Thanks to Hillsdale Professor Korey Maas for alerting me to Emily Dunbar, a Lutheran musician who sings about vocation and a sense of place. After the jump, what Dr. Maas says about her, along with a links to her music. [Read more…]
The nation of Mali has Africa’s richest musical tradition and most vibrant musical talent. But Muslim radicals have taken control of that country and are stamping out the music–destroying instruments, forbidding singing, and driving musicians out of the country. The article, linked below, is worth reading in its entirety. But I was struck by this quotation:
“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”
Does anyone know where this attitude comes from? Does the Koran specifically forbid music? (I understand how its iconoclasm restricts visual art, but music is art without images.) What is it in the radical Islamic worldview that sets it against music? And, conversely, what is it in the Christian worldview that has made it so open to music–more than that, so creative and influential musically?
I remember when I was little–this would have been the late 1950s when television sets were still novelties–my parents would have friends over for dinner. Afterwards, the adults would all gather around the piano, with my mother playing, and they would all sing. I recall going through the mountain of sheet music that my mother had bought over the years. Lots of big band and what are now labeled “standards,” but also boogie-woogie, jazz, and blues. I should have realized how cool she was.
Readers of old books will notice how people way back then entertained themselves home-grown concerts in the parlor. And Patrick O’Brian
got the period detail just right, as he usually did, when he has Captain Jack Aubrey playing the violin with Stephen Maturin on cello as a way to relax before a big sea battle. In the 19th century, people would go to concerts, but they would often take a copy of the score with them. Through the first half of the 20th century, songwriters made most of their money not from recording royalties but from sales of sheet music, such as my mother would buy.
Charles Rosen, in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, points out that most classical music was written for people to play, not just to hear. In a review, book critic Michael Dirda makes his point:
In several essays Rosen emphasizes how much of our older serious music was never meant to be presented in a concert hall. Most of the early keyboard repertoire was intended for private or semi-private delectation. “Only two of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas were played in Vienna in public during his lifetime.” Similarly, “Few members of the musical public today know that if we wish to experience Schubert’s song cycles as Schubert’s contemporaries would have heard them, we must imagine them as being sung to a few friends.” Certainly the deepest pleasure of music derives from an engagement with its making, by working through a printed score. One might argue that Bach’s “Art of Fugue” gives more satisfaction to those who play it than to those who hear it.
As Rosen stresses, up until the 20th century, many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own. Even symphonies were widely available in piano reductions for four hands. Such listeners were consequently grounded in an active understanding of the score. Alas, “learning to sing and learning to play the piano have been supplanted today by collecting records.” In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.
Masaaki Suzuki is a distinguished harpsichordist, organist, Yale music professor, and conductor who founded and directs the Bach Collegium Japan. He is also a devout Christian. Many thanks to Paul McCain and the various people he credits for unearthing this quotation from the liner notes to the first album of Bach Collegium Japan. He is responding to the question of how the Japanese can play Bach, whose music comes out of a very different culture. He says that better than having the same culture is having the same religion:
“… [T]he God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the sight of the God of Abraham, I believe that the two hundred years separating the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in faith, and equally foreign in our parentage to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”
Here is an interview with Suzuki and a sampling of his music:
I really enjoyed yesterday digging up those old songs on YouTube, not just those that shed light on the article we were blogging about but also the ones you suggested in the comments. I was also trading songs back and forth off line, with my assistant Zach showing me a tune by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and me coming back with Roy Acuff’s “Wreck on the Highway.”
Let’s do that for its own sake. Given that YouTube seems to have virtually every song anyone has ever heard of, post a YouTube link in the comments to a song that you would like to share with the present company of Cranach readers. Pick ones that you think the rest of us would enjoy or find edifying or find interesting. Obscure songs–ones that most of us probably are not aware of–would be especially welcome.
I myself, for all of my high culture pretensions, am pretty well-versed in rock ‘n’ roll circa 1950-1980, as well as folk and classic country music, but I am way out of touch with popular music today. So I would appreciate learning about some contemporary artists. I have been critical of contemporary Christian music, but I suspect there are some good songs in that genre, so if you know of some, I’d be glad to learn about them.
I suspect others of you are sadly ignorant about musical geniuses such as Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams. Or cutting-edge musicians like Django Reinhardt or Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Perhaps someone could complete your education. All genres are fair game: bluegrass, jazz, classical, even rap and metal as long as the lyrics don’t transgress the PG-13 standards of this blog. Everything from opera to the op’ry.
Get the idea? A word of introduction would be helpful–why do you think this is so good and what do we need to know to appreciate it?–followed by a link. Take it away. . .
Remember my brother Jimmy? He is an accomplished bluegrass musician, among his many talents, and he sent me this notice and this suggestion:
I have an idea for your blog. I don’t know if you have heard, but Earl Scruggs died yesterday at age 88. I submit that he is one of the most influential musicians of our generation. He defined how one is supposed to play a five string banjo today, and bluegrass music did not really did not become bluegrass until Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945. In many respects, he can be seen as the co-founder of bluegrass music, along with Bill Monroe.
This may be an opportunity for your bloggers to get into an interesting debate as to who they think are the most 20 most influential musicians of our generation.. To limit the scope of the discussion, you may want to limit the list to American born musicians. Just a thought.
And a very good thought, I might add. We need to pay tribute to Earl Scruggs. Bluegrass music is one of the great American art forms. Who else would you list as among America’s most influential musicians? (Note: not greatest, as such, but most influential. Think widely about the different kinds and styles of music America has come up with.)
In the meantime, here is Earl, who pretty much invented this way of playing the banjo, playing one of his break-downs: