December 14, 2019

iMonk Classic: “Lo, How a Rose” — Experiencing the Power of Beauty

The now and the not yet (2014)

Note from CM: This is one of the first posts by Michael Spencer that I remember commenting on, back in 2008. He touched an area of my life that has always been precious: the profound joy of choral music, especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons. In my comment, I wrote, “There is a combination of holy awe and intimacy in the best Advent and Christmas music that is not duplicated in any other music.” The awakening Michael recalls in this post reflects one of the reasons many of us left the path of American evangelicalism in search of a beauty and transcendence we could not find within its culture.

• • •

iMonk Classic
“Lo, How a Rose” — Experiencing the Power of Beauty

It was Christmas of 1968. I was a seventh grader at Estes Junior High School. School was a huge part of my world. My father was beginning down the road to depression. I was an only child, and my life wasn’t full of the activities of a typical middle school boy today. My dad didn’t want me to play sports, so I came home every day and watched television, or played with my friends up the street. Looking back, there was a simplicity and goodness to my life, and there was also, right in the center, an emptiness.

My parents were uneducated and unsophisticated “country” people. Mom had grown up on farms in rural western Kentucky. Dad was an eastern Kentucky mountain boy who wound up making his way to the oil fields of western Kentucky where, after a painful divorce, he met and married my mother. We had a good family in many ways and a broken one in others, but it was completely devoid of anything you would call beauty; artistic beauty. There was no music. There were only a few cheap wall decorations. There were almost no books. Because I was an only child, I was treated as special, but I wasn’t introduced to the world of beauty. My parents knew the beauty of nature, but they lived in a city. They knew the beauty of family, and shared that with me. But what they knew of the beauty of music was the sound of folk music in the hollers and on the porches of farmhouses, and I was not there.

My parents did not know the world of artistic beauty. They were strangers to it, and would remain so throughout their lives. I went with dad to stock car races and with mom to Gospel quartet shows. At church, I heard the choir and sang hymns, but there was no awareness in my life of the beauty of great music; music that moved the soul and told the mind and heart of a greater beauty beyond. Every week, we would go to a friend’s home and hear a little country band play in the basement while my parents played Rook. I never knew there was anything else or anything more.

School was my only hope of an outlet from this world. It was at school a year before that I had first watched a real play; “Macbeth,” no less. I never forgot that introduction to Shakespeare and that bloody story of evil unfolding before my childish eyes. And it was at school that I first discovered the beauty of music, in “Lo! How a Rose, E’re Blooming.”

Seventh graders were required to take music class. We were not music enthusiasts, to say the least. There was about us all the sense of artistic compulsion, but in the cause of sheer endurance. Nothing more. Our teacher was Mr. Waite, the assistant principal. Mr. Waite was a towering, imposing, intense force to be reckoned with. He managed rooms full of junior high students with a firmness that produced consistent results. Fear of impending doom concentrates the mind wonderfully, and sometimes, in our case, frees the voice to do great things.

I later learned that he was, in fact, a boisterous, happy and spontaneous man who could make anyone smile, but we rarely, if ever, saw that smile. He was turning seventh grade Philistines into singers, and this was war. His entrance into our tiny music room was like the arrival of a holy prophet bound and determined to convert the captive heathen to the true faith. He did not abide any misbehavior, and we would sing whether we liked it or not. We were there to sing, and we would learn to sing and we did sing. Or else…I’m not sure what would have happened, but I didn’t want to find out.

I couldn’t read a note of music, and though Mr. Waite diligently taught us, and I surely nodded at every lesson, I never learned to actually read music. But that didn’t mean I didn’t learn to sing. I was blessed with a good voice and memory. I loved to sing with a group. If we couldn’t read the music, we could still memorize our part, and I did.

Christmas approached that seventh grade year, and we prepared for a Christmas music program for our parents. I am sure I was in the choir and sang several pieces, but I only recall one piece. Mr. Waite used a small, seventh grade boy’s choir, and among other things, we sang a classic arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”

I knew the usual Christmas Carols from church, but I had never heard this song or anything of its kind. I didn’t understand the text. I didn’t understand the scriptural references. I certainly didn’t understand the beautiful arrangement by German composer Michael Praetorius. I did know that this song was an experience of beauty that moved my young soul like no other music I’d ever heard. The mysterious moving of the notes, slipping in behind one another, created an interaction and harmony unlike anything in my hymn-singing tradition. (Think “When We All Get To Heaven” and you have my total experience.) I was captivated. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, but it was what C.S. Lewis called “longing for joy.” Having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.

