Amid Barbarism’s Din: Less Music

The subject of the lines that follow is one about which I’ve written on this website before: the unmistakable and awful signs of a new barbarism rising from the ruins of what used to be Christian civilization. It is not entirely peripheral to our consideration of the subject to observe that one of the signs is that most Catholics today, including many traditional ones, seem to expect the religion and its rites to provide them an enjoyable emotional experience.

It is not a function of the religion in general, or of Mass in particular, to do that, at least not the religion (and properly speaking there is only the one). Anybody wanting an emotional high in a religious setting should find a tent meeting somewhere.

For emotional experience it is to the arts we should turn. To be sure, the Church enlists the arts in the service of her mission to bring salvation to souls disposed to being saved, but that has always been ancillary to the mission. (That is except for recent decades, especially the first couple after Vatican II when some Catholics, led by enthusiastic female religious, attempted with silly banners, balloons, hand-clapping, dancing in the aisles and so on, to turn Mass into a kind of Catholic tent meeting.)

Of the arts, paintings and also great buildings can move us deeply, but not as often (for most of us) as will literature – poetry, certain moments in theater, passages from great novels. Above all, however, it is music that is apt to give us joy, which is to say pleasure, so keen it can reach the threshold of pain. It is as the 19th-century English aesthete Walter Pater wrote: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”

In speaking here of music, we are not talking about “music,” the stuff, whatever the most popular form at the moment may be called (pop, rock, hip-hop, heavy-metal, etc.) that most persons nowadays pour into themselves through their earbuds, especially the young, and that derives from jazz.

Yes, a tremendous difference exists between what artists like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck used to produce and what issues from, say, the videos of the late self-styled King of Pop Michael Jackson. Still, we might recall the point registered by Richard Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences: The very word “jazz” was originally African-American slang for copulation. The “music” fit the word because unlike real music it is all climax. Real, serious music will also reach a climax, an emotional high point, but whether composed by Mozart or a late Romantic like Sibelius, the approach to it will be measured, ordered, restrained – in a word, civilized. What most of today’s kids listen to on their handhelds is the “music” of disorder and abandon – barbarism. None of it, absolutely none, will ever or can be described as magnificent or sublime – words we reach for when speaking, for instance, of Bach’s B-Minor Mass.

Real music is what we’re accustomed to hearing from symphony orchestras, of which there are about five hundred professional ones in the world. Maybe half of those are in the United States, or have been. “Have been,” I say, because the orchestras performing serious music in this country are in a bad way. They have never enjoyed state subsidy as do leading ones in Europe. To operate, they have depended on gifts from wealthy individuals, foundations, audience season subscriptions and corporate sponsors. Now, ever since the economy began to fail four years ago, those sources of financial support – especially corporate sponsorship – have been drying up. The situation has not improved with the current alleged “recovery”.

The result: Orchestras in numerous smaller cities like Louisville, Honolulu and Syracuse have declared bankruptcy and in some cases disbanded. That’s a terrible development for local lovers of serious music played live, but the loss of no single one rises to the level of national significance. It is another matter when it comes to the Big Five, the orchestras in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland, which by any measure are among the greatest anywhere on the planet. It might be thought the eminence of these ensembles, not to speak of the sheer brilliance of their playing, would immunize them against economic hard times. That proved not to be so in April of last year when the Philadelphia Orchestra, probably the first one in the U.S. to merit world-class status, filed for Chapter 11 protection against its creditors. Rumors persist that another of the Big Five may be forced to follow suit.

It is true, overhead costs for many of today’s U.S. orchestras are excessive. So-called conservatives, rare ones who care about the matter at all, are quick to blame the musicians’ union. To a degree, they are correct. Starting pay for a 20-hour week with one of the Big Five is $100,000. On the other hand, when you hear that truck drivers in the new oil fields of North Dakota are making $80,000, it doesn’t sound so excessive. Besides, U.S. society today is full of persons paid infinitely more for doing much less that is truly valuable to the rest of us than either a symphony musician or truck driver, beginning with Wall Street investment bankers. It is what happens when a society falls into such disorder that everything about it, including what it values, becomes skewed.

That gets us closer to the point of these lines. When the ANC government of Nelson Mandela took power in South Africa, the state may have mobilized behind the national rugby team, as we see in the Morgan Freeman-Matt Damon movie, but virtually the first institutional casualty of the takeover was the Johannesburg Philharmonic, the only professional symphony orchestra in Africa outside Cairo. It simply wasn’t needed or wanted in the new South Africa, land of the obnoxious vuvuzela. Of course South Africa now is also known for rates of violent crime unequaled anywhere except countries fallen so deep into barbarism that statistics for it aren’t gathered.

As U.S. society, the nation, falls deeper into its own barbaric state, it should not be surprising that the casualties include our symphony orchestras even as, whatever may be the economic situation and jobless rate, there’s still enough money around for Americans to fill vast sports arenas for rock concerts, the music of barbarism, at $100 per seat (and with plenty of corporate sponsorship, too). Only reflect on the money Madonna’s current tour is pulling in, and the fact her half-time performance during this year’s Superbowl drew more viewers than the game itself. This is America today. This is where we are at as a society.

Our consolation is the certainty that there are persons who love serious music enough, and musicians who love it enough they will perform if need be for subsistence, that it will always exist, if but for a few of us listening to a string quartet at the back of a cave.

That will be after worship at a low Mass said silently by the priest.