Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Memo: The Spirituality of Organ & Humanities

I want to begin considering what a "spirituality of organ music" may be like, for the organist, for the listener, for the public at large. It may perhaps touch on the spirituality of music itself and its relation to man's desire for beauty, etc.

Source: Elijah Ho, "Interview with Organist Paul Jacobs," Examiner, February 16, 2014, accessed September 29, 2014,

From the interview above:
We place great emphasis on our financial, physical, and mental well-being, but, it has become possible with our busy lives to neglect our spiritual health. There's the old adage about the two things one shouldn't discuss in public - religion and politics. Well, the fact is that our culture is utterly consumed by politics, publicly and privately; it occupies our daily discourse in newspapers, on television, on the internet, and in personal conversation. It's inescapable. But religious or spiritual questions are another matter. Though these timeless questions are always there, like an elephant in the room, they're seldom discussed or pursued, even among friends. They make us uncomfortable, and for good reason. Yet they are most important - not to mention the most interesting, as they define our worldview and can offer a sense of the Infinite. 
As far as the organ is concerned, I suppose it reminds us of a philosophical, reflective bent of the human condition – something outside of ourselves, something ‘fixed’, something massive, something with an objectivity to it. While the instrument is capable in the hands of a sensitive organist to capture the most intimate human emotions – and it does this very well – its ability to penetrate the human soul to its very core is unique. When required, it can produce a marvelously terrifying effect, reminding us of the frailty and brevity of our lives. [...] 
Charles-Marie Widor, the 19th century French organist, once said, "To play the organ well, one must be filled with a vision of eternity". [...]

There are legitimate reasons to be troubled by the direction of our culture. It seems that, whenever we read articles concerning the state of classical music, they tend only to address the topic in a vacuum, separating it from a bigger reality. For a clearer perspective on the health or frailty of classical music, we must examine it under the umbrella of the humanities.

How are the humanities at large doing in our society? Music falls within this much broader category, and, unfortunately, there's much documentation confirming that humanitarian pursuits are in decline. Our society gives preference to scientists, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, technology, and so forth, but far less value is given to subjects that cause us to reflect deeply on the human condition. We must try to understand why this is the case. The humanities include literature, history, languages, art, philosophy, religion and music - subjects that carry us beyond the here and now. Artists and musicians must become more explicit in their charge to reawaken in our age that basic desire that we all have for transcendence. An art form is only secure if there are those willing to sacrifice for it. Fortunately, there is an army of dedicated, intelligent young musicians who understand what is at stake. Not just classical music, but the very soul of our culture. [...]

As far as music criticism is concerned, I think the decline of the role of music critics is indicative of a general cultural trend: the ability, or desire, to listen critically. This is the unavoidable result of a culture that does not emphasize a proper music education or its vast history. If you don’t value the education, you’re not going to value the subject very much, regardless of how it makes you 'feel'. Consequently, everything has been reduced to a matter of personal opinion, where all positions are equally valid, without any critical thinking, crucial listening, drawing distinctions, etc. – I mean, these are the building blocks of the Western tradition going back to the Greeks!

We seem to have turned our backs on these important principles and they must be regained. We should strive to increase our expectations for what music can do for us in our lives. Then we'll be less satisfied with what the latest pop-star puts out – that’s not to say that one doesn’t have the right to listen to it – but I believe these pop hits are woefully incapable of offering a glimpse of all that music has been and has the potential to be.

A greater awareness for the rich history of music is something that must be regained. It's disturbing whenever I meet highly educated individuals who know no music before the Beatles. They must be encouraged to dig and search for the sake of unearthing musical treasures of the past; for this music continues to resound with tremendous force. But one must listen.

Separately, a spirituality of the humanities. What are the implications of the humanities, of liberal learning? What does it do even in the natural plane of self-reflection as individuals and a culture?

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