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Most Modern Music is Degrading by Fr. George W. Rutler



June 26, 2016
by Fr. George W. Rutler


The maxim that the greatest art is to have no art means that the aim of an accomplishment is to give the impression of effortlessness. An Olympic swimmer does not splash like a man drowning, and a concert pianist glides his fingers over the keys as though it were as natural as breathing. The Italians, who have not been without a long sense of this, call this deliberate nonchalance “sprezzatura.”

I have had enough experience of the opera to marvel at how the difficult music is sung as though the singers were blithe canaries. Only from the front seats is the hard breathing and sweating palpable. It is the opposite with bad art and poor artists. Singers of limited talent affect anguish, and this is particularly so with Rock entertainers who give the impression of suffering labor pains. The grace with which an artist performs is directly related to the quality of the art. The worse the work, the more pained seems the performer.

Aristotle taught that music imitates the passions or states of the soul, and “when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion, and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.”

Around 500 A.D. when he was only twenty years old, the Christian philosopher Boethius drew on Aristotle, maintaining that “music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior.” Some of his exquisite writing was set to music a few centuries later and, after a score was recently discovered in a German library, it was performed this year at Cambridge University for the first time in one thousand years. The ethereal experience was a world away from today’s popular music.

Knowing that aesthetic barbarians will display their coarseness by severely attacking any critic, it takes courage to say that most modern music is degrading. I trim my courage by hiding behind Plato speaking of certain musicians who corrupted classical culture: “. . . by composing licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitudes with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they could judge for themselves about melody and song . . .”

When the terrible shootings began in the Parisian theatre and the Orlando nightclub, the first reaction was the same: the lamented revelers thought the gunfire was part of the music. They would not have made that mistake had the music been Chopin or Mendelssohn, or the lyre and lute setting for Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. But a decadent culture fatally takes pleasure in pain at high decibels and finds incoherent the logic of God: “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15).

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