“What would you say is the value of the chorale in the Templeton curriculum?” I asked Dr. Matthews after class the other day. With hardly a blink, he answered, “Well, first of all, music is eternal” — the first in a stream of reasons so steady I could hardly write them all down. Clearly, Dr. Matthews has thought this through. In the midst of reason number five he said something off-hand that I found rather profound. He was explaining how taking a choir class will help students to appreciate art, “art which humanizes the good, the true and the beautiful.”
Dr. Matthew’s class is certainly human. From warm-up calisthenics to an operatic performance, the hour is filled with activities that make us more in tune with our bodies and each other. As a junior taking the class with the freshmen cohort, I enjoy being an “inside outsider,” observing the playful energy the cohort shares still fresh off the camping trip, full of the joshing that comes from people who trust each other. Under Dr. Mathew’s direction, that energy is turned into song.
Arguably, this time is especially good for honor’s college students. As important as it is to discuss the good life in a classroom, to read great works), and to process their ideas through writing, all this can get a bit heady if not balanced out by some kind of expression, in the bodily instruments that God has given us. As Augustine says, “man is unable to put into words the central and full meaning of the good,”1 so Pieper recommends that we put our realization of and journey towards the good into music. Like words, music will inevitably fall short, but through celebration or longing, weal and woe, we may come closer.2 At least, we get more of ourselves involved in the process.
We also get everyone involved. A choir can be a good reminder of who we truly are as members of Christ’s body. Everyone in the choir is working for the good of the ensemble. Even (or especially) the most gifted singers have a responsibility to blend with the group sound, not to draw attention to themselves. We have some talented freshmen this year, and the ensemble is better for them, not only for their individual voices but for the way they (perhaps unintentionally) carry those around them with their sound, helping them to join in the music.
Together, we get to create something beautiful. Now, this does not mean we are perfect. Dr. Matthews likes to encourage us on those all-too-specific occasions when we are actually on the same pitch. Hopefully, we will have something special to share in time for the Advent service, but even the rehearsal is worthwhile. Few would deny that music, at least good music, is beautiful, but in our culture (as Dr. Matthews pointed out), music is a thing purchased. We do not make music. We buy it. As a result, making music, being inside of it and participating in it while it is happening, has become a thing of rare beauty. Few of us get the opportunity (outside of church) to be part of the music.
Arguably, creation is always singing God’s praise, whether we participate in it or not. To come back to Dr. Matthew’s knee-jerk reaction: music is eternal. If we are silent, the rocks will cry out. Or, as Dr. Matthews taught the second day of class, the rocks of cathedral walls really do cry out when we sing, ringing in the overtones of our music. So, as the first song we are working on, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” encourages,
“Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.”
1. Pieper, Josef. Only the lover sings: art and contemplation. Translated by Lothar Krauth. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990, 43.
2. Ibid., 44.