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There comes a time in every year when I find myself saying to a friend or a prospective student that this is a very musical College [Ed., Convocation, St. John’s College, 2011]. After 20 years of speaking this way, I thought I should ask myself just what I mean by this statement, and so I will try to unpack that little observation and say a few words about the music we make at St. John’s College.

Each of you has experience with music; it has lifted you up or soothed you; it has angered or frightened you; it has lightened or burdened the spirit, distracted your attention, moved your feet and your arms, inspired an act, or aroused a love; it has transported you to another time or place, or moved you in some way without your quite being aware of it. Music pervades our lives and always has. It has power. It has sometimes taken you outside of yourselves and at other times taken you deep within. For these reasons, it has often been associated with things divine.

Not only have you had experience of the effects of music, many of you have brought music with you to the College because it plays an important part in your daily lives. You carry your i-pods, MP3 players, and smart phones, playing classical music and opera, popular tunes and rock, jazz and blues, country and western, hip hop and rap. You hum, sing or play your favorites to yourselves or with others. Music has its place when you are alone and in fellowship. It serves as friend and refuge.

Why is this? How can we come to understand the power that music has in our lives? What does it mean that we are somehow all musical beings? That to be human is somehow to be musical? That without music we would be less than human? These are questions I suggest you will be asking yourselves in your four years at St. John’s.

You will also be making music while you are with us. To get at the question “what is this music that we make?” I thought it would be fruitful to explore briefly the place of music in four republics to which we belong and by which we live: the Republic of the United States of America, the Republic of Letters, the Republic of Plato, and the Republic of St. John’s College. What is the place of music in these four republics of ours?

The Republic of the United States of America

I have mentioned the music that you brought with you when you arrived on campus, much of it performed by, written by, or listened to by Americans. But there is another kind of music that might be said to capture the spirit of the land, something I would call more elemental, seeking to get at the heart of our nation, to comprehend the constitution of its people, to describe what it means, or ought to mean, to be an American. And here I will suggest two, perhaps three, examples of this music. The first is from Walt Whitman, a quintessential American poet:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off for work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutters song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

(“I Hear America Singing”)

One can feel the heartbeat of a new nation, of a people building a country from the sweat of the brow. These Americans are making their own music in the work they do, and they are celebrating that work as something that belongs especially to them as free individuals, free to choose their work and free to enjoy their play.

My second example allows us to recall that music can be an aid in helping us to see and to seek the beautiful and the good. You all know the melody for “America the Beautiful”, so I will not ruin it for you by trying to sing it solo. While the tune is pleasing, the lyrics of Katherine Lee Bates help it to soar. The first stanza appeals to the gifts of the natural world:

Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!

But it is the second stanza that captures my heart, speaking to the people that made this nation possible, and finally to the rule of law that sustains it:

Oh beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern, impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness!

America! America! God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

Here is a hymn to those who brought the spirit of freedom to a new land, and a prayer that we Americans dedicate ourselves to self-control and the rule of law to protect the freedom we have won. This is a noble anthem that we would do well to call up from time to time – a song worth making our own, as members of a community bound together by the will to protect an idea of freedom in the pursuit of happiness. This is, after all, the republic that has made it possible for this College, dedicated to cultivating the arts of freedom, the liberal arts, to thrive since before the formal founding of this nation. We in turn, as well educated and independent thinking citizens, will prove to be the necessary guardians of this republic.

A third example, if only our voices could scale a couple of registers, might be a song written by one of our alumni, a graduate of the class of 1796, composer of the most sung song in this country even today, written during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. I refer of course to our National Anthem, penned by Francis Scott Key: “Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?” he said when he composed it.

Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

What does it mean for a country to “deserve” a song? And why should a song be the measure of worth?

I will leave these questions hanging as I move to a second republic to which we belong.

The Republic of Letters

These are the works of literary and musical imagination that constitute the heritage of mankind. They have sprung from many civilizations and have spanned the centuries. We study these works because they are fundamental to understanding our humanity; they are the building blocks and cornerstones of our edifices in the humanities, arts and sciences. When I speak of works of musical imagination, I mean any work that might be said to belong to the ancient Muses, works of poetry or of musical or artistic composition, where the chief work of the author, composer, artist, or performer is the making of powerful images or likenesses of things.

