Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Canon of Great Music

Yes, Virginia, There is a Canon of Great Music

This report comes to you from one of the proverbial frogs who is in the pot of gradually boiling water called the modern secular university. The area in which I teach, music, has been undergoing gradual, yet momentous changes in its prevailing institutional and professional philosophy nationally. Some of the changes are quite predictable. For example, I am gently informed that I should no longer use the word “masterpiece” for a musical composition, lest it supposedly allude to “masters” and therefore be taken as an oblique and racially insensitive endorsement of slavery. Never mind that the term has nothing to do with slavery and actually alludes to the medieval guild system of masters, journeymen, and apprentices; but even then the word is still supposedly fraught with patriarchal gender specificity, since a master is the male counterpart to an ostensibly subordinate mistress. Having no wish to offend in the workplace, I have no problem with choosing less provocative language.

However, one of the more substantive points of understanding being touted to students by many of today’s musical scholars at universities across the land is the question of whether the mastery (okay, let’s call it “greatness”) of such works of music can even exist, in principle, or ever really existed. Perhaps music’s greatness was the Romanticized illusion of a bygone era, like Santa Claus. For many, this question has already been codified into a new dogma: There is no such thing as a masterpiece, and so there is and can be no “canon” of great music. That is to say, there is no inherent value in the works themselves. There is only the perception of greatness assigned to the music by the listener as the relativistic result of cultural conditioning. More concisely, there is no great music, only great listeners. Here is how an earnest student at one university has been quoted, likely echoing what he had learned in one of his classes, “Part of what I believe makes ‘The Canon’ seem so rarefied is that it is comprised of ‘Works of Genius’ by ‘The Old Masters’ — This is a holdover from the genius fetishization that really took root during the Romantic era, and that we’ve yet to shake off. As anyone alive today can’t, by definition, be an old master, these [new] works don’t have the same cultural cache.” It seems to be implied in this precociously elegant statement that it would be desirable to “shake off” the “old” idea of “genius.” Each of these terms bears consideration. But first I must say that the above concepts could indeed all sound perfectly reasonable, if novel, from a secular, relativistic world view, and from that view this student sounds thoughtful. I am not here to criticize secular institutions, including my own, for teaching according to their own world view and from the expected, currently prevailing world view of their whole profession. But adding the dimension of faith, stated in charity, can reveal additional criteria for the Christian student to consider, even while showing respectfulness to all his or her teachers.

Already feeling the Christmas (or at least Advent) spirit, then, I will frame my response in a seasonal homage to the remarks made in the famous letter to a little girl named Virginia published in 1897 by one Francis Pharcellus Church, editor at The Sun, a prominent New York newspaper. It begins, “Virginia, your little friends are wrong [in telling you there is no Santa]. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be that is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, be they men’s or children’s, are little.”


Exactly what kind of skepticism marks our own age? In 1897 it may have had to do with the rise of scientific certitude. Now, I believe, it has to do with the certitude of a perhaps unintentionally condescending presumption, namely the progressive, temporally chauvinist view of history, to wit: Our age is, of course, the most enlightened, perhaps the first and only enlightened, age. Our approach to studying the past, therefore, is no longer with awe and reverence for its great thinking, writing, and artistic achievement. Rather, we are the researchers in white lab coats, and they are the amoebae in our Petri dish, and our job is to account for the then-still-benighted motivations of those so-called great (but really not-so-great) amoeba-heroes of the past.

In regard to music, such thinking might go like this: Now that we understand the psychological triggers to human emotion in a given culture, we can see how music was shaped into a dramatic syntax of musical expectation and fulfilment using purely Western harmonies and gestures that manipulated the particular emotional-response set of a very isolated Eurocentric, privileged culture. The fact that this music fails to speak in the same way to many non-Western or lower-class sensibilities confirms that this music is really just one tradition, an isolated, stylized cultural ritual. Technically, it is even possible that certain chord progressions act as aural phallic symbols and are the product of patriarchal thinking. Our modern understanding, therefore, finds a more comprehensive context for this isolated musical tradition, one-among-many that are equally or perhaps even more valid.

“Virginia…. the most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see…. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are, unseen and unseeable in the world. You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.” Might it be that we have turned music into a baby’s rattle, dissected and deconstructed sociologically, until we mistakenly think we fully understand it, and more fully than anyone ever has?

It may be true that the word “genius” presents a semantic challenge and may be over-enthusiastically and naively invoked by some. If it were possible, I would simply respond to the above student that it might be useful, first, to make a distinction between the composer and the music itself. If it feels too generous to call the composer a genius, with all his supposedly flawed understandings, then forget about him and analyze the score of the composition itself. If the score represents extraordinary accomplishment of craft, then is it not worthy of admiration, whether it was written by an old man of the past, a woman of the present, a future person, or even an alien species from the cosmos? While you may argue that those people or aliens would surely not have written it the same way, it seems to me that not everything in it can be culture-and-time specific. For example, any general traits like coherent structure, unity, patterns of human speech, complexity, or elegant simplicity are self-evident, universal, and timeless traits in all cultures. Those timeless qualities can never be “old,” even if the “old master” who produced them may seem to be.

But from the spiritual standpoint there is much more to music than even genius. If we believe that our physical sense of hearing and the existence of sound in the world are God’s gifts of natural creation, and if we believe that human creativity in shaping sound into beautiful forms is also an invisible reflection of our having been made in the Creator’s image, then we must certainly agree with Mr. Church when he wrote (above) of the “unseen and unseeable world.” He goes on to say, “Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.” We might add, the unseen spiritual symbolism of music is also a part of the real and abiding kingdom of God.

In theology, the “divine economy” emanates from the Holy Trinity. The cooperation and love among each of its three divine persons, yet in one God, projects itself outward into the structure of the family, the Church, and indeed into the coherence of the whole of creation, including that of, yes, “great” music. Considering these additional points, music can be great and deserves to be honored in its canon, not only because its objective, observable structure is innately and self-evidently true to any logically thinking person, but because its symbolism, not lacking an object, has a real object in God Himself. “Is it all real?” Like the spirit of Christmas, music’s greatness is real, if seemingly mysterious and intangible, and whether or not it can be proven in a lab or a court of law or through a study of its sociological context. The beauty of the sunset cannot be proven in a court of law, yet we all know it is real. Perhaps this is why St. Paul wrote, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

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