I remember our performance well. There was a small group of us formerly rowdy boys, all standing in white shirts, singing words from the 15th century, in almost complete ignorance, but now under Mr. Waite’s tutelage, becoming instruments of beauty despite our depravity and barbarian natures. My mother was there, and I am sure she was proud of me in my shirt, tie and cowlick, but I could never tell her, or anyone else, what I was really feeling. I didn’t have words for it myself. I couldn’t have told Mr. Waite what happened to me in those rehearsals and in that performance, but I had entered a whole new world.

I wonder how many people in my world have never been moved by music? They listen to the radio or CDs and are excited, or manipulated, but never moved by pure beauty like a visit from a spirit. How many have never been drawn into the beauty and the mystery of wondrous art like this seventh grade boy? Perhaps that day was my biggest step toward believing that God was real, good and loved me. Could the empty universe of the scientists have produced such a sound, and such a feeling to accompany it? Was this all there was, or was there more? And when this world is exhausted, is that all there is, or is there more beside? Is there what Lewis called a heaven of music and silence?

Mr. Waite, I owe you a great debt. You transformed us into the conduits of beauty, and you put the music of the gods on our lips when we were too young to know what it all meant. You rescued me from an artless world and showed me worlds beyond. You did what every educator should long to do- bring the experience of truth, beauty and wonder into young hearts and minds, and so capture us that we can never be happy again without tasting more of that miracle. You gave me a great gift, a gift that life, with all its pain and loss, will never take away. I will always have that song. And now, I have the Rose of whom the poet wrote, and the beauty that made that wonderful song beautiful is mine as well.

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    Having finished my evening meditation I clicked on to

    “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”

    My day is complete.
    May we all be blessed with the peace this imparts.

    Susan

  2. senecagriggs says

    It is a wonderful rendition. Thanks C.M.

  3. Once again I am sad that I only found this place after Michael’s passing. But i am glad that I did find it.

    Several years ago I was introduced to the work of 16th century Renaissance Spanish composer Cristobal de Morales. Droney and mystical, you’re still not far from the world of Gregorian Chant; but there is something extra. You’ll have to go elsewhere for technical explanations but I can hear it. Representative sample –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaQ4yMya2Mc

    • I was also introduced to the awe of western choral music by way of singing Morales, though I had heard a few bits of Palestrina before that. There’s a Christmas motet by Thomas Luis de Victoria, “O Magnum Mysterium” that I once surprised myself (and my listeners) by describing as the apex of western civilization. Here’s a performance:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRPEJkoEstc

      The text and a translation are below the youtube window (which shows the sheet music… very cool).

      • You sang Morales? I will never know that joy. I’m a shower singer at best.

        It’s wonderful that choral music has made it to the modern era as well. There have been some amazing choral compositions in the twentieth century. In the 1960s the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti composed his LUX AETERNA

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iVYu5lyX5M

        and one of favorite contemporary composers is the Russian Alexander Knaifel –

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVBN0YlVrwY

        I’ve never known why many people are so afraid of twentieth century classical music. What finer corpus of sacred music than that produced, for example, by the Catholic mystic church organ player Olivier Messiaen?

        Of course if you insist on older work why not try a sacred tradition that goes back at least 2500 years? A master singing a masterpiece. If you balk at this can you honestly say you love God more than this gentleman did?

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xf57MS-MFrc

        • Oh, my, goodness. You’ve made my morning.

          Two other recent composers of interesting sacred choral music are Arvo Pärt (who’s Orthodox and from Finland) and Morten Lauridsen (he’s Danish and I think Lutheran).

          F’rexample, here’s Lauridsen’s setting of the same text Victoria used:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgTUyM4vJpE

          And a setting of the Beatitudes by Pärt:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxbArDRcVb4

          Amusing story… a British friend of mine was a choirboy in his church when he was growing up. The custom there is that all former choir folk (and current ones) are entitled to have the choir sing at their weddings. He asked them to do the Pärt Beatitudes, and many of the then-choristers have never really forgiven him.

        • While we’re exchanging links, this piece, “Peccantem me Quotidie” by Christobal de Morales was my introduction to singing the sacred music of the Renaissance. It’s exquisite.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ms-BS27HyD0

    • For some of us, Michael was like a rose e’er blooming.

  4. I sing in my church choir, and one of the things I love about choral singing is how it requires you to be more aware of the others in the choir than of yourself – or as one musician friend of mine puts it, “to feel everyone else’s voices resonating in your own mouth.” There are these moments when everything clicks and the choir becomes a single voice instead of a collection of individuals. And if you’re someone who’s good at “blending” with others, you can support the voice of one of the weaker singers by focusing on matching their voice as closely as possible. (Whereas someone who only listens to themself can actually make it harder for others to sing their parts.)

    For me it’s a metaphor of what a healthy community looks like: everyone heard and upheld not because each person is focusing on putting their own self forward, but because everyone is looking out for each other.

