January 10, 2007


Two years ago, I joined a community chorus. There are two directors, Christen and Roxanna. Roxanna likes jazz, showtunes and such. Christen likes the classical stuff, most of which is Western Christian music.

I've learned a lot, including some sight reading; rhythm is still my downfall. There are two concerts a year, one at Christmas and the other in June. Christmas being over except for Old Calendarists, we got a passel of music last night. Almost all of it, except for Aaron Copland's setting of "I Bought Me a Cat," is religious. I was struck by that fact. If Europe is determinedly secular, what kind of music will it produce?

My mother joined a chorus late in life. The chorus was sponsored by some Jewish organization, so the organizers felt duty-bound to sing songs with a Jewish theme. Mother thought the music they chose out of this send of duty was inferior and dull. Chaim Potok wrote a novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, about a young orthodox Jew, interested in painting, who made the same discovery--great painting in the Western tradition was Christian-themed for centuries. As I recall the kid creates a scandal by painting a Crucifixion.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of fine secular music, although most of it of a non-folk variety is only a couple of centuries old at most.

One of the mothers of our cohort of 13- and 14-year-olds picked up her daughter after a gathering, and was bemused to find a group of them singing showtunes in the kitchen. No surprise, there. They do it all the time, in fact, bringing me back to my parents' generation, where my uncle played piano and they sang a lot of Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

This all relates to the question of why people like music and where great music comes from. There are lots of hypotheses, and no doubt lots of brain research and the like. If we look at the categories of faith, sex, and social solidarity, I think we may get close to some answers.

Meanwhile, I've been listening to Ancient Faith Radio, which plays a lot of Orthodox Christian music. This music is all sung a capella, and has ancient roots, still using the eight tones, or modes. Now that is spiritual music, sung with an invisible choir of cherubim and saints.

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