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  In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
          --TS Eliot (from Easter Coker from Four Quartets)
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Modulating and the Gospels
posted October 5, 2009

One of the things that most clearly distinguishes most Christian piano music from what, for lack of time and space, I’m going to call serious, or art music (ie. what the public calls ‘classical music’, though I would frankly prefer something much less dead-sounding) is its attitude toward modulation. Modulation is the art of travelling from one key to another. It is not that easy to do well. Nor is it handled in a very sophisticated manner by many Christian piano (or choir anthem) composers today.  Generally speaking, there is really one endlessly repeated formula for modulation in so much of our music, that of playing through a hymn a couple of times in one key, and then, in the space of a few bars, suddenly jerking the music up a half step (or, more rarely, a whole step) and doing it again more triumphantly. I don’t particularly care for that ‘modulation’ to being with (for reasons I'll get into in another article), and am less impressed that it seems to be the only one in town. I am going to suggest to anyone interested that we really ought to consider a much wider variety of possible key changes, and also take the trouble to do more than simply stop on one wildly out-of-place ‘pivot’ chord to get us into the new key, but rather consider where we have been (keywise) and where we are going and try to get there a bit more smoothly, and also that we should place more importance on those spots of transition than we generally do. This means abandoning the one-formula-fits-all method, and it means that modulation is really not something you can learn in an afternoon, or by using a simple chart such as the one in the back of some hymnals. It is instead, much more of a life study, much the way our faith ought to be a life study, rather than a utilitarian thing we 'do' once a week. In fact, I am going to suggest a connection between the richer, deeper, and more difficult approach I’m suggesting, which some of you may be thinking sounds like so much elitist snobbery, and its importance to our faith. If you’ve been practicing ‘modulation’ all your life in this simple, limited way, and it works for you and your congregation, why on earth would you want to change it? I’m going to spend this article outlining some reasons for that.

Often, when there is a conflict between those who do and those who don’t, or those who are rich in something and those who are poor in it, it is hard to draw the line between those who can’t and those who just don’t want to. I suspect that if more of our Christian pianist/composers wanted to modulate more effectively, they would do it—not as well or in as great numbers as one would like, considering that not all minds are created with the ability to do the things that are hard, but an increase in desire would surely mean at least some increase in execution. Most of us can do a lot more than we think we can, but we have an inborn reflex that rejects anything which is perceived as threatening—and that includes education, or things which we have to strive for with no guarantee of attaining, as opposed to those things we already have, which we often tend to assume came naturally.

This article will only scratch the surface regarding the technical aspects of modulating; it is mainly about exploring the idea itself, giving it some philosophical perspective, and yes, connecting it to the gospels, which is not being done to accuse composers who don’t modulate well (or at all) of being unchristian, but to uncover out what I believe is a worldview which informs the common attitude toward music making. I would stop well short of calling it unchristian, but I do think it is taking the easy way out, which is something that is usually not found in the thinking of the gospel writers (to say nothing of the attitudes of Jesus himself). I hope that people who have no idea of advanced musical practices will stick around since I am writing mostly to describe something which can be understood by non-musicians on a philosophical level; seldom will I dip into the well of nitty-gritty. But I’m afraid it will require some patience, which is one of the first requisites for modulating.

I arrived at this novel idea one morning—the thought of connecting the art of modulating to the ideas found in the gospels—and found it attractive precisely because I haven’t seen it done before. It seemed fresh, but it also did what I have heard that thinking in general does: it creates something new by the fusion of old ideas. It is in the connections between things that thinking happens. Metaphors and similes are so powerful because they explore often unforeseen connections. Anytime Jesus said ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…" or told a parable, he was demonstrating the power of these thoughtful connections. Modulating is also a way to connect things. Listen to these two versions of the opening of Blessed Assurance:


Most of us, I think, will have been able to detect that the second version is higher than the first. Those more musically inclined might have been able to add to this by saying that the second is four steps higher than the first—on the ‘dominant’ of the first key. If you are not given to music theory, don’t worry. Dominant is simply a musical buzzword that means it is on the fifth note up from the bottom of the scale; it is an interesting word, because it shares the same root as words like dominate and kingdom; in its Latin form Dominus it means Lord. It was once considered God’s favorite pitch (by a raft of medieval music theorists).

A piece of classical music of Mozart’s era would have made a pretty big deal out of this relationship; it would have formed the harmonic backbone of the whole piece, most likely. Probably the music would have begun with a tune in one key, and then, over time it would have gradually modulated into a new key whose principle pitch, or gravitational pull, or place of rest, or center, was on the dominant note of the first key. The journey to that new key might take several minutes, or it might be fairly abrupt, but it was so common that composers who didn’t know how to do it were in for a pretty rough ride. You'll note that it is not 'right next door'--it is several keys away, in fact, which keeps many less-trained musicians from discovering it, apparently. That's not all bad. Mozart and his gang probably overdid it a little. But it is useful to note that, in past centuries this dominant key was considered musically closer than the keys that were in the immediate physical vicinity of the home key.

After arriving on this new plane, a second tune or series of tunes was given out, and the first section of the piece closed in this key. If it was a short piece, the whole process might have taken only seconds. If, on the other hand, it was a long piece, it might be prolonged. There are some pieces by Mozart where he modulated to the dominant a couple of times-- the first is a false start and he has to try it again; the first one is too weak to convince us that we have actually picked up and moved to the new key and are not just visiting. The ears of great composers are fascinating—like wise consumers who won’t buy every fad item because some excitable fellow shouts at you on television about how great it is, their ears aren’t convinced by every local shift in the musical winds, and have to set up a modulation with care and precision so that the full musical weight has relocated.

After going away from the original key and ending up in the new one, a new section begins which generally includes a whole lot of musical moving around, but eventually travels to the original key, where it stays. The idea is that the music has to achieve balance harmonically, by beginning and ending in the same place, travelling away from it in the middle to achieve drama, and a kind of tension which is then resolved happily by returning to the place of origin, and not incidentally, carrying the tunes that first appeared in other keys with it. It is a noble idea; it is also a pedestrian idea. Every episode of a 1950s sitcom could be described this way—order which is threatened, and then a happy ending by restoring things the way they were in the beginning so nothing has changed. Whew!

I think it is safe to say that the philosophical ship has sailed on the classical version of modulation; I don’t know anybody, including ‘classical’ composers of today who use the method I’ve just described. But there are a couple of things about this scheme that have not worn out their welcome, and this brings us to philosophy (and, eventually, the gospels).

There are two things to note here. This first is that modulation is a transition (not an abrupt change)—a time when the old is going but not yet gone, and the new is still coming into being. It is not a time of stability; it is a time of picking up and searching for something new. Most of us are not too fond of that.

When I was at a church some years ago there was a period of time when they did not have a head pastor. This seemed to enormously bother everyone but myself: I enjoyed the fact that we had a new speaker every Sunday, and that there was some sense of the unknown and unexpected to break into what was a pretty well programmed routine. I knew then and I know now that this is not a typical response: most of us like to have a feeling of stability, and I’ve noticed that most of our popular Christian music provides it by being pretty repetitive and staying in the same place harmonically. Most praise songs avoid modulating until they absolutely have to; ie. we get completely bored by staying in the same key so long that we have to do something to give our ears relief. Then we get thrown with little warning into another key; a rough transition indeed, but one which is forgotten as soon as we show just as much stubbornness about staying rooted to our next position.

I once compared this to a person who spends their life on the couch watching tv, only leaving their house to go to the end of their driveway and back to get the mail, then one day packs up and moves to Borneo where he rents a house, a tv, and spends the rest of his life watching tv on the couch. Does the move to Borneo seem a little out of place with the rest of the narrative? (Abraham, by contrast, spent a good part of his life in transit after God told him to relocate.)

By contrast with this approach, which avoids transition until it is unavoidable, and then localizes it to one wrenching moment, the music of artists like Mozart, Beethoven and company was in an almost constant state of movement, preparing for the modulation before it happened, and affirming it, (even questioning it) afterward. Obviously this sort of technical approach requires a lot more harmonic vocabulary, and complexity of thought in terms of harmonic direction and understanding of purpose. It is far easier to stick a few pleasant chords under a familiar melody and worry about whether it goes anyplace afterward, or not at all, than it is to be constantly planning ahead. Or referring to what has already happened. Most of what survives in the ‘great art’ department contains materials that refer to other materials in the same work—either ahead or behind it; the details are reflected by the large plan of the piece, and the other way. This means that there is a concern with the ‘form’ of a piece; it also means that the piece is ‘organic;’ that it all belongs together and does not appear to have been slapped together out of the composer’s several favorite ideas until he ran out of them. A modulation will not simply be a transition from one thing to another, but will also participate in the logic of the piece as a whole.

I realize that this sort of thing is not popular. For one thing, it is much more complicated than the standard practice of staying in one key until the verse ends, giving out a measure of the V7 chord to the new key, and going straight there—invariably one step or one half-step up from the first (a poor choice in itself because it has nothing in common with the first key and the ‘modulation’ cannot help being wrenching). People seem to like this sort of thing, which is why it will remain the most frequently done; it is a musical cliché, but clichés get that way for a reason. There is always a minority who like to point out what is crude and simplistic, but they are a minority, and who says they aren’t a bunch of elitist snobs?

By the way, if you happen to think that way, you are more likely to lump all the 'classical' composers together, and assume that their music pretty much sounds the same. I should point out that, for a while, when the 'sonata' was new, 'classical' composers weren't very good at modulating, either. They tended to do it pretty abruptly, and formulaically. Early Mozart pieces show us that it took him a while to grow in this area as well. The fact that the most gifted composers of the time struggled with the concept might give us hope for ourselves, but remember, this was 200 years ago. Musical technology has improved a bit since then.