  5. There are some songs and renditions of songs that are almost jaw-dropping in their beauty. This would be one of them for sure.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    Big Big Train, a progressive rock band from England, recently produced their twelfth studio album The Grand Tour.. I have been a fan of Big Big Train since their The Underfall Yard in 2009. The song “Victorian Brickwork” is a masterpiece of autumnal beauty, perfectly suited for this time of year.

    What I find intriguing about Big Big Train is their unapologetically positive stance towards the achievements of European civilization. English Electric was a paean to the Industrial Revolution and the sweat of working men [mostly] that made it possible. The Grand Tour opens the horizons to include England-As-Part-Of-Europe and the achievements of Continental art and science, from the mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna, to the sketchbooks of Da Vinci in Florence, to a production of “The Tempest” translated into Hungarian (I think).

    No caveats. No side-spectrum apologies for colonialism or environmental decay. Yet, there was nothing overtly triumphalistic about their music. It was as though they had issued their CDs in response to a question I asked here years ago, and to which I never received a satisfactory response:

    Do White people get to bring anything to the Diversity Party apart from contrition?

    Big Big Train would be a good place to start.

    Now, the reason I mention the racial/cultural element is that it appears that what you guys find ‘celestial’ and ‘transcendent’ is the same sort of material that I do; Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Tallis’ Spem In Alium, Arvo Pärt – pretty White material actually. Now, I love Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, but ” ‘Round Midnight” lights up a different part of my sensorium than do Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Seraphim” or de Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium”.

    • Think of it this way: in Christ, God is calling people out of every “tongue and tribe and nation” – i.e. out of every culture of origin – to pledge their primary allegiance to Christ and in doing so, to be reconciled to each other because their common obedience to Christ takes precedence over any cultural divisions between them.

      When that happens, our individual cultures are not erased, but we must judge our culture in the light of the Gospel. We’ll find that some aspects of our culture of origin are morally neutral – e.g. what sort of food or clothing we like. And, other aspects of our culture will turn out to be a moral good, harmonizing with the Gospel.

      But, the deciding factor in whether someone is truly committed to Christ or only culturally Christian is: when aspects of your culture of origin are incompatible with Christian morality, which side do you take? Being willing to name and repent of the sins of your own culture – and to work to free yourself from their grip – is the bare minimum for taking a seat at that reconciling communion table of Christ.

      Everyone from every culture needs to do that – I have Asian friends, for example, and Latino friends, who name sins of their own cultures of origin that are completely different from the sins that white Americans have inherited. They face the same problem of those sins being baptized in Christian language by their culture in order to flee from the responsibility for repentance. But it’s not my work to fix their culture – it’s each of our work to fix our own.

      There’s no reason you can’t love your culture of origin *and* pass judgment on non-Christian aspects of it at the same time. The only people who think that critiquing a culture is always an “attack” on that culture, rather than an attempt to heal it, are the ones whose true allegiance is to their culture and not to Christ.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        The sins and shortcomings of European civilization have been acknowledged, in a large part by Europeans themselves, including (indeed, primarily) non-Christians. The teaching of the accomplishments of European civilization to young people of European extraction has fallen on somewhat hard times.

        The question i want to ask is whether African, or Asian, or Indian Christians encounter the same sort of ‘sensucht’ in listening to, or beholding, the artistic products of their cultures that we of European extraction encounter in the works mentioned. Ladysmith Black Mombazo and other comparable African Christian works are most certainly moving and spiritually rich. I am open to tutelage in this area.

        PS – I have long maintained that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the only certain foundation for the unity-in-diversity our current cultural elite desires so badly. Apart from that, we will get only the tyranny of the One or the atomization of the Many. The Managerial Class will be no more successful in this endeavor than were the Marxists in creating selfless Christians without Christ. Let us hope that they don’t so as much damage before they find out.

        • I’m not convinced that “the teaching of the accomplishments of European civilization to young people of European extraction has fallen on somewhat hard times” – if you look at most school curricula, I think you’ll find a large portion of novels, etc. that students are exposed to are from European artists. So, your claim does not seem to match reality.

          It sounds to me like what you’re really complaining about is not lack of representation of white Europeans in curricula, but the presentation alongside that of the harm that white European culture has done. It’s easier to tell yourself that you’re standing up for appreciation of your culture, than to admit to yourself that you wish people could stop naming your culture’s sin. (A sin that you almost certainly participate in.)

        • Also, consider the fact that “People should appreciate the contributions of white European culture” is a common white supremacist talking point. So, when you make statements like that, people are going to assume you’re a white supremacist even if you’re not – especially if you’re also making culture-war claims on top of that.

          Even if you are a Christian and not a white supremacist or a culture warrior, you should bear in mind the way that you speak might make you come across as one.

