Anthony Esolen

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To play or sing real music, good music, not music to cut your throat or curdle your soul by, is like playing ball in the fresh air with friends, only better. Shutterstock

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Why doesn’t anyone play music any more?

Anthony Esolen Anthony Esolen Follow Anthony

“I am never merry when I hear sweet music,” says the sprightly Jessica to her husband Lorenzo. They are young and wholly in love with one another. It is night, and they're waiting on a balcony for the return of their friends, including the noble lady of the house. Lorenzo has called for music to welcome her back.

Jessica doesn't mean that sweet music is a damper upon her soul. She means that when she hears it, she no longer feels like jesting; it is too moving for that. Lorenzo replies, “The reason is, your spirits are attentive.” Music in its “touches of sweet harmony” raises a sympathetic resonance within. But be wary, says Lorenzo, of “the man that hath no music in his soul,” because his imaginations are dark, and he is fit only for stratagems and spoils.    

For Shakespeare, music has a healing power. The doctor orders soft music to be played while Lear, the “child-changed king,” comes back to consciousness, his loving daughter Cordelia looking on in prayer. Paulina orders music to strike when she commands Hermione, or is it a statue of Hermione, to “be stone no more,” to descend, for dear life has redeemed her from death. The good old loyal servant Adam, dying of hunger in the forest of Arden, is restored to life with food and wistful music.  

I have seldom seen anything so lovely, and so normal and healthy, than a family of young children playing Celtic music together on their fiddles, enjoying one another's company, and for that time separated from, or elevated above, all the crass stupidities of the world about us.  

Shakespeare did not invent the notion that music helps to tune and order the soul. It's something we all know, deep down. Plato says that a true education for youths is a musical one, in the broadest sense: an education in harmony, decorum, and beauty. Bad music, at its most innocuous, is background noise that trains the ear in not hearing; the best you can say about it is that you learn to ignore it. At its most noxious, bad music corrupts the soul; its rhythms, not to mention its lyrics, may be those that submerge us in brutality. I see in my mind's eye a young man, lonely, angry, shooting pool at a drinking hole, listening to that dark genius Jim Morrison singing about a woman, not in love but in furious desire to possess and consume.

But if you wish to form a sweet and wholesome imagination in your children, music, good music, is one of the mightiest allies that nature and human ingenuity can provide. 

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This is especially true when children learn to play music. I've heard that 1961 was the first year in which sales of records in the United States outpaced sales of sheet music. I'm surprised it took that long; but if you rummage about in antique shops, you'll see that there used to be many companies whose sole business was to print sheet music, not usually in books, but rather by the song.

There's all kinds of indirect evidence to suggest that every family had somebody who played an instrument, in school, for a local band, in church, or for family gatherings. Perhaps a majority of these music-makers were self-taught and played by ear, as did Laura Ingalls Wilder's father, Charles. They played folk songs like “Old Dan Tucker” and “Loch Lomond,” the works of folk-style composers, like “I Dream of Jeannie” (Stephen Foster), and folk hymns, like “In the Sweet By and By.” They played hundreds of melodies, and people who didn't play might sing along. They often did so in harmony. For Protestants had long experience of singing harmony parts in their churches, since their hymnals were scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.  

Sometimes a whole community would come together to make music. I have in front of me a little book, by no means unusual for the time, called Twice 55 Community Songs, published in 1917 and probably reprinted fairly regularly; my copy, an edition especially for Canada, is no earlier than 1924. What's in it? Jaunty patriotic anthems: “The Maple Leaf Forever,” “Men of Harlech,” “Rule Britannia,” “The Marseillaise.” Sweet love songs: “Juanita,” “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” “Annie Laurie.” Songs of faraway places: “Aloha Oe,” “The Volga Boatman.” Spirituals: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Steal Away.” Hymns: “Lead, Kindly Light,” “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Silly songs and rounds: “Reuben and Rachel,” “Alouette.” Dvorak and Mendelssohn are next to “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”    

There's something for every sort of mood or whimsy, and every sort of love and loyalty for things dearly held or fondly remembered. The songs no more sound all alike than the steppes of Russia look like the hills of Scotland, or a lullaby sounds like a march to battle. They are songs meant for everyone, men and women, old people and young parents and small children.

Why do I write about this? To play or sing real music, good music, not music to cut your throat or curdle your soul by, is like playing ball in the fresh air with friends, only better, because it sends its roots far more deeply down into the memory. I have seldom seen anything so lovely, and so normal and healthy, than a family of young children playing Celtic music together on their fiddles, enjoying one another's company, and for that time separated from, or elevated above, all the crass stupidities of the world about us.  

Such music is more akin to the gentle silences of nature than to the noise of airports, television commercials, and mass-produced auditory jitters. It is more akin to laughter than to shouting, to the natural movement of an animal in its home than to the rattle and rasp of a machine. It is a prelude to love, not a lubricant for dispirited fornicators. When it is not at the threshold of the church, it is still within sight of the steeple.

It is our friend, because it is natural and therefore aims ultimately toward God Himself. Mark the music.

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Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen is a Fellow at the Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, NH.  He is the translator and editor of Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House), and is the author of more than a dozen other works, including Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery) and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press).  He regularly writes for The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Touchstone, and Magnificat.