I was on the internet a while back and saw a version of a hymn tune whose chords (all 3 of them) were all in C major; when the verse ended, the next began in D major, without any attempt whatever to connect them; then the next in E, same sudden shift. Several of the people who commented on this version found it to be very ‘powerful.’ Obviously there is not going to be any wholesale attempt to try more difficult, integrated modulations when a gratuitous key change is so exciting to so many people. You would think the effect would wear off after a while but it doesn’t. And since hardly anybody listens to music with an ear for before and after, any local effect is bound to get a reaction from listeners. I am proposing another way, but I’m not doing it because it will seem evidently superior to most of your congregation. In fact, if you want to sell your music to as many people as possible I would advise against taking any of my advice. Of course, if the narrow way was all that popular it wouldn't be the narrow way.

So why do it at all? Aren’t these just a bunch of rules designed to make everybody feel bad but an elect few? And aren’t they just as narrow and uncreative as I’m accusing today’s general practice of being?

Actually, no. When I mentioned Mozart’s scheme of modulation above, I neglected to mention that Schubert had a quite different approach to the pivotal key shifts in his piano composition, and that Beethoven had a third alternative. I didn’t mention that all three of them constantly experimented with the way to make a modulation effective and while the basic plan was usually the same, the details vary enormously each time, with plenty of room for creativity and invention. And perhaps I didn’t make clear that the point is not that I want people to write like Mozart: far from it. The idea that your modulations stand for more than a single moment in time, that they should be introduced and finished well, and that they should be given more thought than ‘well, this is the way everybody else does it so here goes’—this is what I had in mind, not that you slavishly imitate what somebody did 200 years ago because everything was better then and the world these days is just completely gone downhill. It is the philosophy of paying attention to details, having the bigger picture in mind, and not just tacking on an often ill-fitting formula that I am hoping you’ll value. I can’t really get any more specific than that at the moment because this article is already too long and I haven’t driven my point home yet. Showing you why must come before we start to explore how, which is a long and exciting enterprise. Giving you a one-size-fits-all way to modulation is exactly what I don’t want you to do. The kind of recipe that shows you in five minutes what should take years of experimentation and struggle is exactly the sort of lifeless, meaningless paint-by-numbers approach I’m hoping you’ll avoid. If you don’t want to avoid it there are about 500 websites offering a brief lesson in how to jack up your piece a half-step. There are dozens of composers who make, perhaps, decent livings and have achieved within their circles pretty good reputations with a handful of compositional tricks, one of which is the old sudden half-step modulation. So while I’m being brutally honest about things, let me add that if you want commercial success you don’t need to try this hard. But if you really want to have something to say musically you are going to have to learn to say it. Just like someone who wants to be a poet can’t get all of their ideas from greeting cards.

Perhaps I’m being unfair here: by comparing the music of today’s market-driven, mass-consumed Christian piano music, intended not to demand much of the minds of its listeners by stretching their musical vocabulary in any way, allowing them to simply bask in the pretty sounds, nor to require that its composers be unusually or uniquely gifted, to the music of a trio of musical giants whose music is still being listened to a couple hundred years or more later is like comparing apples to…tanks? There were many, many composers who were alive in Beethoven’s time whose business it was to set familiar tunes in ways that encouraged humming along and tended to confirm listener expectations instead of challenging them with formal innovations or transitional passagework. If I wanted to set the bar a little closer than Valhalla I would find the names of those composers and use them as a standard of comparison. Names like…uh….ummm…..

Musicologists know the names of some of them; they wind up in footnotes occasionally. But, oddly, the ones who were writing simply for the temporary pleasure of people who wanted music to flow like water out of a faucet tend to be forgotten about by the next generation. They are replaced by others with the same method of working. There is always a need for this kind of approach to music as evidenced by the market. If you are commercially successful, or want to be that way, there is, frankly, not much to recommend the long, lonely road of improving one’s craft or taking the hard way out. Technical challenge and the surprise or scorn of one’s contemporaries does not attract many people. So I’m not worried that anything I have to say here will interrupt the delicate balance between a few great musical practitioners whose music will be celebrated by both experts and novices for some time to come because it says something to them that the other music simply does not--and the much larger group that fills the immediate needs of the bulk of listeners with tuneful and pretty music that comes as-is and does not suggest that there is a necessary process of cultivating one’s ears so that what is not understandable now will become so later.

So what am I suggesting here? That you should attempt long-term fame as opposed to the popular grassroots here-and-now fame? How is that any more Christian than the other kind? It’s not. The main purpose is to improve your craft, whether it brings recognition or not. For those able to do it, there seems to be a close connection with the spiritual here as well. Doing one's best as against doing what will win easy approval is actually one of Jesus' sub-themes, it seems to me. It may be a surprise to you how much of an elitist Jesus appears to be in that respect (I'll elaborate in another article).  Obviously, we are on a collision course then with the idea that the gospels must be made real for everyone, regardless of training, and really shouldn't ask too much of them. Art frequently falls on the wrong side of this divide, in many people's estimation. It is an idea which may be worth many more strokes of my fingers as we try to figure it out together. Meanwhile, if you are used to thinking of artists, writers, and composers who can get college professors excited or get their works displayed in a museum well after their death as just a bunch of dry bones types whose ideas about workmanship are obviously useless and without any real substance; wasted words, wasted notes, wastes of paint, (not to mention contempt for all those ‘real people’) what I’m going to show you in a minute will be a surprise. Those Gospels that form the written backbone of your faith were written by people who took some of these ‘scholarly’ ideas seriously. Maybe we wouldn’t have them otherwise. Maybe if bright people like St. Paul hadn’t done what they did our very religion wouldn’t be around now, either. For every missionary journey he made there are now letters filled with dozens of long sentences, confusing illustrations, apparently contradictory stands on things: this is not a man who thought what he had to say would be easy, and it contains few formulas. (How we treat these books, excerpting a few popular verses, and ignoring the context in which various passages were written, for instance, is another matter.)

When I discussed a philosophical approach to modulation above I concentrated on two things. The first was that there was transition involved, namely a bridge from the old to the new, and that composers who take this idea seriously also make sure that the moment-to-moment functionality of a measure of music is reflected in its larger purpose, and refers to other musical moments scattered throughout the life of the composition. The writers of the gospels shared these concerns. While many Christians today like to think of Jesus as a completely new thing that has come into the world, focusing only on a few verses of comfort and promise to back that up, and to distinguish themselves and their Jesus from the cultures around them, the gospel writers did not have so narrow a focus.

Many of them sprinkled their accounts quite liberally with scriptures from what we now call the Old Testament. They thought of them as prophecies that pointed to the life history, ministry, and purpose of Jesus. Some of them are a bit strained: for example, the place in Matthew where Jesus is entering Jerusalem in triumph on what we now call Palm Sunday. All of the gospel writers quote a verse from Zechariah as a prophetic pointer to that moment. Matthew, however, has some difficulty understanding a device in Hebrew poetry called parallelism--the specific kind I refer to is climaxing. Often the poet will repeat a line, but not exactly. If there is a number in it, that number gets raised in the second line. for instance, this made-up example--

There are six things I like about Hebrew poetry
Seven that make me sing for joy

--may sound like I can’t make up my mind about how many things I like about Hebrew poetry, but this is in fact a standard poetic convention. So when the prophet writes

‘behold your king comes to you riding on a donkey
a colt, the foal of a donkey’

he is simply steering clear of exact repetition, and in this case, providing a synonym, or a more exact description of the animal on the second go around. Like ‘classical’ composers (the better ones, anyway) the ancient Hebrew poets wanted to provide a sense of formal design through repetition but they didn’t want to shut the mind off by giving out exactly the same thing they’d already said; they handled this conflict by the use of developing repetition.

Unfortunately, Matthew doesn’t get the point; he thinks this means Jesus is supposed to be riding on two different animals (of wildly different heights!) which is, if you’ve seen it transferred to the big or little screen, pretty funny. Matthew is alone among the gospel writers in doing this; the others either understood what was going on or discreetly decided to go with their common sense.

There is obviously a risk in trying to make connections; if you don’t know your source, or the traditions out of which it sprang, there is a chance you will look silly. Nevertheless, all four gospel writers engage in this pursuit with great frequency. This includes many creative interpretations with which our Jewish friends will often disagree. Often the degree of new-ness dwarfs the importance of the old, as when Jesus effectively rewrites Mosaic tradition with a series of ‘but I say to you’ admonitions. Even here, however, he is bouncing off of an old tradition, reacting against it, yet acknowledging its existence. Clearly there was an anxiety among gospel writers to locate Jesus within and against a long history and tradition. It would have been much easier, of course, to simply ignore all of it, and to make Jesus simply a new start, as many Christians today assume he is; but that wouldn’t have made sense to an early Christian audience, or it would not have answered the standards of the gospel writers themselves, apparently. They go through a lot more work. Perhaps for them, in order for Christ to have a legitimate claim as Lord of the world, he has to be able to command their thoughts as well as their hearts, and ignoring history and law and the important works of scholarship that they knew and adored just won’t do. A writer without those concerns wouldn’t have included all of those scriptural references, shown Jesus involved in all of those arguments with other religious persons representing the various factions of his time, or attempted to fit the parables into the overall narrative of his life and ministry. But those writers didn’t make the cut; those with ‘elitist’ scholarly concerns did.

