learn how to listen to it religiously, and how to instruct others likewise. We must give ourselves musical educations. The era of “rock” is dying, and today’s popular music is more shallow than ever. And we must take up the spiritual sword against liturgical abuse, especially in the sphere of music, and drive the innovators and charlatans out of the temples, even those who think they are doing well. We must make it easy for people to fully explore and articulate what they know to be true - that some music elevates, while other music is a frivolous distraction, harmful to one’s intellect and faith, worthy of ridicule and rejection.