Thursday, June 25, 2009

Change in perspective

The musical Jekyll and Hyde includes this lyric: "One rule of life we cannot rearrange, the only thing constant is change." Of course, all our discussion lately about contemporary music, new liturgical settings, and so on are a question of how much change is appropriate and when. How much of the past should we cling to? How do we keep the best of it, while still evolving and growing over time?

Those questions were in the back of my mind this afternoon when I sat down to read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter. I'm certainly not a linguist, but I'm perpetually fascinated by both language and history. This book explores the origins of our modern language as well as its quirks and eccentricities.

What I most noted, however, was a two-page summary of the progression of the English language, beginning with Beowulf in Old English and passing through a whirlwind of historical highlights, including Chaucer's Middle English writing, Shakespeare's plays, the King James Bible, Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and Jane Austen. Somehow that progression seems neat, orderly, even teleological - English is constantly changing while also improving until it reaches "the end" sometime in the 19th or early 20th centuries. In McWhorter's words, "...somehow there seems to be an idea that the process had an inherent end point, beyond which we are not to go. It's as if somebody somewhere had been endeavoring to meld...the English we have right now, that they officially declared themselves finished sometime not long ago, and that from now on, we are not to mess up their creation."

That's not much different from the progression of music we could expound: Gregorian chant, Monteverdi, Bach (Luther), Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Brahms, Chopin, Wagner, Debussy...and then we're done. We don't need pop, rock, blues, jazz, 12-tone, atonal music, or any of the other oddities that the modern world has given us...or do we?

We'd never give up the diverse wealth of 20th century literature, but we might pick and choose some of the best from each decade. Similarly, we need to sample music of the modern styles and eras, being judicious in our standards. The jumble and confusion we experience is a problem of perspective. It's too easy to pigeonhole the 18th century because we only know a handful of names, dates, and facts about it. The 1960s are considerably harder to summarize because it's such a recent lived experience; we haven't yet decided what was the best and what was the worst, what will last and what will fade away.

The debate itself is where the value lies when it comes to modern music, so don't be afraid to make suggestions or comments anytime. You'd hate to leave the process to the "experts" only, wouldn't you?


  1. Rev. Robert FerroJune 25, 2009 at 2:24 PM

    What I find interesting when we discuss changes at church is that it is not usually the "older" folks who complain the most about the changes, but the "younger" folks. It might not be an issue of old verse young, but differences in generations. The group I find the most receptive to "change" are the so-called "Baby Boomers" (born post-WWII and pre-60's)and "G.I's" (born 1901-1924), while those who seem to be most resistant to change are those born before WWII or from the 60's to the early 80's. It might be that those who were born in the relative peace and security of the post WWII era, but before all the ferment of the 60's are not so much bothered by change because they grew up in a fairly stable society. For them, church ought to "get with the times" in order to be more relevant. Those who resist change were born either with the uncertainity of the Depression and WWII or all the social and economic changes from the 60's through the 80's. Often these folks look to Church to provide some degree of security and calm in the midst of a tumultuous and everchanging society. They would like the Church to be an island of constancy and stability in their lives. Looking back I think generations tend to swing back and forth between the receptive and resistant poles when it comes to change.

    G.I. (1901-1924) - Receptive
    Silent (1925-1942) - Resistant
    Boom (1943-1960) - Receptive
    Bust (1961-1981) - Resistant
    Millennial (1982-2001) - Receptive

    Also I think that Tom's point is well taken, that often when we are so close to something, we cannot truly judge its merits. It takes a few generations to see what lasts and what goes by the wayside. There were 100s, probabably 1,000s of hymns written before 1900 that we never sing any more. Just look at hymnals published more than 50 years ago and see how many of the hymns are still familiar. You will be surprised how many hymns you don't know. Considering how many hymns have been written, we really do sing very few from any particular era. A few "favorites" are still popular, but the vast majority are forgotten. I bet that if we could get into a time machine and go forward a hundred years we would be very surprised by what hymns are still being sung, and which of the "popular" hymns of today are still around.

  2. Musical taste is a lot the taste in food. Until you try it a few times, you don't like it. When I was growing up, we never had pizza or tacos. My Dad was not inclined to eat anything but meat and potatoes, so that was the extent of what we knew. I bet Tom can hardly believe I did not grow up on pizza like he did. So be like Mikey - try it, you'll like it.