Even John, who is the least concerned with locating Jesus against the backdrop of his religious environment, has this concern. John, whose Jesus speaks in no parables while it is a staple of his ministry in the other three gospels; John, whose Jesus does none of the same miracles (save two) and spends most of his time in Jerusalem instead of visiting it once for a week at the end of his ministry; John, whose Jesus makes the abhorrently un-Jewish demand that we eat blood and lays blame for his death squarely on ‘the Jews’ rather than implicating the authorities (and fanning the flames of centuries of anti-Semitism to boot). This John, who is ignorant of the traditions which were Jesus’s environment, and who does not reverence it, feels the need to suggest to his probably Greek audience that Jesus is not merely some new God who was sprung up out of no-where, but that he was in God’s mind from the beginning. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ he writes, showing us that God did not merely get part-way through his symphony and decided it needed a key change, but was preparing the world for the presence of Jesus from the start. This gives Jesus legitimacy in John’s mind. The world around him is a reflection of his divine role in it. It was created that way. Thus the local element of one man whose life spanned 33 years is reflected in the overarching structure of history. This man can also command the natural world, which is his own. It is organic—the momentary elements of this ‘theme’ of creation are connected to what came before and what is coming after and to what is happening simultaneously. The details of Jesus’s short life are reflected in the overall purpose of the universe and vice-versa.

It is impossible in this short space to reflect on the diversity of approaches the various writers take, just as I had to do a gross injustice to the composers discussed above. One thing they all have in common is avoidance of the easy way out. If they were to ‘modulate’ the life of Jesus into the unfolding narrative of God’s creation as it is often practiced by many hymn arrangers, they might have read one of those short articles you see on the internet now that offer a simple formula for how to handle any situation. Composers of Christian keyboard music are nowadays often told:

To modulate:

Finish up in the key you are in.

Play a V7 chord of the new key (a half step higher) for one measure (here follows a handy chart of all twelve possible V7 chords so you don’t need to know them)

Continue in the new key. This works all the time, for everything, just like that.


In the case of the gospel writers such a ‘modulation’ might have looked like this:

"Write about God for a while. Then paste in this line: ‘As the psalmist wrote: ‘behold, I am creating a new song, says the Lord.’ Then write about Jesus. See how easy that is?"

Modulating the way I have in mind is much more difficult; it takes a lifetime of study, which is why I am only giving the reasons why one should consider such an approach and saving the technical manual for live teachers and students who take the time to do more than memorize simple formulas. (reading long articles is a good start, however!) Just as there are far more identically made items from factory mass-production adorning our living rooms, crowding our persons, and entering our bodies than individually crafted, thoughtfully produced pieces of food or furniture, so there have always been and will always be pieces of music whose composers, when confronted with a potential challenge, grab for the few technical tricks they know and paste them into whatever they are writing for an audience that doesn’t mind the cliché or the disunity.

But if I may, I’d like to throw down this challenge for those who are willing to take it. It is a creative appropriation of something Jesus liked to end his parables with. It is also an acknowledgement that not everybody is going to find these thoughts appealing enough to take seriously. Maybe because they don't know what I'm talking about (in which case the fault may be mine) or because they are too comfortable with what they already know. Remember that 'elitist' Jesus who said things like ‘narrow is the road…and few find it’ or ‘not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven’ or ‘Those who can accept this, should." Yes, that Jesus:

"He who has ears, let him hear!"

Too Many Notes?
posted March 21, 2010

I’ve been reading a few blogs by Christian pianists this year, and came across one by a fellow who doesn’t try to put Amway to shame with his zeal for salesmanship and does not come across as God’s gift to the piano and the rest of us---which is a nice change, unfortunately—and therein I have read some things of interest.

A while ago, this gentleman decided to make a New Year’s resolution. It was to not play so many notes.

Now, that is not necessarily such a bad idea. But my first reaction to it (forgive the rudeness) was, oh, bother. The reason for that reaction is that it seems to be the dominant bit of rhetoric in church piano music today. The thinking is, apparently, that runs and passages with a lot of notes in them must always be for the sole purpose of impressing people with the technique of the pianist. This is itself widely regarded as a bad thing because it is supposed to take the emphasis off of worship of God and put it on the showman-pianist. Neither assumption is without foundation, particularly, it seems to me, when you see many a Christian pianist putting gallons of notes in what appears to be exactly that use. When, similarly, their press-kits and personal prose are used to talk themselves up to such heights as mere angels feel is above their pay grade, it seems to cinch the deal.

Like so many assumptions, however, there is another side.

Mozart was accused of writing ‘too many notes’ (that episode in the movie “Amadeus” is actually based on a historical reality). So was Bach. On the other hand, so were any number of pianistic pyrotechnicians who made their careers out of stunning and stupefying every fellow citizen they could make a few bucks from. Schumann had sort of a problem with this. He called the practitioners ‘Philistines.’

My thumbnail survey is intended here simply to convey the idea that accusations of excess notes befall justly and unjustly alike. It is indeed a hallmark of persons in every field that involves communication trying to impress others by throwing as much apparent content into the mix with a dizzying prolixity that hopes to substitute volume for quality. On the other hand, every composer of merit has at some time been accused of either requiring too many notes or being too complicated.

The idea of how many notes are necessary is, therefore, not something that can be quantified like a tax table, where you look it up and try to stay below quota. Unless Mozart was wrong and his critics were right, there are times when it is necessary to use plenty of notes, maybe for purposes that go far behind simply stupefying people into appreciation.  But there are also, among composers of merit (we are assuming the voice of history to be substantially correct) those who preach the virtues of fewer notes. Brahms, for instance, who said in later life (which is often an apparent requisite for this sort of orientation) that it was wonderfully hard to let the extra notes fall beneath the table. In which case, many of today’s church pianists whose blogs I have read and whom I have personally heard laud sonic thrift are in good company.

When it comes to matters of religion they are in even better company—or, at least, the avalanche of opinion is on their side. There are any number of living composers, some quite famous, who have embraced both spirituality and simplicity, and a belief that the two are intimately connected. One of them, England’s composer-par-excellence John Tavener, went so far as to say that he believed that ‘complexity and evil are closely aligned.’

Anyone who has read this blog before can gather what I think of that comment. Simplemindedness has been responsible for much more evil than complexity ever will be—simply because complexity can’t get enough votes.

As a man in middle age, at perhaps the most complex stage of life, sliding inexorably into what one hopes will be a serenity granted uniquely to the aged, I am beginning to feel increasingly a temptation toward simplicity. Pieces with more notes in them take more energy: to write, to practice, to conceive, to prepare, to maintain. For a long time I was a voracious proponent of allowing complexity into matters of music and theology (and musical theology), partly because it seemed like no one else was doing it, and yet the world around me seems to cry out for an outlook that allows an authentic response that does not include stripping most of it away until what we are left with is comfortable and bland. Of course what is complicated can also be frightening and we long for security, particularly when we no longer have the courage to reach out and beyond whatever we know. For some, this is a characteristic of old age; for others it happens almost immediately.

I imagine this increasing simplicity to be an antidote to the years of bewildering struggle to tame great challenges. And in this regard, the Master Narrative can be upheld by countless examples. The same Brahms of the above quote spent the years of his relative youth trying to grasp the entire piano with two hands (witness the sonatas); it is no surprise his latter-day disciple Marteau tries to take hold of the universe in his. Our esteemed contemporaries have perhaps two reasons for a return to a ‘spiritual simplicity,’ one being the case of personal biography (they have grown weary of tilting at technical windmills) and the other being an answer to the musical heritage of Romanticism and its rapacious demands of size, virtuosity, and a canvas that tried to encompass everything—except the infinite. These, apparently, lend themselves to small gestures and much repetition. Or so the current school thinks.

One thing about being friends with complexity is that it causes one to hesitate before making sweeping statements. (Sometimes you can’t help yourself) It causes one to attempt a friendship with this approach of narcoleptic ritual even while giving it that unflattering name. It recognizes that despite the sins of complexity, (Prokoffiev was forever complaining about his but seemed unable to do anything about them, despite—or because of—the political ramifications) simplicity is not so innocent as it would like us to believe. It can also be an idol, or at least an untested assumption.

Are there not places for its opposite? Suppose you are writing of the profligate generosity of God? Should it be done in many notes or few? Would it not cause you to waste notes boundlessly in response to the awesomeness and wonder of creation? Is there no room for a magisterial procession of notes or a sweeping gaggle of them, giggling over the whole range of the piano in intimation of the joys of a new creation? Just a thought.

Surely there is something dopamine-inducing about a serene succession of c-major chords. But assuming them to be the will of God? Remember, there are 6-billion people on this planet of His. And more insects. (even species of insects!) And not all of them think alike.  Let us not use our religious insight (limited as it is) to box people in.

It is written that no man is an island. To which I would add that no person is a monopoly.


The Sacred Text?
posted 10/10/10

Having recently come across some blog articles from Christian pianists who are strongly of the opinion that any and all music of other composers should be changed at will, I want to discuss the idea of a received text and whether it ought to be treated as sacrosanct—that is, not to be in any way interfered with, or ‘improved upon.’ I do this assuming for my audience people who are not classical musicians and who find the whole idea of playing the written notes “as is” a bit strange. There are some, of course, who would find working from written notes at all strange, as they play entirely by ear and make up their music on the spot. I happen to be an improviser, a composer, and a classical pianist, so I can see value in many approaches to music, enough to deplore, or at least smile indulgently, at people who assume that whatever way they happen to make music must be infinitely superior to any other way.

An article that was published recently in Wall Street Journal stimulated the comment from a couple of bloggers (and wide agreement among those on the comment board) that it ought to be OK to change music. Not simply your own, of course, but those of others, even those exulted individuals who are held up to be paragons of musical greatness. I happen to disagree with that notion—the last part of it, anyhow, but I want to explain, as best I can, why that is so, and to explore the issue more fully. It is a bit complicated, and one of the problems with the position taken by at least one individual is that he seemed to simplify it far too much.

