Informed Opinion Matters: Looking Back Before Looking Forward

I spend a great deal of time thinking about musical and liturgical expression. I have also spent my whole life working in different religious and educational institutions, growing in experience and developing my own preferences and methods as a musician and as a group leader. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my mentors along the way. Mostly, I am grateful for the musical opportunities with which they have provided me; the times of learning on the job, and of being thrown in at the deep end, and of learning by observation, and, since I was a young choirboy, of learning by osmosis. Yes, this is a real thing! It also helps develop a sensitivity to the world around you. The mentor system has been hugely important to me, and I have been fortunate in having had many truly talented mentors. This is how to build community, and this is how to achieve excellence. And yes, I’m okay with that word!

I have recently been given three books. All of these were given to me by friends, independently of each other, and simply as very thoughtful gestures. The three books are:

ANGLICAN WAYS by Everett Titcomb (H.W. Gray, New York 1954)

ABOUT CONDUCTING by Sir Henry Wood (Sylvan Press, London 1945)

MY BELOVED MAN – The Letters of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (Boydell Press, Woodbridge 2016)

Firstly, from the introduction to Titcomb’s book, come two quotes. The first is from Robert Bridges (19th Century):

“…If we consider and ask ourselves what sort of music we should wish to hear on entering a church, we should surely, in describing our ideal, say, first of all that it must be something different from what is heard elsewhere; that it should be a sacred music, devoted to its purpose; and music whose peace should still passion, whose dignity should strengthen our faith, whose beauty should find a home in our hearts to cheer us in life and death; a music worthy of fair temples in which we meet, and of the holy words of our Liturgy; a music whose expression of the mystery of things unseen never allowed any trifling motive to ruffle the sanctity of its reserve.”

The second is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12th Century):

“Let the chant be full of gravity; let it be neither worldly nor too rude and poor…Let it be sweet, yet without levity, and whilst it pleases the ear let it move the heart…It should not contradict the sense of the words, but rather enhance it. For it is no slight loss of spiritual grace to be distracted from the profit of the sense by the beauty of the chant, and to have our attention drawn to a mere vocal display, when we ought to be thinking of what is sung.”

Next, as the first week of the 2016 BBC Promenade Concerts is underway, a passage from Henry Wood, who began the Proms in the late 19th Century. This is from the chapter entitled “On Interpretation”:

“Why should an artist be deplored because he is an artist? An artist is one because he feels intensely and knowledgeably, and should not be the butt of academic prudery. Why are Turner’s pictures so entrancingly grand and beautiful, and once seen will never be forgotten? Because he used every colour, and colour on colour, to give rein to his vision. Why should individuality, expression and colour be distasteful to a scholar? We are all scholars, but some are more practical than others – thank goodness.”

Finally, a passage from a letter that Benjamin Britten wrote to Peter Pears in 1959, regarding a performance of his Noye’s Fludde that had taken place at Lancing College two days previously:

“It was lovely to see Walter who was very sweet & came over to Noye at Lancing with us. Would that he hadn’t, actually, because it was unadulterated HELL. John Alston is quite, quite, hopeless – he hasn’t a clue as to how to beat the simplest bar, & that coupled with the fact he’s totally unmusical, got no sense of rhythm, & found the music impossible to remember (when he took his eyes out of the score) etc. etc. made the performance as agonising as any I yet remember. Ditto the production which was inane & incompetent – & really made no use of that lovely place. What was doubly infuriating was that the material was excellent, the kids knew it backwards, were really gifted; & to see their efforts so sacrificed made one mad. Poor Norman Lumsden was quite bad – really no voice left. Nancy Thomas did her best in an impossible situation – and so on. But oh, Hell, Hell, Hell – why must children always have the 5th rate to guide them? That’s what makes the Westminster Choir so exceptional.”

Clearly, one might be accused of a gross contrivance to string together a rationale that somehow links the four passages quoted above. Any attempt to do so would be fruitless. However, for me there is a significance to all of them, and much to be considered as we watch and feel art, music, education, communication, reinvention, reimagining, change, conflict, power struggles and tragedy play into our broken world today. All three of these writers, Titcomb, Wood and Britten (not Bridges and St. Bernard) were writing during the 1940s to 1950s, and whilst some of the viewpoints are rooted in that period of history, the fundamental truths remain, and perhaps show just how far we have strayed – often in the name of “progress” – from some well-founded truths. We should, indeed, resist the throwing out of the baby with the bath water as we consider change!

