Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Musical Prejudice

Last week on PBS was an interesting documentary entitled "The Music Instinct: Science and Song." I caught very little of it (except to hear an excerpt of Mozart's K. 330 played so fast that it sounded like a cheap stunt, even by current standards of cheap-stunt Mozart playing. I don't know who the pianist was. I'm told he was blind; however, he was not deaf).

A point was made during the show -- not one of the salient points, but one that to me was very interesting.

To us Western Hemispherians, a minor scale sounds "sad." But what if that is merely cultural?

(The following, naturally, is my own expansion of this point. I do not wish to implicate the makers of the documentary for it!)

Clearly there are cultures where music in minor keys or modes is not experienced as being "sad" at all, while in our own culture, "classical music" is so often perceived as "dark," no matter how major the key or how joyful the mood. To many, the sound of an organ is "funereal," no matter how many sunny major chords the music radiates. Once I played a Saturday Mass at a Catholic church unaccustomed to anything bearing the slightest resemblance to "classical" music. I didn't play anything "heavy," but at one point I improvised, somewhat in the style of Mendelssohn, and in a major key. (There was not a profusion of minor or diminished chords. It was not "dark" music.) A parishioner stopped me afterwards and said that it sounded like a funeral. I realized that for people like that parishioner, no organ sound can be anything but gloomy.

Even my two-year-old demonstrated some musical subjectivity the other day. We were listening to a CD of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the fine Polish pianist whose life is portrayed in the outstanding movie "The Pianist." Szpilman was playing a composition of his own, the Concertino for Piano & Orchestra (1940). The piece has a jazzy element; it doesn't sound like Gershwin, but it mixes classical and jazz moods with the freedom that Gershwin did. My son said that the music was "scary." My wife opined, "No, it's not scary. I think it's mysterious." To me they were both wrong.

There are infinite examples of people's prejudicial reactions to classical music. Not long ago I played a funeral, and I played a piece by Ted Marier that I've always considered comforting. The celebrant said after that he felt it was "depressing." Yet at the very same funeral was sung Marty Haugen's "Shepherd Me, O God," which is firmly rooted in a minor tonality. What makes the Haugen "happier" if the harmonies are no less minor than the Marier?

Simply put, many people are allergic to "classical" music or anything that bears a resemblance thereof. There's no better way to put it: it's an allergy. At a shopping plaza in a neighborhood of Boston, there was once the problem of not-so-nice kids hanging around and causing trouble. So what did the plaza owners decide to do? Pipe in classical music! Now every time you walk through the plaza, you are treated to masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire. The kids are nowhere in sight. It repels them more effectively than any amount of armed policemen could have.

What causes a person to hate what is beautiful? The only explanation I can come up with is: it is like when you're sleeping, and someone turns on the lights in the room at 3 in the morning. At that moment, you hate the light. It doesn't seem possible that anyone could hate light, but in that instance you do just that. Our culture has become so dark that the light has become distasteful.

It's clear that no instrument of classical music inspires more aversion than the pipe organ. People who will happily go out to hear chamber and orchestral music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert wouldn't be caught dead at an organ recital. To Catholics, perhaps the organ subconsciously represents all of the beatings they received from nuns in parochial schools. It represents something that their parents and grandparents loved, something that belonged to them. Interestingly, many 20- and 30-somethings who are too young to remember the Latin Mass or the mean nuns are fascinated with the organ's technological ingenuity and sonic richness. The 50- and 60-somethings are the opposite. They are the ones who want Kumbaya played by guitars rather than Bach played by the organ. They are married to Vatican II -- for richer and for poorer.

The root of the problem is the connection that people make between the organ and the church. They cannot conceive of the organ as a musical instrument separate from the church. The organ becomes the church. And if people don't like church, they're not about to like the organ. The organ becomes paid indulgences. The organ becomes papal infallibility. The organ becomes the pedophilia scandal. The organ becomes the church. That is the association people subconsciously, or even consciously, make.

But for a millennium and a half, the organ was as secular instrument that no one would have dreamt of bringing into the church. In Roman times, the hydraulis (a small, portable organ) was used in amphitheatres, to accompany the lions' eating the Christians. In the Middle Ages, when the great Gothic cathedrals were being built, organs still weren't thought of for the church. That's why many Gothic cathedrals are difficult to retrofit with an organ, without causing visual or acoustical problems.

At some point during the Renaissance, someone decided to introduce the organ to the church. Churchgoers were scandalized. They passionately believed that the organ was a secular instrument unfitting for the church -- the exact same reaction that many people have today towards electric guitars and drums in the church.

Interestingly, in South Africa the organ is thought of as a secular instrument. (The theatre organ or cinema organ is more popular in South Africa than is the church organ.)

For some reason, music in Latin elicits particularly strong reactions. In my whole life, I have never been able to understand why many clerics fear Latin hymns like they would fear a glass of water during a cholera epidemic. What is it about the Latin language that elicits such trepidation? No Rabbi is afraid to have Hebrew spoken in his temple. Why the Catholic priests' antipathy? In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI gave priests permission to celebrate a Tridentine Mass without first having to consult a bishop. That's all he did. Latin Masses were already allowed, but a priest formerly needed a bishop's approval before holding a Tridentine Mass. Benedict simply eliminated that extra administrative step. But look at the firestorm that resulted! Benedict was accused of trying to "bring back" the Latin Mass (which didn't need to be brought back because it was there all along). And then when word got out that there was one sentence in the Latin liturgy that could be construed as Antisemitic (the sentence has been since taken out), Benedict was seen as some sort of racist, trying to take the church back into the Middle Ages. It was insanity, but Latin inspires such insanity for some reason.

I think, in the end, the clergy are afraid that parishioners will flee from organ music and Latin hymns, just as people at the shopping plaza flee from the piped-in classical music. But I hate to tell you: there will not be one penny less in the collection plate if you do the Latin Agnus Dei instead of the English Lamb of God at a 4 o'clock Mass. If anything they will give more, because people sense quality even when they can't explain it. A person says, "Wow, this is a beautiful church," without being conscious of the fact that the color scheme of the ceiling matches the color scheme of the stained glass windows, or what have you. They know it's beautiful, but they don't know why. For the same reason, people will always respond positively to good music. Almost 25 years in this business tells me that good music is preferred by the majority of congregants but the minority of clergy. It is a musical prejudice not at all unlike that of my toddler who thinks the Szpilman Concertino is "scary." Priests are scared. The difference is: my son will surely grow out of it.