It is always good to remember that we are products of our own psychology, and that this is made up of life experiences that others may not share. It is also a product of our limitations of thinking—our assumptions, in other words. I want to point that out because audience to whom I am speaking seems to hold widely differing ideas about what is important about music and I am hoping they’ll have the patience to read my observations. Rather than characterize anyone or their ideas with a broad brush and then knock them flat with a few words I’d like to impart such wisdom as I have (or don’t have) in me. It takes time.

Of the opinions expressed, the one I consider to be least fair (and who, in stating his position, said he “[didn’t] even know why this was a debate”, so convinced was he of the obvious correctness of his ideas) included what I consider a rather poor characterization of classical music and its practitioners in general. What I mean is that, if I held the same notions about the attitudes he seems to think people universally share whose minds are bent toward the study and dissemination of classical music, I would completely share his opinion.

I don’t know much about the gentleman’s experiences, but it is possible that he has met (or imagined) many people who were narrow minded in outlook, pedantic in approach, and perhaps just plain hurtful, or at least discouraging of him and his musical efforts, and who also championed ‘good music,’—that of Bach, Beethoven, and company, exalted gods all, in the exaggerated praise of some of their devotees. The effect would be the same as a person who did not want to have a thing to do with Christianity because he or she believed that all Christians were merely judgmental hypocrites, and perhaps had met a few persons who answered that description nicely. In their minds, the case has been made for having nothing to do with such people of their holier-than-thou club. I would certainly sympathize with that, because I am no great lover of judgmental hypocrites myself—in fact, anyone with any concern about the Christian church ought to feel a plentiful amount of righteous anger on the subject (except that it easily becomes self-righteous and judgmental!).

What is a legitimate feeling, however, is also a great excuse not to become involved with an institution that makes demands of its members. At the very least, you should show up on Sunday. Moreover, you may have to serve on a committee. Greater still, your very outlook on life will be changed. You might find yourself becoming a disciple of a being you never took seriously before and now has caused you to rethink everything you thought was important about your life—or to think about them for the first time. The cost might be quite high.

The same thing (though with less spiritual import) can be said about classical music. We can stand at a safe distance and throw stones at it, or we can become involved in it. In the first case, it is better to argue on the basis of emotions. Our good blogger makes that case that people who ‘dare’ to change notes in, say, Bach, are considered ‘arrogant’ and think they know better than Bach. This is an argument based on the haughty attitudes of the ‘notes only’ people he decries. It is always a stronger position to argue a case based on the unfair behavior of the opposite camp—because there always is some. However, in the end, it still dodges the question. A thing may be of value even if some of its backers are poor examples in attitude.

As for the second approach, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, the ‘inside is bigger than the outside.’ Classical music is a rich, thrilling, mind-and-spirit-stretching enterprise, at least to me. But persons who are not interested in it often point out the snobbery, elitism, and anti-social behavior that seems to go with it. For my money, people who exhibit such traits are often much more on the outside than they suppose. Even the most rabid disciples of classical music may not understand it very well, and may be using it chiefly to boost their social status (‘we appreciate the finer things in life, you heathen!”) or distinguish themselves from the rest of society.  Some of our finest composers had at least as difficult a time with their most enthusiastic adherents as they did with their critics!

I often find that my apologies for such music and the church are similar—that in trying to get to an authentic, exciting, source, one has to thread one’s way deftly through a great crowd of people shouting at each other over peripheral issues, and taking cues from the others’ behavior (which they themselves had some part in causing) rather than attempting to get at the source and see whether there is really something to it.

All of this is my way of suggesting that the persons involved in two of the blogs are probably not that familiar with classical music, nor are the people who follow those blogs. It is just a theory—I could be wrong—but it seems likely that on some level they are looking for a good reason not to have much to do with it.

What this means also is that I and they are apparently of two very different cultures. I play large amounts of classical music on Sunday, on the piano or the organ ( a practice which is, as far as I can tell, a bit unusual, especially regarding the particulars of how I do this), and very few hymn arrangements. The culture surrounding these blogs is principally concerned with hymn arrangements. Back to that in a moment.

Now to the issue at hand. Is the given text of a piece of music written by another subject to change by someone else? 

Classical music has evolved into an elaborately written culture. That is, there are a cluster of assumptions surrounding it that include the idea that every written instruction the composer left behind, or that can be demonstrated to have the authority of the composer’s own intention behind it (rather than some later editor) should be regarded as important. This is in distinct contrast to the music I play with the praise band on Sunday morning. There, we are looking at sheets of ‘music’ that contain lyrics and the barest possible musical instructions, namely, the letter names of a few chords, generally over the word that is sung when it is time for that chord to be sounded (if they got the alignment right!). In that case, I am free to play practically anything that works within the harmony prescribed for that moment. I am not only given the freedom to choose from a wide range of options, it is completely necessary that I do so. In addition to sounding the chord (in any of hundreds of possible permutations) I may add various runs or melodic figures, fills, or passing notes (notes that are not actually part of the chord but are just ‘passing’ through from one to the other) as my musical arsenal permits. Sometimes what I play is just a bare outline, to get out of the way if, for instance, our guitarist has an elaborate solo, or so as not to interfere with the sung words, though my approach can range from very simple to very complex in the same song.

The complete opposite is generally held to be the case with most classical music. There everything is said to be written on the page and the player should honor the composer’s intentions by sticking to them. However, there is, and always has been, a lot of debate within the classical community on what exactly constitutes the authority of the composer and how we may appropriately depart from (or add to) what we think we know about what the music’s originator had in mind. That debate is, naturally enough, as raucous as the people involved in it.

It was, in fact, an article published online by a classical pianist that elicited the responses of our two Christian bloggers. His argument was that there are indeed certain areas where much more latitude should be permitted than simple obeisance to the written instructions; in fact, as he points out, there are a great many musical decisions to be made that cannot possibly be represented on the page and which require that I decide for myself exactly how I am going to execute them. A composer can tell us to play a passage loudly. But how loud? (we haven’t started putting decibel numbers in scores yet that I’m aware) Or that he or she wants the use of the sustaining pedal for resonant sound. But is this precisely indicated? And even if it is, does it produce the desired result, since I am playing the piece in a more resonant chamber than the composer was in at the time of the piece’s creation? This list goes on and on.

All valid points—in fact, despite the apparent gulf between my own musical orientation and those of many of my fellow Christian pianists, there is more agreement than you may think, starting with the fact that I agree with practically everything this fellow says in his article (though I am profoundly irked by one phrase trying to create a chasm between thinking and creativity—I think what he has in mind is a very narrow definition of “thinking”).

There is, however, a lot of ground to cover between the points that she makes regarding the kind of interpretive license that is absolutely necessary to a living, breathing, moving recreation of the music, and the idea that any musical materials we come across are fair game for manipulation in any way in which we happen to see fit. It is this sense of perspective that is missing from the thinking of those who wonder why we are even bothering to discuss this issue. 

There are many points that can be made about this. In fairness to our blogger friends, let’s remind ourselves that they are probably reacting to the extreme end of this scale of latitude, those who refuse anyone any role in the creative process who isn’t the first producer. Like strict constructionists in other fields, people who hold this attitude base their contentions on the grounds that they are able to determine the precise intentions of the creator and that they are able to get completely out of the way and let that person’s true intentions shine forth. To those who do not hold their view, these persons’ renderings are simply another interpretation, however authoritative, but to disciples of this constructionist school, the very word interpretation being applied to their efforts is anathema because in their eyes theirs is the only true way of approach. Everyone who differs is wrong. Their foes contend that creative engagement with the text is necessary to bring it to life; they would say that any and all dealings that go beyond the explicit instructions in the written document are a corruption. The biggest problem with this general attitude (besides its low grade of tolerance) is that it is next to impossible to maintain consistently. For example, I have read articles suggesting that because music is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament in a worship context, it is therefore forbidden for Christians to use music of any kind in their worship. Having read these online, I would posit: is it any more permissible to post these ideas? I don’t recall the internet being mentioned in the New Testament, either!

The people arguing for a greater creative role in any and all music may feel that they are being a corrective to this restrictive view. But let’s first suggest that such narrow-minded persons  do not form the entirety of the classical music profession. Most assume that there is a certain amount of critical thinking that will have to go on in order to play a piece of music, and that it will almost certainly mean that one will, in the end, have rendered one’s own (valid) interpretation, which will differ from others. That does not, however, eliminate the authority of the composer.

Most people who hold more freeing views on our personal permissions with music believe that the notes on the page are not subject to change, either as regards pitch, or rhythm. Other elements are fought over with more success. But why draw the line there? If I admit that I am not approaching the music as a sacred text, afraid that I may trample on something the composer intended by ignoring a single staccato dot or playing presto a little too presto, why should I care about getting all those niggling notes right?

Freedom is addictive. If I can change my own music, why not the music of anybody else I choose? Why should I be stopped from exercising my creative understanding in any way possible? One can feel the relief as the restrictions fall away. And therein, frankly, we have a host of problems. As Paul pointed out, arguing with those stubborn Corinthians, “not everything is good.”

For me, being faithful to the text is, in large part, respecting the composer. I have my own things to say, but I will say them at my own time and on my own authority. I will not put them in the mouth of someone else. Often, people who don’t mind changing the music of another composer also don’t mind not telling anybody about it. That piece of ‘Bach’ they are playing could be 80 percent somebody else and it doesn’t strike them as at all inappropriate to fail to mention that. I can’t speak for Bach, though I can’t see why he would feel differently, but as a composer myself I don’t like the thought that my works would be changed at the whim of anybody who wished and then passed off as mine—or theirs. The legal term for the second is of course plagiarism. It’s too bad we don’t have a term for the first.