          • Burro (Mule) says

            Ain’t skeered

            At least No one will take me for an egalitarian

            Sometimes the rhetorical risks are worth it. Anyway. I got a couple people to listen to BBT.

            • “Ain’t skeered”? Sounds more like “Don’t care”.

            • Do you know Jesus?

            • If so, I would beg you to ask Him to speak to you and show you whether your beliefs and attitudes are compatible with His teachings or not. Because God does still speak to us through the Holy Spirit, and still desires to be in relationship with each of us – personal, direct, intimate communion with our Creator, not just the substitute “high” of fighting a culture war over an abstract idea or political ideology.

            • Burro (Mule) says

              ‘SOk. You don’t catch any flack until you’re over the target.

              Yes , I know Jesus. Not as well as I’d like
              Well to be honest. Just as well as I’m comfortable with at this time. I’m kinda scared of Him, but not because He wants me to play nice with the brown folk.

              • Catching “flak” isn’t proof that you’re on-target. If you walked into a fancy party and took a crap on the cheese plate, you’d have to be pretty delusional to think that any “flak” the guests gave you was because your were misunderstood or persecuted.

                • The New Testament makes it clear that we can be persecuted for our faith… but that we can also be persecuted for being asshats. And that we should be striving for the former, not the latter.

              • Burro (Mule) says

                Not an asshat and not being persecuted. Just still looking for the target.

                I have a theory that the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s provides the legitimization for what constitutes the government wing of the business-government duopoly of our current oligarchy. In effect, the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement functions as the ‘dignified’ part of Bagehot’s governmental scheme, which divides governmental functions into the ‘dignified’ and the ‘effective’.

                The dignified or ‘theatrical’ parts of the system played the essential role of winning and sustaining the loyalty and confidence of the mass of ordinary people whose political capacities were [vestigial] or non-existent; they helped the state to gain authority and legitimacy, which the efficient institutions could then use.

                Walter Bagehot The English Constitution

                The dignified part of the business wing of the government-business duopoly appears to me to historically have been the success of the corporations in providing for the material needs of the masses, but this has become increasingly threadbare since the Dot-Com meltdown and the Great Recession. The shenanigans of the current occupant of the White House have effectively destroyed the pretensions of the business wing of the duopoly to any legitimacy, and yet no government can govern for long on naked self-interest.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Do White people get to bring anything to the Diversity Party apart from contrition?

      If not, “Self-Defense White Supremacy” is the only refuge.

    • Sounds interesting. I’ll give them a listen.

    • Just listened to a live version of Victorian Brickwork. Nice.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX5X19aHZ2M

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Too far south, misplaced in my home town,
        the Victorian brickwork
        weathered but unchanged.
        Lost in low light and ocean tides,
        the love you never meant to hide.

    • Oh Burro, it is western civilization itself that provides you with the tools to abandon this antiquated ethnocentric rubbish. My brother, why do you resist the call to maturity and freedom?

      ps: Watched some Big Big Train videos. Pretty cool. Congrats to them for avoiding self-indulgent metalloid wankery. (Not that metal can’t be done right. Check out Bardo Pond “Peace on Venus”.)

      pps: What happened to YouTube? Used to enjoy it but if I wanted commercials I’d buy a TV!

  7. thatotherjean says

    I remember that post. It’s among my absolute favorites from this site, partly because it brought to mind the day I understood my husband’s devotion to classical music. I prefer music with words, and have be a fan of folk music from my high school days to the present, so we sort of looked at each other in mutual incomprehension–until the day he bought a CD of something I had never heard before. It had me from the first notes–soaring, magnificent, perfect. The Russian Easter Overture was so beautiful that it took my breath away. I understood, and music has never been quite the same since.

  8. Just curious- Was this the recording that Michael linked to way back when? If so, I didn’t realize Voces8 had been around that long. Beautiful essay. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. The English for the version in today’s video:

    A rose has sprung from out of a tender root,
    as the old ones sang; from Jesse came its kind,
    and has brought a little flower –
    at the midpoint of the cold winter, indeed, halfway through the night.

    The little rose that I mean, the one of which Isaiah spoke,
    has been brought to us by Mary herself, the pure maiden.
    From God’s eternal counsel
    she bore a child who makes us holy.

    The little flower, so small – it perfumes us so sweetly;
    with a bright gleam it drives away the darkness.
    True Man and True God,
    helps us out of all sorrows, saves us from sin and death.

    O Jesus, until our departure from this valley of woe,
    let Thy help lead us hither to the hall of joy
    in the Kingdom of Thy Father,
    there ever to praise Thee. O God, grant us this.

    Dana

  10. the snow that
    never fell today
    waits patiently