THE TIMELY AND THE TIMELESS
The voice of the high school junior was a bit hesitant as he offered his question during a Q&A that followed a talk I had given to a his choir at the end of a workshop: “Why is it that you [choral leaders] call some music “worthwhile” and other music “something less.” After all, isn’t Bach and Beethoven just the Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift of another time?”
This is a question that is often heard. Indeed, the peddlers of commercial church music would be quick to say that a contemporary religious music song-spinner with big hair is the 21st century version of Martin Luther or Charles Wesley.
Of course, we know that today’s pop artists are not Beethoven and Bach, just as we know that someone selling a paint-by-numbers canvas out of the trunk of a car parked along a highway is not Monet or Rembrandt. It may be hard to articulate how we distinguish greatness from the ordinary but, if we are honest with ourselves, we have a sense of it when we hear it.
There is music that is timely and there is music that is timeless. Both have a legitimate place in our expressive lives.
I would bet many lovers of great choral music would be surprised to look at the playlists on the cell phones of America’s most well-known and respected choral leaders. Most certainly there would be thousands of recordings by the great choral ensembles of the past half-century, from the Robert Shaw Chorale to Trinity College Cambridge to Chanticleer and many others. There would also be music of a more timely fashion, perhaps Johnny Cash, perhaps Queen, perhaps Gladys Knight, and possibly even Bruno Mars or Taylor Swift. Music that is timely has its place. Timely music can comfortably sit in the background. It can offer atmosphere for warm or nostalgic feelings, even inspiring a spirit of romance at the right occasions.
Great music, or what we might call “classical” music cannot sit in the background. Its richness and urgency calls for our full attention. Whether it be the creations of the great European masters, or authentic renderings of folks music from across the globe, or the spirituals of those who fought oppression of the body and the spirit, great music distinguishes itself in unmistakable ways. We have a sense of it when we hear it.
The first distinguishing characteristic that comes to mind is craftsmanship. Great music is distinguished by the quality of its construction. It has been said that Handel was such a genius at musical craftsmanship that he could receive an order for a work on a certain theme for a certain array of instruments to last a specific amount of time, and that he could fill the order perfectly with a work glorious and inspiring.
Great music is also marked by its integrity. There is an honesty and a reality to it, an avoidance of contriving, in words and sounds, something unique or something said uniquely.
Great music conveys a spirit of inspiration. Inspiration may certainly evoke a religious response, but it may also inspire any area of contemplation, be that human relationships or self-reflection.
Great music is beautiful. What would be considered beautiful in sound will certainly vary from culture to culture, but within each is a standard of melodic and harmonic interest that delights the aesthetic of the ear.
Lastly, and most importantly, great music is timeless. It has passed, or has the power to pass, the test of time. The symphonies of Beethoven have been enjoyed for 200 years or more, the Masses of Palestrina for twice that long. This music will still be enjoyed many hundreds of years from now. Indeed, one could study the scores and listen to recordings of the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem or the Beethoven Missa Solemnis every single day for the rest of one’s life and discover new treasures with every encounter.
Timely music certainly has its place. It can bring a welcome distraction to a busy or stressful day. It can help anchor a joyful memory, or assuage a time of sadness. Timeless music, on the other hand, has the power to change lives and destinies. When it passes through the heart, soul, and mind of the performer and the hearer, it changes those lives forever.
William O. Baker, DMA
Founder and Director, The William Baker Choral Foundation
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