This is an area where the bloggers and I differ a great deal. One of them is on record as saying he doesn’t mind if anybody changes his music. Fine. He is exercising his compositional authority to tell people that he doesn’t need any compositional authority! He’s certainly allowed. But then he decides on behalf of everyone else (including Bach) that the same ought to be true for them, too.

I’ll get to more sympathetic strands for this approach in a minute (and in another article), but I’d first like to explain how this should not apply to just everybody. As I said, part of this is simple respect. There are indeed composers who feel that their music is subject to be used in any way the recipient wishes to use it, and never mind its original condition. But there are also plenty of composers on record complaining that performers don’t take their instructions seriously.  Part of our role as responsible performers should be to note the difference. How does/did the composer feel about the permeability of the written note? This one can get a bit sticky, though. We know that Bach changed some of his own compositions. Does that mean we can also? Chopin was even worse about it. Still, once he spent the whole night pacing around to come up with two measures (which he did!) do we have the right to create our own differing versions?

I would say no, for several reasons. The most obvious one to me is that I’ve seen people do this any number of times and the result is never in any way close to the level of quality of the original. The person making the change never realizes this; being convinced that they understand perfectly well what is going on musically, they have no idea how they are changing the music to mean something else, robbing it of its content. Even pretty intelligent people can do this. (I am reminded that my advisor once edited a sentence of mine to read the complete opposite of my entire thesis! She believed that my sentence was too complicated and that she would simplify it; which she did. She relieved me of my entire argument!)

When it comes to classical music, very few people understand the thinking that went into the choice of the notes and the rhythms, the phrases, the dynamics, and so on. We are dealing with music that is generally believed to be unusually good (keep in mind that Mozart had hundreds of contemporaries whose music is not often played) and which comes from a time and place in which people’s worldviews and informing philosophies were quite different, so it would require an unusually empathetic intelligence to get within the spirit of such a composer. As to quality—shall I risk sounding like a Pharisee and simply tell people that they can’t improve Bach? Yes, I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell them that. It is not that Bach did everything perfectly—he revised many of his earlier pieces later in life so he clearly continued to learn—but that it is extremely unlikely that someone who has not taken the same time and trouble to understand is going to be able to get the same results. Unfortunately, people who have not taken the trouble don’t seem to have the same ability to judge, either, and never see anything wrong with their experiments. All I can say is, trust me, those pieces you post online in which you try to sound like Mozart only sound like someone with less ability trying to sound like music that is 200 years old. Why not leave the man alone? If you can’t play something, rather than simplifying or abridging it, why play it at all? Leave that to those who have made the effort to satisfy the demands of the composer. A person who runs the 800m hurdles doesn’t complain he has the right to knock a few over because they are too high anyway, he runs the race under the assumption that it is his responsibility to come to terms with the hurdles, not their responsibility to come to terms with him.

It is the same with learning in general. Rather than changing the material, one lets the material change us. We are different for the experience. If we let Bach show us something new we will be better for it. Even if, at first we have no idea why he chose this note over that one.

Sometimes, a year later, I suddenly realize the cleverness of the compositional decision, and it suddenly seems that much more extraordinary. This has happened so many times that I hesitate to assume that any time I am having a ‘disagreement’ with a composer it is because I am right and he is doing something that is unnecessary.

In the case of Bach my friends from the 21st century Christian piano music subculture probably have very little means to realize how great this difference is because they likely view musical construction in an entirely different way. In the praise band example I mentioned above, music is thought of as consisting of chords, harmonic blocks in which the individual notes don’t matter so long as the overall effect is achieved. The patterning of these chords is often quite repetitive as well, and often the same from one piece to the other. Bach, though, lived at the end of an era when composition came through the simultaneous combination of melodies, not through harmonic blocks (which were still fairly new ideas, even if Bach was a bit of a reactionary). When Bach wants an E, he writes an E. Another member of the C major chord wouldn’t work, probably, though when music educators try to explain why they inevitably fall back on a series of rules and prohibitions which seem the very opposite of the creativity for which Bach is lauded. In a sense, this is true. Counterpoint is a discipline, and discipline restricts freedom, but in a very necessary way which allows it to sing out all the more. On the other hand, many of our educators don’t understand the process very well, either. If my counterpoint professor at the conservatory had played through a Bach fugue the way she played through mine—very slowly, and with a pen ready to circle all the minute infractions and temporary dissonances she found—Mr. Bach would have had trouble passing the class (that I did is no testimony to my contrapuntal prowess, surely!)

Despite all the gatekeepers of this sort of music who make it seem, sometimes unwittingly, as though the music they claim to love is mainly a procession of dry rules, or is the sonic embodiment of an old person shaking his or her head sternly at the young when they try to have any kind of fun, there is a real joy behind the discovery of the ways in which sound is used to communicate waves of emotion, stores of logic and reason, profound truths—so many ways in which this music can be engaged, but indeed, in order to engage it we have to presume that it has some worth on its own, that we should not be so quick to put our own stamp on what isn’t ours.

This idea has its own theological dimension as well. Am I to assume that because I can alter creation in any number of ways that I ought to exercise my ability? Does that make it my right? Do I, in fact, own certain things, and does this give me sovereignty over them? I own a piece of property with a house on it, but the city of Champaign still insists that I pay taxes on it. They restrict my wish to put up a four story billboard because there is a town ordinance against the building of certain things without their permission. But it is my property, isn’t it? Don’t I get to do whatever I want with it? How about taking a larger view. Does mankind get to dump chemicals and pollutants in rivers and streams, foul the air with smoke, and kill off millions of species of plant and animal because they have been given dominion over it? How absolute is that dominion?

It seems here that it is wise to remember that the composer of a piece of music does not have absolute dominion, either. In fact, once the piece leaves his or her hands it is really at the mercy of others. Those others could exercise restraint by reminding themselves of their responsibility as well as their freedom, or they could not. I think we do well to practice an attitude of respect, rather than simply assuming we have the right to use whatever he have been given in whatever way we see fit with no authority higher than ourselves. A composer is our neighbor; he or she is not God, but then, we are also supposed to love our neighbor.

I have been talking mainly about composers in the classical tradition like Bach, who place musical details on a page after careful consideration, and usually with a great deal of skill. I would not argue this to be the case with every piece of music ever written. For someone like Beethoven, each phrase, each motive, speaks of something larger than the immediate moment, and to take it out lessens the impact of the whole. For someone who is writing a hymn arrangement to get an amateur pianist out of a jam—the immediate need for music on Sunday on little practice, the situation is probably going to be very different. Such a composer may very well not care that a particular Eb be retained in a chord, or that a crescendo not begin until the third beat of a measure. In which case, I heartily concur. Let’s not be purists where purity is not required.

Mostly I would leave that decision up to the composer.

In the final analysis, our pianist friends are probably not going to wreck  Bach or destroy Beethoven. I’ve already suggested that I don’t imagine they play a great quantity of these works to begin with. The versions of such pieces that many church pianists encounter are probably badly hacked up or poorly conceived adaptations of the original and are already spurious, so rearranging those 3rd hand arrangements will probably not affect the musical quality adversely.

I turn now to two comments made by one of the bloggers. One is that in order for one to grow artistically one should have the right to change a passage. Having read this blog often, I understand his prejudices against musicians who play only what is on the page and do not arrange or compose for themselves. I share them, in fact. I think being able to create musically from your own understanding rather than uncritically accepting what someone else has put before you is important. I just wouldn’t do it with Mozart—not publicly, anyway, though I have been known to improvise cadenzas to his piano concerti (which is what he himself did, and where no written ones by Mozart are available I don’t see why we can’t supply our own, provided we try to work within his vocabulary). I have also improvised or composed other passages in the classical literature where it is evident that that is what the composer wanted or did himself. Provided we are not rewriting Brahms and pretending it is still Brahms when that interference is neither historically grounded nor considerate of the voice of the composer, then I think such co-creation has a place.

But let us return to earth for a moment. Our blogger is dealing in the world of the ‘functional’ church musician; the one who is in a hurry, always providing music for various functions, often not to be listened to with any attention, who cannot work at the top of his or her skill level because of these demands, and is probably an amateur and is poorly paid, if at all. Is changing a passage such a bad thing under those conditions? Again, I would suggest it depends on the music. I would learn from those who have much to teach, respecting their authority. I would not simplify a passage merely to simplify it; I would find something else to play, and come back to the piece when I could put in the time necessary to meet it on its terms rather than expect it to conform to mine. I think being too reckless in this regard is dangerous.

Even among persons with whom I disagree I recognize their right to their own voice and do not try to change it or write over it. It is the totalitarian regime that tries to rewrite history not merely by condemning past political foes but by pretending they never even existed. Similarly, I recognize the right of St. Basil to his opinion of church music, even though I will strenuously defending my right to tell you he is full of baloney. I think it was G. K. Chesterton who referred to tradition as being the democracy of the dead. We have to pay attention to the voices of those who came before us just as we pay attention to our own. It is too easy to cut off our history and only think of the here and now—or only what I happen to think is expedient when it comes to a passage of music. When my blogging friend suggests that one might want to ‘update’ Bach, besides the disaster that I think usually results when someone tries to edit a text who has no sympathy for it, I think: why try to erase the thinking of a gifted person of the past? Why not simply create anew, for this time and place, in your own style, and preserve the integrity of others who, at various times and places, have done the same thing?

