Seasonal Thoughts on Music Education

"Christmas in Harvard Square", the debut album from The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School, provided a perfect soundtrack for the season of Christmas, not least because of its origin in educational excellence

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a Latin-singing choir’s CD.

Well, not quite. It was the record company that gave me Christmas in Harvard Square, the debut album from The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School. But it was still a beautiful gift.

They gave it to me well before Advent, for review purposes. And if I have to confess, then I must say I am something of an Advent Grinch: I like telling people that Christmas carols are out of liturgical season during Advent. And my heart only melts around Gaudete Sunday, when I myself start to join in on the non-liturgical festivities and start playing Christmas carols at home for visiting company, and sometimes even for my liturgically Grinchy self. So, it took me awhile to get to this CD.

But I am pleased to report that, after throwing this new CD into this year’s Christmas mix, it quickly rose to the top of the rankings. Everybody has their favorite Christmas albums that they play, and I do too; they also like to try out new ones each year, and I do too. I was surprised and delighted how well the rendering of carols by this boys’ choir stood out amidst my usual Christmas playlist.

(Photo Credit: AimHigher Recordings)

On many occasions, visitors asked about the CD that I was playing, which is always a good sign. This album will therefore be making an annual return to my preferred Christmas playlist, because it is so well done, and so perfect for the season, as everybody seemed to recognize instantly.

I especially gave this album a solid test drive during the full twelve days of Christmas proper. So now, on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6), I can report back to you that it is definitely a keeper.

Comprised of nineteen tracks, there are wonderful renditions of Christmas classics like “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, “The Little Road to Bethlehem”, “Ding Dong Merrily on High”, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, and “Angels We Have Heard”. My favorites here, however, are all the lesser-known ones with Latin lyrics (either in full or in part): “O Magnum Mysterium”, “Omnes De Saba Venient”, “Mater Ora Filium”, “Puer Natus Est”, “A Maiden Most Gentle”, “Dominus Dixit”, “Angelus Ad Virginem”, and “There is No Rose”.

The director of music, John Robinson, himself impressively contributes seven arrangements to the repertoire, and they are all superb. The organist Dr. Jonathan Wessler, moreover, adds perfect support to the enterprise. And the young boys sing beautifully. Four tracks here are new to me, and it was lovely to make new discoveries that I will be returning to every Christmas season: “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”, “The Infant King”, “I Sing of a Maiden”, and “Still Still Still”.

But, never mind my successful test drive this Christmas. The main reason you should buy this CD is to support the cause of musical education. Did you know that St. Paul’s Choir School is the only Catholic boys choir school in the United States? They educate boys in the 4th through 8th grades, and this CD is a marvelous testament to this most invaluable kind of formation. Because this kind of education should be more widespread, but sadly is not, I urge you to support the noble effort by buying this CD right now.

The importance of music in education was famously recognized by ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, to whose works we can turn for a defense of the ideal. In our own time, the philosopher Roger Scruton has offered an in-depth argument on behalf of the same fundamental principles.

In his short book, Culture Counts, Scruton recognizes, like the Greek philosophers, that musical modes imitate “states of mind and character, and by dancing or marching to their sound we transfer those states to ourselves.” Musical education thereby teaches human beings the ways of grace and restraint. Musical education thus forms character, so that it will be in accordance with virtue, as we learn how to give to the music “a sympathetic response, a way of shaping our inner life to fit the perceived life of another.”

The Catholic writer and philosopher Mark Dooley agrees, and in his own book on Scruton (Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach) he writes: “In listening, singing and dancing to classical music, young people enter a spiritual community with a strong moral code at its core. It is a community based on order, harmony, virtue and respect for the freedom of others.”

Dooley points out how in Philosophy: Principles and Problems, Scruton sums up a dense argument about musical education that Scruton has given in painstaking detail in other great works of his, like The Aesthetic Understanding and The Aesthetics of Music. This argument begins by noticing that music sanctifies us by the way it opens up a sacred space that is “incommensurate with physical space”.

In Principles and Problems, Scruton writes that in his experience of music, for example, “listening to a Bach fugue, or a late quartet of Beethoven, or one of those infinitely spacious themes of Bruckner, I have the thought that this very movement which I hear might have been made known to me in a single instant: that all of this is only accidentally spread out in time before me, and that it might have been made known to me in another way, as mathematics is made known to me.” In this mystically or intuitively experiential way, opened up by music, “we can obtain a glimpse of what it might be, for one and the same individual, to exist in time and eternity.” Surely we indeed have glimpsed such a thing, whenever we have listened to the right kind of music.

To this day, Scruton has continued to write in this vein, namely, about how the beauty of music allows us to enter a sacred space beyond words. In The Soul of the World, his Stanton Lectures given at the University of Cambridge in the 2011 Michaelmas Term, which were just published in 2014, Scruton gives a vivid example. The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School themselves give us their own examples with Christmas in Harvard Square, but Scruton speaks about Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor Quartet. He observes that the Beethoven quartet contains no particular story about human life; but, nonetheless, somehow “all human life is there.” It is not merely pleasant to listen to, but (more importantly) it addresses us with a challenge.

“There are no easy options, no fake emotions, no insincerities in this music, nor does it tolerate those things in you. In some way it is setting an example of the higher life, inviting you to live and feel in a purer way, to free yourself from everyday pretenses,” writes Scruton, “That is why it seems to speak with such authority: it is inviting you into another and higher world, a world in which life finds its fulfillment and its goal.”

Scruton notices that listening to music is similar to the experience of dancing to it. Once we admit this, we can also see that there is a difference between the dancer who understands the music and “the dancer who merely dances along with it, without understanding it.” The dancer who understands the music is able to translate it into expressive gestures that fit it. Similarly, the listener who comes to understand the meaning of great music, and what it has allowed them to glimpse, is able to incorporate it into their daily way of existence. For the one who understands such music, there is demanded a faithful obedience to what is sacred and what is holy.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.