Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Saint Thomas' Prologue

It was many months ago, starting to feel confident that it was only a matter of time, not too much more time, before I was down to the bedrock elements of music instruction, that I told myself that there would be a definite milestone of such progress the day I took up to the study the first volume of Aquinas' Summa Theologica and tapped out his immortal prologue.
Now as Providence would have it, that moment in the unfolding of the history of culture has fallen on today, June 11, which happens to be the feast of the Sacred Heart this year, but ordinarily the celebration of Barnabas the Apostle. It is also the day in 1987 when I managed to write a full 20 pages of Contemplatives. That was my most quantitative day of all with that work, although still almost a year before I was done. June 11 was also the date in 1980 when, as I thought about publishing the fiction, the Lord said: "Make no decisions until September." I assumed He was talking about the autumn of 1980. It's more likely he was talking about this one. Infinity can always afford to take the longest possible view. In 1980, for one thing, I had no ideas whatsoever about the World Wide Web and its possibilities. So here goes.

"Because the Master of Catholic Truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct beginners . . . we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, is such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. We have considered that students in this Science have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but according to as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer; partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers."

I would doubt that Thomas also had music texts in his mind when he penned these words, because music instruction texts were not prolific in his time, as far as I know. Learning music was pretty much by rote, and not only used numbers more logically, but had little of the massive complications produced after Thomas' time by the growth of polyphony. Also, the use of solfage had been flourishing for a couple of hundred years and no one had yet found reason to get rid of it, or pervert the sense of it.
But for a long time his words have rung in my head as the first thing to be said if ever I were able to put out a text on music instruction. The criticisms apply, in varying degrees, to every music text I have ever seen, and they apply even more critically in works aimed at children and other beginners.The utter collapse, in all Western vernaculars as far as I know, of the primacy of numbers in initial music education, has created more harm, frustration, discouragement, and a wrongful sense of the individual's own innate ability, than any other branch of learning.
Well, as a contemplative I know that instruction on the real possibilities of the prayer life is also pretty lousy, but we'll leave that for another time. This is one of those posts that comes out in sections, and this morning, a few days after the start of the the above, I trotted over to our local cathedral to have a good practice on the electric organ. It's not quite a pipe, but as an Allen it's pretty good, and anyway it's not really in the building to entertain the masses, it's there to provoke them to raise their voices in worship, and in the right hands it can most certainly do so.
My hands are not quite right, yet. I did some good stuff, a lot smarter than I used to be forty years ago when I mostly boogied on its predecessor, in those days in the gallery, with an octave/fifth cadence in the left hand, but I also found out that I need more work on thirds in the left, using fingers 2 and 4 more often than has been my wont. This simply doubled my reading chops. Technique, technique, but away from all that confusion and boredom and neglect Thomas would have found in today's texts of scales and studies. I merely started playing  a hymn in Catholic Book of Worship Two and applied the recent investigations to my difficulties. Something more to practise, of course, but we're getting close to the end. I'm reminded of the spring of 1988, when about four or five chapters before the end of Contemplatives I felt like the pressure to finish was over. Winding down is a good feeling. Yet I also have to ponder how come all these finishing touches are coming so fast, and with the price of feeling so stupid about not realizing for so long how obvious it all is.
Symbols, symbols, symbols. I have been recalling that it was back in the middle 90s that I said to the good lady who ran the restaurant in the Hume/Heritage/Hume Hotel in Nelson that so much of the time all I really knew in those days was that I lived on the symbols of symbols. I had so many ideas that rarely turned concrete in the ordinary worldly sense. I was by no means depressed, just surprised and amused. Or bemused. But so much of the time I had to think that I was waiting for some major external event.
God uses that term somewhat regularly these days: Event. Or events. Well, we're having the event of having two nuns, who have been around for years, and done everything they could to degrade the standard of liturgical music, finally get out of town. Whatever use they were in other areas, and that may have been considerable, they were nothing but harmful to the liturgy. Altar girls, inclusive language, the saccharine whining of music group after music group, all based on ignoring or disobeying what Vatican Two actually said.
The Church change is interesting, because the growth of interest in the music theories continues in the "real world", so much so that to get booted to the church by the Usual Suspects was something of a surprise, and I don't think it was only for the sake of learning more about left hand thirds.
Of course one follows signs of some sort or another. Yesterday Marianne picked up her latest purchase of a book related to the liturgy, Dr. Christopher Page's The Christian West and its Singers (The First Thousand Years). Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Smack dab on a first glance I found a most arresting statement about the importance of singers to the growth of this and that. It possibly even gave me a bit of a glance into what the Almighty has been plotting the last while. Would I have been able to proceed to the cathedral without it?
Well, I also have to admit that with a new guitar student I was able to sketch out some radical new charting methods, and with Tim McDaniel this week finally got to using the treble and bass staves in a way that actually made sense.
Dr. Page's book weighs five pounds, just about right for thumping on the heads of the purveyors for a lot of what we have to listen to these days.

1 comment:

Rebecca S. said...

I found this as I went on my blog for the first time in days. Your stuff is no longer emailing directly to me, but that isn't a big deal as I can find it this way, too - just maybe not quite so immediately as having it in my email box.
Speaking of winding down, the school year is almost over and Galen and Katie's recitals on the weekend signified the end of the music lesson year.