Again, we have to return to earth and realize that most church pianists on a Sunday morning are in too much of a rush to get music provided when asked to consider issues of this magnitude. One of the bloggers has a point when he says few will be able to play classical works beautifully—your odds, he says, are about as good as being a point guard in the NBA. But then, I suppose I am basically an NBA point guard in this field. I can understand that many others are not. There are hundreds of collections of pieces available for such occasions and such emergencies, simply to get music made when there is not enough time to prepare something that requires a lot of preparation. And many of their composers are not insistent that their work be presented as it is on the page. That is fine. What bothers me, though, is that he, like many in this and every field, believes that his method of working should apply to everyone. If it works for him, why not every person in every time and place? If he is fine with his works being changed, why shouldn’t everyone else be fine with it, too?

His other point, though, is curious. In trying to show that, because Bach was known to change his scores, that we should be able to do the same, he says this shows that Bach did not think his work was ‘inspired.’ This is perhaps dangerous territory for a conservative Christian (which I assume him to be). Is he aware that there are, in fact, different versions of the bible? If anyone is not, I would suggest getting a study bible with footnotes that read things like “Some ancient manuscripts read the following….” And see how often a translator or editor has had to make a choice between apparently conflicting source texts. We have been disrespecting each other’s contributions for a long time!

In making that simple equation (trying to expose the intractable nature of his opponents by suggesting they hold these texts ‘sacred’ even though Bach didn’t), he has kicked over a bucket of worms. What do we do with the parts of the Bible we don’t care for? Ignore them? Paraphrase them in a way that changes their meaning? These approaches are both being tried today, and have a long tradition, though, thankfully they have yet to supplant the various readings that we believe constitute the original texts. And I would be the first to line up against anything that radically changes the text as we understand it (within the variations that exist, and the reasonable options open to translators [there are various ‘legitimate’ readings of Bach, too, in many cases]). I would urge that we leave it as it is (multiple readings included), even though there are places where “God’s law” tells us that we ought to stone our children. Leave it there—it is a written record of our past. I think we’ve moved on to a place where that is no longer considered the command of a just God, or anyone else. But don’t erase it. I am glad that theologians and imaginative Christian writers have used their own unique gifts in adding to the Christian literature and speak of God’s love for his children in the language of today, but I would ask them not to insert anything into the gospel of John (that may be how John 8 got there, by the way). Commentary is welcome, but not at the price of erasing the object of that commentary.

Have I become completely idolatrous in suggesting that somehow an obviously sacred text and a musical composition by someone of renown be treated with the same level of respect? It is not that I think it is that a sacred text alone has the right to be kept ‘sacrosanct.’ I would preserve anything that keeps us aware that our own voices should not try to drown those who can no longer speak, but rather engage in dialogue with them. Particularly when it appears they have things of value to impart to us. And even when those insights seem hopelessly out-of-date. I will continue to speak of tolerance and compassion and empathy to my last breath, against the religious legalities and mindset that have called forth fury and scorn for anyone but those who believe they are the chosen few and must exercise God’s wrath upon the rest of us. But I will not rewrite Leviticus.

Minor Chords
posted March 1, 2012

Each year around Lent the Christian musical world has fresh reason to debate the efficacy of one of music's basic harmonic elements: the use of minor chords.

To a professional musician, this is a fairly bizarre thing to be arguing over--it might be, in fact, similar to a debate over evolution, something many Christians also don't believe in. The reason for the comparison is that evolution has been widely accepted in the scientific community (and the public at large more recently) as the explanation for the similarity of the earth's various species and the manner in which they came to be for well over a hundred years and on the back of that idea thousands of new scientific ideas, many of which have also long been embraced, and themselves given rise to whole host of other ideas and technologies in a variety of other fields, have been spawned. Minor chords have been in use for several hundred years and have made their appearance in a wide variety of music, much of which, in our own times, has accepted the various intervals involved in making up these harmonies and has moved on to build chords that are far more complex and heterogeneous than the simple minor chord.  And yet there are people still telling us they don't like them very much and complain vigorously about their use even in small doses. It reminds me of a very funny bit from science fiction comedy writer Douglas Adams who commented that some people were complaining that coming down out of the trees had been a mistake; and still others thought that even leaving the oceans had been a bad idea. To the specialists the ship has undeniably sailed; but there will always be persons in the general public who are a few steps behind. Some of them will be very unimpressed by notions of progress, even if that progress is from five centuries ago.

Still, I get the dislike of minor chords. They aren't as happy as the major ones. And this, for many people, perhaps non-Christian as well (although I haven't heard anyone else complain about their use) is what it really comes down to. Minor chords make them sad, therefore there shouldn't be any. I think there are good grounds for challenging that notion.

I want to first offer a few exceptions--if you have suffered a trauma and your psyche is in a vulnerable state, I can fully understand your wanting to use music only to comfort, console, and generally uplift you. I am sorry if you walk into our church during Lent to hear, gushing from the organ, a piece of music that seems to wrestle with some of the darker parts of the human emotional spectrum. It is always tricky to deal with the unknown situation of having hundreds of people in various states of emotional turbulence and with all kinds of associative ideas hearing the same piece of music every Sunday. One bit of ecclesial advice comes to mind: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is hard to imaging being able to do all of that with one piece of music; never mind the same sermon!

And while there is nothing that says music in minor keys has to be sad--in fact, depending on other factors, such as the speed, rhythmic activity, instrumentation, and so on, the music might seem bold, exciting, daring, engaged in a battle whose outcome is still unknown, inspired, inspirational, and on and on--for many the presence of minor chords is an emotional downer. This has as much to do with a person's perception of the music as it does with what the composer might have intended, or what someone with a different experience of musical phenomena, might encounter, but for most their own perception is nine tenths of the law.

As I said, people process their experiences differently, and I am certainly sympathetic to those whose battles with life have left them unable to deal with music that they perceive as dark. However, it is often the case that there are persons with a very low tolerance for anything that is 'sad' simply because they have a low tolerance for it, and it has nothing to do with their own lives being difficult. And in this case the consequences may not be at all fortunate.

As children, we often complain about things we think are unpleasant, such as doing our homework or chores. Our parents try (vainly) to explain to us that there are great rewards for doing what needs to be done even if it is not pleasant right away. Those of us who eventually mature to the point where we internalize this lesson are able to achieve things we would not otherwise. For example, every time I start to work on a new piece of any consequence I spend a few days messing it up--playing all kinds of wrong notes, missing rhythms, playing things over and over again to coordinate the pedals with the hands, and generally feeling inadequate because the results aren't measuring up. I happen to know, having been through this many times, that given several hours of this I will eventually be able to enjoy making music out of the new piece. It is not a question for me of just being able to do it, as so many who don't do what I do assume (particularly young students, who give up too easily), it is a question of slogging through until you finally achieve what you set out to do. In the meantime you have to deal with the frustration, the loneliness, the possibility of failure--all things that do not contribute greatly to your sense of self esteem. The way to reach your goal lies in being able to handle those feelings rather than avoiding them.

The season of Lent, however, is not built on an achievement model so much as a denial model--not being in denial, however, but denying ourselves. During Lent we 'give up' something, we think about mortality, we think about our sin, we are somber--in order that the time of Easter may stand out more fully as we finally give expression to all of those pent up "Alleluias" we've been saving up for six weeks.  The path to resurrection goes through, not around, the way of the cross.

Saving up, unfortunately, is another thing Americans don't do very well. We are better at living for the now at the expense of the long term. Neither does the government, we keep hearing. And it is coming back to bite us. There will be consequences. There already are consequences (particularly for the state of Illinois, which conveniently forgot to fund its pension program).

These are very practical lesson Lent could teach us. Even for those who see no spiritual benefit whatever to the idea of Lent. The idea that being uncomfortable is actually necessary to the human condition. What makes me sad is when people do whatever they can to avoid being uncomfortable to the point when they ignore the suffering around them. People who need help, who need our concern, but we aren't willing to bother noticing because it's too depressing. Shame on those victims of war, famine and genocide for making us feel sad. We don't have a problem with racism in this country because it would make us feel like bad people. We don't want to feel like bad people.

Jesus doesn't want us to feel like bad people either, right? Often the Christian message is right there alongside our instincts for making things nice right away by assuring us that all we have to do is accept that our sins have been forgiven and we are good to go. On the one hand, it sounds like perfectly sound theology--how can any of us, by our own effort, make ourselves right with God? But how quickly it becomes a matter of simply feeling better about ourselves without having to do anything that would require effort. Since you can't earn your way into heaven (that would be works righteousness) you can ignore all that stuff in the bible about doing good for your neighbor, or being rewarded for charitable giving, or for visiting the sick and imprisoned, or being judged on the basis of your works.

I think we need Lent, particularly if it is not popular. We need to hear its message--of self-denial, of reminders of our mortality (bummer) of taking up your cross and following a strange man from Nazareth in an enterprise that is far from certain by any standards of common sense. The way to save your life is to lose it. A seed has to fall to the ground and die first (major bummer). And if that message comes with a few minor chords in it, all the better. If you do not like them, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to build tolerance. There may be some in your congregation that need to hear a few, to feel as though the music knows something about their travails and isn't afraid to get down there with them. The vast majority of the music you are likely to here the rest of the year will be in a major key anyhow. Being human, you are more likely to notice the small amount of music that you don't like, however. It reminds me that one morning long ago a music director commented (negatively) that "all the music is in minor keys this morning" and "we're doing too much music in minor keys." It was true--he made the observation because we had just rehearsed our second piece in a minor key. I think it was also the second minor key piece we'd done all year, but they both happened to be in the same morning and that was too much, evidently. Tolerance is relative. I remember after a community showing of "The King and I" (spoiler alert: the king dies at the end) someone left the comment: "We like happy endings." After all of those happy tunes and pleasant spectacle, a bit of reflection was still too much for them, it seems.

