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?