Consider, for example, the moving lines that open the Iliad, which freshmen are reading for their first seminar tomorrow evening:

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

Hurling down to the House of the Dead so many sturdy souls,

Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,

Feasts for the dogs and birds,

And the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Begin, Muse, when the first two broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

The images are vivid, the action compelling. I want to take up my spear and shield and go to battle where heroes are made and lost. The song has irresistible momentum that takes hold of the listener (or reader) from its first line. It grabs us in the chest, the seat of sentiment and magnanimity, the locus of the spirit displayed by our heroes. Such is the power of music. Even Homer is caught up by it, as he calls upon an Olympian Muse to tell this story, to sing the song of Achilles’ rage long before it was put to the page.

Why does Homer need a Muse to tell this story? Why sing a song about rage, about a consuming aspect of a man? What is this will of Zeus that is moving inexorably toward its end? What power does this god or any other god have over the affairs of mankind? Homer has concentrated images that beg us to ask a host of questions in these opening lines. That is another power that music has in common with poetry: the capacity for concentration of energy and passion! (And by the way, is my reaction to this poem a healthy one – that I want pick up and head off to battle? What exactly has gotten hold of me? Have I been made captive to a powerful image rather than given freedom to explore a question and seek a truth?)

In your sophomore year, you will read of David, another warrior, another musician, but also an instrument of God. You will read the Psalms and sing their songs. God the Muse, man the instrument! How frustrating and depressing this must be for the wholly self-sufficient spirit that would have mankind be the creator and ruler of our world – that would have us become like gods? What kind of freedom comes from obedience to God, from becoming God’s instrument? Or do men and women gain their freedom only from disobedience – something for our juniors to consider when reading Milton’s Paradise Lost?

But musical compositions have always had a special place in the literary tradition. Music was among the seven liberal arts as they were studied in the Middle Ages. As you will recall, those seven liberal arts were divided into the trivium, the arts of communication and language: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium, the arts of counting and measuring: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. It turns out that music has mathematical elements that appear to be at its root, that is, that there is a correlation between the musical intervals in our everyday songs and the length of a string that can be plucked to play those sounds. You will learn from your own construction of a monochord, a one-stringed instrument, that the correlation between those very musical intervals and the divisions of the string that makes the sounds is described by a set of ratios consisting of small whole numbers. Lo and behold, we have physical phenomena, musical sounds, that have a mathematical form. Thus, there may something in music that is grounded in nature, not just in our sensibility, suggesting a model of the very mathematical physics you will be studying in your junior and senior laboratory. Music makes the claim that it can be studied objectively. And this causes us again to ask in what way nature might be as musical as we human beings are.

Consider some of the great masterpieces of musical imagination. Sophomores spend several weeks with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Measure by measure, the mathematical elements are analyzed, the melodies and harmonics studied, the rhythm and meter explored, and the lyrics and gospel text applied. If we are ever going to get a sense of the possibility of mathematical physics to explain an emotional or spiritual response, it will be in our study of this masterpiece. It is indeed a passionate work of art, and it begs the question what Bach’s music has to do with the Gospel of Matthew? Does the music have a power over the listener that the Bible does not have over the reader? And is this good or is it downright heresy?

We spend time with Mozart and study closely one of his operas, usually Don Giovanni. Who are these human souls that step out onto the stage and sing the music that belongs only to each of them, songs that reveal their character – or shape it – in time, over the course of the opera? What is the relationship between the music and the words? Consider the words alone and they are pretty poor examples of literature. But set them to this music and they soar! They are playful or tragic; they tug at our heartstrings; in Mozart’s hands, they are invariably beautiful. Whatever makes them beautiful? Are there elements of beauty as there appear to be elements of music? Are the two related? And what about the “ugly”? Are things ugly because they do not have the same concord with nature that beautiful things do, that they are in discord with nature? Is the beauty of a musical composition to be found in the mathematical order of the piece, or is it more complicated than that?

I move on to our third republic.

The Republic of Plato

This is a dialogue that freshmen will be reading in the middle of their first semester. It has been described by some as the indispensable text that sets forth the plan of study for what we call the “Program” at St. John’s College. It provides the model of a liberal education at work, where music has its place in the education of the young, as an aid in the formation of character, an habituation that is useful in the training of the soul but not in its education. This education of the soul is better served by philosophy, a love of and pursuit of wisdom, which Socrates in this dialogue calls the greatest music of all.