Which brings up another observation. Even a piece written in a major key is likely to have a few minor chords in it. That's because, in every major system, there are only three major chords. Three others are minor, and one is diminished. So, in order to have a piece of music with more than three different chords in it, you are going to wind up spending a few moments in a minor harmony. It's amazing, though, how many pieces of music (praise songs in particular) manage to completely avoid this phenomenon. It requires, of course, a very limited harmonic vocabulary. This has never bothered a great number of people which is perplexing, although I'll submit that at its best, it shows what a remarkable number of musical things can be stated with very few chords.

Lest you think this is a new phenomenon, let me add that many of the old hymns do pretty much the same thing. And one time, the editor of the Methodist hymnal got in big trouble for changing the harmonization of an old standard so that it added a few of these 'secondary' (minor) chords. So many people wrote letters (this was back in the 1930s) that they put the hymn back the way it was two years later when they republished the hymnal. You can get in trouble for making changes, for making things more complicated, or for using minor chords--and he did all three!

It is probably a good thing the Biblical text is not subject to that sort of revision. I can think of several Psalms, for instance (many of which are read during Lent) which would have to be removed because some people find them too depressing. Others, strange as it may seem, have turned to them for a kind of comfort, or identification with their suffering. On the cross, Jesus quoted from the 22nd Psalm: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? It is hard to imagine he would have wanted to spend his time hanging on the cross in agony reciting the 23rd. "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want..."

Many Protestants some decades ago managed to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects of Holy Week as well, which is why many churches today combine Palm Sunday with the Passion story, so that people who don't go to church during Holy Week still have to spend a few moments reflecting on the part were Jesus gets crucified. Otherwise we go straight from the part where Jesus is being lauded on a donkey to the part where he's being resurrected from something that we didn't even know happened. It is difficult to empathize with someone in pain from a position of complete comfort, which could well be a large part of the mystery of the Incarnation. God found out what it is like to be us.

As I've mentioned, I am sensitive to the different levels of tolerance for music in minor; there are those who have experienced a lot of suffering in their lives and do not wish to dwell on it, and others whose lot is pretty protected and who don't want to be discomfited even for five minutes on a Sunday morning. I obviously have less sympathy with the latter group. Music does bear a connection to other aspects of our lives, particularly when it seems to be dealing with emotions; we are, after all, chiefly creatures of emotions. And our tolerance for uncomfortable emotions, and for dealing with suffering and the suffering of others is probably not disconnected from how we deal with these things in art. There is, however, one phenomenon which cannot be said to exist in music which is not in minor keys; it is an Easter in miniature, hope in despair, light in the darkness, something which acknowledges grief and then transcends it: something called a Picardy third, whereby the final chord of a piece in a minor key may be major. Joy gets the final word.

It can be some kind of effect. You should experience it.


Some people, Dr. Weil says, become depressed because they expect to experience happiness most, if not all the time, and they don't. Instead people experience pain and loss and failure and frustration and fear. The notion that a human being should be mostly happy, most of the time is a uniquely modern, uniquely American, and uniquely destructive notion.

Many parents think its their job to keep their kids happy all the time. But human beings were not designed to be happy all the time; our moods are supposed to vary. This is why both the shedding of tears as well as the deep belly laugh both release endorphin which comfort us. Our moods are not supposed to vary to an extreme where they disable us or make our relationships with others dysfunctional, but its perfectly normal and healthy to have lows as well as highs; to have good days and to have bad days. There may even be some redemptive value in unhappy and frustrating experiences.

--Wes Wilkey, sermon "Throwing Yourself on the Ground" March 25, 2012


O God, we confess our low tolerance of pain and suffering. We avoid situations or encounters with others which might cause us discomfort.  We are scandalized by outward show of emotion. It is easier for us to hide from the distress of others than to be exposed to forms of human misery and grief. Yet we believe in Christ, who sacrificed himself that we might be reconciled to God. Help us trust in Him whenever He calls us to go into unpleasant situations to bring the gospel to those who suffer.  Amen

--prayer of confession from Faith UMC bulletin, Sunday, March 25, 2012

An Interview with Marteau

Pianonoise: Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Marteau. As you're aware, I'll be playing one of your pieces this Sunday, and I thought our readers might like to know something about it. I've played several of your works in the past, and I've noticed they don't have very much in common with the standard sacred literature for the piano. This one is certainly no exception. What motivates you to compose hymn arrangements for piano in this manner?

Marteau: Well, in the first place, I don't consider them arrangements. In an arrangement you present the piece everybody knows and loves and your job is just to get out of the way and make the piece sound nice--maybe a short interlude here or there, the usual half-step key change (God, I hate those!)--do it again louder, you know, all that sort of thing. In a composition you are really able to have something to say about the hymn besides 'oh, isn't that pretty.' Sunday morning needs to be about more than just relaxing from a busy week, and our music ought to be able to reflect that.

Pianonoise: How do you approach your hymn compositions? What gives you a start?

Marteau: Well, as you know, I improvise a lot, and sometimes I just toss my fingers on the piano and a chord speaks to me and I start playing around with it. I rummage around a lot, looking for something. I think Stravinsky called it grubbing around for the artist's pleasure, or something like that. And it's strange, I'll keep looking and playing and saying no, no, no, until I strike a chord and a voice inside says 'this belongs to the piece' and I don't know where yet, but I take it down and keep going. And at some point I'll discover the hymn it belongs to.

Pianonoise: So the hymn doesn't come first.

Marteau: Sometimes it does, but it takes time to realize it. I've all kinds of ways of writing, and each experience is a bit different. Sometimes it is like sculpture--you know, you chip away at everything that doesn't sound like what you are trying to write. Or you being with an impression, a feeling--I think seldom an idea, but maybe the words make me see the overall structure.

Pianonoise: You're not simply thinking of musical procedures here.

Marteau: No I'm not. Each hymn--that is to say, the poem, the words-- suggests a different kind of musical approach. If the hymn is epic, then the music is epic. If the hymn suggests a particular mood, or a type of musical form, then that is what I want. I don't like it when composers write hymns for the piano and they all sound pretty music the same. It not only suggests poverty of musical inventiveness, it means the composer hasn't wrestled with the implications of that particular hymn. I'm certainly not given to the idea that everything ought to sound affirming and/or relaxing.

Pianonoise: There do seem to be quite a number of vastly different styles in your music. This hymn seems to have suggested a romantic waltz. And, if I'm not out of line, a bit of borrowing. Do I hear Tchaikovsky poking out from the center?

Marteau: I picked up some harmonic progressions from Tchaikovsky at a garage sale. He didn't need them anymore.

Pianonoise: I think I read somewhere that you don't at all care for composers church music who try to make hymns sound classical by putting them in the style of various composers.

Marteau: Well, for one thing they do a horrid job of it. And I'm not about to try to make the hymns sound more "respectable" by dressing them up in "classical" garb. I don't channel other composers without a purpose. I never do it in my larger collection--only here in the "Little Piano Book" pieces. And there is usually sarcasm involved.

Pianonoise: That's sure to confuse some good churchgoing folks. Sarcasm?

Marteau: Very often that's how the Hebrew prophets got around.

Pianonoise: I know what you mean. One of my favorite Bible verses is the one from Isaiah when he says "Somebody who prophesied plenty of beer and wine would be just the sort of prophet for you people!"

Marteau: That's right.

Pianonoise: So let's suppose some pleasant person is sitting in the pews and hears this very Romantic thing coming out of the piano. They might very well be a little concerned--after all, this doesn't sound like most of the church music we're used to.

Marteau: They may be on to something!

Pianonoise: Perhaps, or they'll just be offended!

Marteau: Well, if you can past your offense at the musical style being employed for a moment, and I realize some can't, there might very well be a reason for it. Had I used a nice "churchly" style nobody would have thought twice about it, which is exactly what I'm hoping to avoid. Sometimes in order to get people to think about something it is necessary to shake them out of their pleasant ruts.

Pianonoise: Now when we think of Tchaikovsky, very often we think of the ballets, Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and so forth. There are certainly elements of the fantastic in them. Was that on your mind? And I should also ask what the enigmatic DWJ stands for as the subtitle of this composition, if you'll divulge it.

Marteau: Dancing With Jesus.

Pianonoise: Well that's certainly unusual. I was thinking about the way the Nutcracker unfolds, for instance, and how the whole ballet is kind of an escapist fantasy. Are you possibly suggesting that the way people treat the Call of Jesus is more in terms of a kind of individual feeling of gratification, rather than thinking about how to live with your neighbor for example? Less about the way of the cross and more about ego gratification? Not so much gritty reality and more about good vibes?

Marteau: You have said it.

Pianonoise: Our pastor is beginning a sermon series this week on how sin and salvation really aren't matters for individuals, but in community. That the whole nation of Israel, not the individual, was called to account for their corporate sins. But in the last few centuries of Protestantism, the emphasis has really been on each person as an individual. I can't tell you how many sermons I sat through at our student-led worship service on campus that were all about taking time out of our busy lives in order to go be with God, generally off by yourself, just you and your Bible.

Marteau: Yes, we certainly put a lot of emphasis on the need to stop being so busy and to go escape the rat race and be with God, which sounds a lot like going on a retreat, or having a picnic lunch with Jesus under a tree somewhere, just the two of you. It's a bit reductionist, to say the least.

Pianonoise: Which reminds me that I've often heard a lot of contemporary praise music derisively called "Jesus is my boyfriend" music.

Marteau: True. But that kind of thing obviously goes back a lot further than that. There may be strains of it in this hymn as well, and it was written in 1852.  Why is it that in order to be with God we have to escape the world? Instead of a serious commitment to living like a follower of the Way the modern Christian seems to be under the impression that the important thing to do here is to escape the stresses and strains of a busy life and to go relax with one's Bible. But the main point seems to be to relax. I can understand that--I'm a bit overbooked myself. But what that has to do with Christianity I have no idea.