Therefore, my thoughts are these:

  1. We should beware of reinvention and reimagining without proper reference to earlier traditions. Notice I said “reference” and not “reverence.” Reverence for the past is essential, and inevitable, and valuable. But the tendency to venerate and to hold dear certain customs solely for the sake of an emotional attachment is flawed. The value lies in the fact that there is much to be learned from the past, and we should avoid reinvention from a position of ignorance concerning these customs and traditions. In essence, our approach to future developments in art, music, liturgy, religion, and so on, will be best served by a good look in the rear view mirror before we swing into that left hand turn. If society, with its trends, fads and whims, is telling the church what to do, then the tail is wagging the dog. The church should be a leader in the creation of societal norms, not a follower.
  2. We should beware of dumbing down something about which we feel “intensely and knowledgeably”, as Wood says, for the sake of inclusivity. There is power in the communication of a well-founded idea, a long-held and repetitive tradition, a deeply-rooted belief. If presented effectively, these can make for an inviting, welcoming, and eye-opening experience for the newcomer, or novice performer, without compromising the core values of the proponent. We cannot be all things to all people, but we can invite all people into what we love. And, if we don’t show our love and devotion to what we believe, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, to our values, and ultimately to our students, ensembles, audiences, or congregations. The substance of what we offer as a community will only be of value if it is offered with integrity, without shame, and not watered down into something lacking “individuality, expression and colour.”
  3. We should beware of over-praising our students or colleagues. Clearly, Britten is airing his views and frustrations quite openly in his private letter to Pears, and probably did not respond to the performance of his work so viscerally in the moment. However, it was clearly unacceptable in his eyes, and we must find a way of offering appropriate levels of praise and criticism (hopefully of the constructive variety) that will be a true reflection of the achievement. We are trapped, more and more these days, in a troubling culture of standing ovation, instant gratification, vapid congratulation, ego inflation, parental placation, all leaving us in a state of profound consternation.

It is clear that in all four of the passages quoted above there is a good deal of personal preference on display, and perhaps even some defensiveness. Doesn’t Wood’s passage seem to be in mild retaliation to an artist being misjudged by an academic? Isn’t Britten’s vehement account of the second rate – or as he puts it “5th rate” – production of his beloved Noye’s Fludde a heartfelt criticism of the teachers and directors at Lancing College. Indeed, his obvious love for Walter Hussey and all that he stood for as a priest and supporter of the arts, and his praise for the excellent Westminster Cathedral Choir, all within that same letter to Pears, gives us a clear sense that he had no time for anything less than the very best when it came to working with talented students. In the most transparent manner, within the safe confines of a private letter, Britten lays out his expectations with heart on sleeve.

I think that one of the greatest takeaways from reading these opinions, and forming our own, is this. We are on the same journey that our predecessors were on, ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred, or one thousand years ago. They fought their own battles, formed their own opinions, and established well-defined norms. Looking back to what both Bridges and Bernard of Clairvaux wrote above, how can we dispute that their words must have been written in response to some actions or proposals that ran counter to their standards? Surely their motivation for writing came from a desire to rationalize, defend and glorify that which was so important to them, probably in the face of what seemed to them to be threatening, dismissive, ill-conceived change. I look forward to looking back over many centuries of wise words as I consider my own deep passions, and prepare to communicate and encourage, often osmotically, those firmly held convictions for the future.


One thought on “Informed Opinion Matters: Looking Back Before Looking Forward

  1. Upon first entering a church…. my favorite moments are arriving at All Saints Ashmont early enough to hear the choir making final rehearsals of the Psalm. Only a handful in the pews. The room a reverent silence. Ethereal music….a few unheard (by me) words from the choirmaster….and the phrase comes back better than the glorious music sent aloft only a minute prior. I am aloft in these moments.

    Liked by 1 person

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