Such is the power of music to grab hold of the soul that Socrates warns us of its dangers. “So then,” Socrates says to his young interlocutor, Glaucon, “isn’t this why upbringing in music is most sovereign? It’s because rhythm and concord most of all sink down to the inmost soul and cling to her most vigorously as they bring gracefulness with them; and they make a man graceful if he’s brought up correctly, but if not, then the opposite.” Socrates points to ‘rhythm and concord’ for the source of music’s power, not its tones, intervals, melodies, and harmonies. Is he right in that? Do we think he is right about the power of music for good and for ill? If this dialogue is meant to be a kind of model for how we go about things at this College, how should we study music at St. John’s to avoid the bad and pursue the good? Should music rather be banned from the College as Socrates insists it ought to be in the formal program of study for the guardians of his Republic? What is the difference between the image-making of the poets, artists and musicians on the one hand and the image-making of the philosopher on the other — whose image of the Sun serves as a metaphor for the Good, of the Cave for our everyday dwelling places, and of the Divided Line for our path to Wisdom?

It is time to move on to our next republic, but I cannot help but pause to observe that we are not without a sense of humor about the seriousness of this or any of these other Republics. We even have a Battle Hymn to the Republic of Letters, written by one of our tutors, Mr. Higuera, and performed by a group of tutors on one of those long, cold winter days in a rite of distraction and fun that we call “Be Gone Dull Care”: Let me share the first of several clever stanzas:

My mind has seen the glory of th’ Idea of the Good,

That it’s not the same as pleasure I have firmly understood,

And I wouldn’t take a tyrant’s power even if I could,

I’m marching from The Cave!

Marching, marching towards the sunlight,

Marching, marching towards the sunlight,

Marching, marching towards the sunlight,

I’m marching from The Cave!

It is now quite clearly time to move to our fourth and last republic.

The Republic of St. John’s College

By now, you already have a feel for some of the kinds of music you will be singing, hearing, and reflecting upon. We have taken seriously the effort to restore music as a liberal art to the curriculum. As a close study of musical elements and musical literature can best be undertaken by learning to make music, we ask all of our students to use the one musical instrument they have in common — their voices. Freshmen will sing together throughout the year, learning the fundamentals of melody and basic notation, before turning to sing some of the great choral works. Sophomores investigate rhythm in words and in notes. They study the ratios of musical intervals and consider melody, harmony and counterpoint, all in the context of some of the finest music ever composed by Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and others.

And then throughout the College community, there seem to be countless occasions for playing music and singing, and for listening to the fine musical performances of your fellow citizens of this Republic. Join the St. John’s Chorus, the Madrigal Choir, Primum Mobile, or the College Orchestra; come and perform at our Collegiums, or just come to hear your classmates. I don’t think there is anything quite like experiencing the Muse at play in this community.

Our purpose both in and out of the classroom, in the words of another of our tutors, Mr. Kalkavage, “is to improve … [our] students’ aesthetic taste: to introduce them to truly great music in an effort to beget a love for all things graceful and well formed. [We] hope that the study of music begets … a habit of searching for causes and details of beautiful things, and that the love of beauty will nourish the love of knowledge and truth. [And we] hope they will strive to imitate in their day-to-day lives the virtues of harmoniousness, proportion, good timing, … grace, and ‘striking the right note’ in thought, speech, feeling, and action.” (Peter Kalkavage, “The Neglected Muse”)

In short, we want these four years to be intensely musical years so that you may experience the liberation of mind and the harmony of soul that is achieved when both mind and soul are directed toward the beautiful. Go forth and sing the songs that stir you to engage in this search for beauty and truth! Make philosophy your Muse. You’ll find that this is a pretty friendly Republic for that kind of activity.

Let me close by inviting you to listen to one of the simplest and, to my ear, one of the most beautiful pieces of music we make: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, a song familiar to all the residents of this Republic of St. John’s College. I invite all who cannot help themselves to join in and sing with a few of our students and faculty who agreed earlier today to lead us in song.

SING!

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Convocation, August, 2011, Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD. 

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