Pianonoise: So what we've got here is a bit of a dream sequence. A misinterpretation on the part of the hymn writer, or perhaps the singer, if you will, in which a person receives a "call" from Jesus--by the way, that opening should sound really familiar to anyone with a cell phone.

Marteau: Maybe not so much anymore with so many ringtones to choose from, but I think for a while that was the only thing they played. That was about 10 years ago. Someone's phone went off during a service and I had the idea for combining it with the hymn for a postlude. I don't think the dream sequence was part of it then. I didn't write the piece down until about 10 years later, when I got around to it.

Pianonoise: You don't seem to be in a hurry.

Marteau: It's not really one of my better pieces. I didn't think it was worth taking the time to write down for a while. But I think now that it seems to work as a pointed little vignette.

Pianonoise: So we receive a "call" from Jesus, using the only medium many of us would even notice (if Jesus didn't call us on the phone I don't know how many of us would hear it actually) and off we go on an escapist fantasy which hasn't got a thing to do with actually following Jesus. That's sarcasm. But of course it sounds so pretty I doubt if anyone will notice it.

Marteau: The prophets were usually a lot less subtle. But they spoke in a language everybody knew. And yes, it generally goes right over people's heads. I've played it a few times and I haven't heard anybody even notice the cell phone part yet.

Pianonoise: So I guess I'd better ask this. What is wrong with leaving everything to follow Jesus? Isn't Jesus supposed to be more important than the distractions of everyday life?

Marteau: What if they aren't distractions? What if that is what God wants you to be doing? Look at the second verse of the hymn--leaving home, and toil and kindred. That's leaving everything behind, isn't it? But it is also leaving people behind, and there's the flaw.

Pianonoise:  But aren't we showing Jesus that everything else is less important?

Marteau: Do you remember when Jesus gets into it with the Pharisees because they have decided not to give money to support their aging parents? This gift, they say, is going to go to God instead. Seems like that ought to be the most sanctified thing you could do, putting the temple of God even ahead of your parents.  But Jesus doesn't approve. He calls them hypocrites!

Pianonoise: Why would it be wrong to give that money to God?

Marteau: Because they have an obligation to their parents. That's one of the Ten Commandments. The 5th one. It isn't about loving God instead of your neighbor, it is about loving God and your neighbor. Or, to put it the way John did, how can you love God, whom you haven't seen, if you can't love your neighbor, whom you have? Besides, I have a suspicion that the Pharisees weren't being as holy as they made out. Probably those finks didn't really want to let their relatives get any of their money so they'd found a clever loophole. Besides, they are part of the Levitical system so I wouldn't be all that surprised if the money didn't wind up in their own hands to some degree anyway. That's just a theory.

Pianonoise: What a way to cover their tracks! The best, because you can't argue with someone who is doing something so apparently holy.

Marteau: Exactly. Give it to God so you don't have to take care of your parents! And I love that line in the hymn about leaving home and toil and kindred. Suppose I don't really like my job all that much anyway. Or my responsibilities at home. Wouldn't it be better to just chuck it all to "follow Jesus?"

Pianonoise: So an apparently difficult spiritual thing to do actually winds up as a seduction to take the easy way out under the guise of being holy. I as an individual have achieved a feeling of serenity which I assume to be what Jesus wants for me.

Marteau: And we do it all the time, in small doses. Go be with God, which for some reason always seems to mean individual pursuits like praying and reading your bible, never mind what sorts of things your neighbor or your community might need at the moment. Go find inner peace for yourself. That's what Jesus wants you to do. Take a load off and, incidentally, take time to be holy. Or at least we pine for it. Actually if people did it more often it wouldn't show up in so much of our rhetoric. We talk about it so much precisely because we don't actually do it. The rat race wins.

Pianonoise: Bullet dodged, ironically!

Marteau: And following Jesus, for whatever reasons, good or bad, winds up being just a dream.

Pianonoise: I suppose this kind of following isn't going to do a thing for my neighbor or my own spiritual growth and certainly not for Jesus. Would I be correct in assuming Jesus would "Call us" out on it?

Marteau: That's very bad. But you are correct. You have a pun problem, though. You should see somebody about that.

Another Interview with Marteau
posted January 26, 2014

Mr. Marteau and I discuss a piece of his that I played on January 26 during the church service. It is entitled "Once" and you can listen to it in the column at the right.

Pianonoise: Mr. Marteau, you surprise me again. I would not have expected you to write such a piece. The style is popular, and easy on the ears, very secular (shockingly so!), and nothing like anything else you've written either.

Marteau: It surprised me, too. I'll tell you how it came about. I was listening to the BBC overnight, with headphones on so as not to disturb my wife, and on came another story about tragedy in a war torn region in Africa. As the story unfolded, in the background was the usual tense, mood setting pianola music with the usual recurring bass pattern and a minimalist melody on the top, feeding us a mood of anxiety and loss. I thought, I should do something with that. The next day I was at the piano improvising, and a hymn suggested itself. An old one. "Once to Every Man and Nation." It lost its march and became something very current and popular--of the moment. That's the way everybody is writing these days to accompany videos and news stories and so forth. It felt to me like a way to ask the old question again, so that it doesn't get lost as a museum piece but lives again in our conscience, applied to today's great decisions. The melody is made very rhythmic, and is completely subsumed into the style, which becomes a string of variations on the first phrase. Sometimes, of course, it is not easy to recognize the melody.

Pianonoise: It reminded me of what someone said about Buxtehude's choral settings, that sometimes he tears the melody to shreds!

Marteau: Since the point is not to sing along, or even to get too comfortable, this does not seem like a problem.

Pianonoise: This hymn is not in our hymnal anymore. Do you have any idea why?

Marteau: I have a suspicion it became associated with an unpleasant us vs. them attitude that folks on the hymnal committee wished to reject. The hymn exhorts us to be on the side of good in the struggle against evil, and it is probably this stark division that appeals to so many minds today, particularly conservatives. I was on a website recently that interpreted this hymn in the usual very right wing way, which was to suggest the the United States was completely going down the tubes and of course it can all be blamed on the current administration. Some of them will just imply it, but others just come out and say our president is evil, and so they, of course, are struggling on the side of good.

Pianonoise: Which is pretty ironic, considering that the hymn was originally written by a liberal, James Russell Lowell, who was advocating a stand on a major social justice issue of the day, and not all that impressed with his government's imperialism, or how they were treating foreigners.

Marteau: Lowell wrote 'The Present Crisis' [the poem from which the words to the hymn were taken] in protest against the war with Mexico which ultimately resulted in Texas "independence." He was also an abolitionist. I doubt his sympathies would be very much in line with most conservatives today. But there is nothing new about that. You can turn on a conservative news channel and hear persons being pilloried for being socialists and told they sound just like Karl Marx, and it never occurs to anyone that Jesus said the same thing centuries earlier, if not even farther to the left. If they can rebrand Jesus, of course they can rebrand James Russell Lowell.

Pianoise: Speaking of rebranding, you mentioned that the march is gone. But the urgency in your setting remains.

Marteau: Repetition can be static, or it can build tension. In this case, the piece grows louder and more active, until it finally boils over. I hadn't been thinking about it, but the climax seems to have Hispanic rhythms in it, suggesting the current issue of immigration, one of the legacies of that war.

Pianonoise: Mr. Lowell just thought of it as a land grab, I suppose.

Marteau: He was also worried that it would result in an expansion of slavery. Now that that struggle is in the past it is easy for all of us to agree that that was a practice that needed to be ended. But his point is that eventually the struggle will be won and it will be popular to take a position such as that, but that someone needs to stand up for it when it is still unpopular, even giving his life if necessary. It's a powerful poem, and it has been diluted of its power by making it an anthem of people who feel like political martyrs just because they don't always win elections.

Pianonoise: It's also very dramatic. You mentioned the theme of being on the right side, but I notice that the author also stresses the importance of making that decision right now--it is a 'present crisis'--a single important decision that needs to be made correctly "before the choice goes by forever" as he puts it. Yet, in your piece, in which you might be expecting a great singularity, instead the piece keeps on repeating the same bit of harmony over and over, as if the choice keeps coming round again and again.

Marteau: That's funny, I hadn't noticed that. Now it seems really obvious. Yes. It's always been part of the rhetoric of demagogues (and the least comfortable part of this poem) to point to the towering significance of being part of this movement right now because it is the most important thing that ever was. And yet, choices to do good or to do harm keep coming to us all of the time. But they do add up. One of the phrases to come out of Nazi Germany was "the banality of evil." It wasn't a single horribly evil person or group of persons making a single awful choice that made the Vaterland what it was, it was endless apparently self-interested choices by regular people, who justified their choices to themselves and their neighbors, saying at first this would bring glory to Germany and later that this is what they needed to do to feed their families and survive so who could blame them and so on. It wasn't just a calculating leadership that sustained that movement, it happened from below. Natural fears and hatreds that found an easy outlet, again and again, in the lives of the ordinary, making those decisions in the eternal now.

Pianonoise: Do you think that kind of thing could happen here?

Marteau: It probably will, eventually. And it will get the most help from the people who think they are doing the most to prevent it.

Pianonoise: What is the 'present crisis?'

Marteau: Right now we are engaged in a major fight over the rights of homosexuals. For society at large the pendulum is swinging and it is even now not so unpopular to support them. But the church is still split on the issue and probably will continue to have some nasty fights for years to come. Even in kindergarten you are taught to respect other people, even those different than you, and to treat them as you would want to be treated, as if they too are human beings with the same importance and needs as yourself. But somehow the issue of respect keeps coming around time after time.

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