Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

The End of Music?

The following was first addressed to  musicians of the American Guild of Organists, during my term as dean of the Saint Louis Chapter, a little more than a decade ago. Its message is as pertinent as ever.

In recent years, those of us in the arts and church music have been coming to terms with the possibility that serious music, having run its course, is defunct.

Art historian Kenneth Clark suggested that the greatest human cultural achievements arise from a confluence of factors: prosperity (but not excessive wealth); a prevailing confidence; a corresponding energy and enthusiasm; the providential appearance of men and women of genius; and a receptive and fertile social climate. Today, many of these vital ingredients are either lacking or misdirected—we would be hard-pressed to prove our times to be anything like a golden age of artistic achievement.

Our musical heritage is in large part a European gift. We often hear of the 1900s as “the American century.” However, the case could be made that the era from Napoleon until 1945 was really the last great European age. It began with such promise, in the springtime of Romanticism, but it ended in the ignominy and cataclysm of the World Wars—conflicts that history may someday view as a single, broad conflagration—as the Thirty Years’ War is viewed today.

After Hiroshima, the world became inexorably smaller, increasingly frenetic, and potentially more violent than ever. Following the World Wars, European civilization was no longer in any shape to assert itself. Ours had become preeminently an American world, and the lingering of “Old World” culture was largely honorary, an afterglow that has gradually given way to the abiding principles, values, and climate of the market economy. This “cross-fade” of cultures marks the world in which most of today’s music professionals have come of age.

One of the noblest of American values is our fundamental sense of egalitarianism, and our democratic system of self-government, for all its flaws, is a miracle of political history. In this context, the common denominator, the will of the people, is a good and necessary consideration. A less admirable American trait is the widespread inclination to dismiss or dismantle anything that fails to be readily profitable. Here, the common denominator, the “bottom line,” can often be a destructive consideration.

Free market principles are not all bad, but they are inherently hostile to religion and art, and certainly, to art in the service of religion. The work that sacred musicians do ideally seeks to elevate truth above profit, and pursues the eternal rather than the temporal. What the sacred musician does with heart and soul doesn’t sell, yet there are indeed profits to be won, however intangible. Great art, like vital religious faith, strives to reconcile the comprehensible with the ineffable; there’s no reward without appreciable intellectual and spiritual investment. As the saying goes, “no pain, no gain.”

While it is true that music offers an occasion and means for building faith and charity among our spiritual communities, it be can be so much more. Great music, like sacred art, like the Holy Scriptures themselves, can be a veritable expression of divine revelation—God with us. Once we’ve experienced something so transcendent, how can we possibly relegate it to a mere market niche?

I believe our calling at this moment in history is to stand firm, and uphold the artistic traditions that we know to be humanizing and life-giving. All this presupposes, of course, that we are discerning in the music we choose, and that we teach it and perform it well. In some measure we share the work of the prophets, rarely understood by their own times or their own people, but unswervingly committed to the truth. We may be swimming against the tide, but we need not be bitter or recalcitrant. We should bear in mind that truth without charity is counterproductive, and a little bit of diplomacy will go a long way. But hold the line we must, to preserve our musical patrimony for future generations who may need it even more than we do—or better yet, for some unimagined golden age of music.

Commentary © 2018 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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