HIstory is often presented as situational lessons, but I think a more interesting way to look at it is as a set of uncovered patterns—events and ideas shaping the mechanism of collective and individual journeys such that we follow certain paths without even realizing it, our lives hurtling down unseen rails. Today’s itinerary: Saint Augustine to Nadia Boulanger to musical iconoclasm.
Augustine first, from Book X of the Confessions:
The delights of the ear drew and held me much more powerfully, but thou [God] didst unbind and liberate me. In those melodies which thy words inspire when sung with a sweet and trained voice, I still find repose; yet not so as to cling to them, but always so as to be able to free myself as I wish. But it is because of the words which are their life that they gain entry into me and strive for a place of proper honor in my heart; and I can hardly assign them a fitting one. Sometimes, I seem to myself to give them more respect than is fitting, when I see that our minds are more devoutly and earnestly inflamed in piety by the holy words when they are sung than when they are not. And I recognize that all the diverse affections of our spirits have their appropriate measures in the voice and song, to which they are stimulated by I know not what secret correlation. But the pleasures of my flesh—to which the mind ought never to be surrendered nor by them enervated—often beguile me while physical sense does not attend on reason, to follow her patiently, but having once gained entry to help the reason, it strives to run on before her and be her leader. Thus in these things I sin unknowingly, but I come to know it afterward.
In other words, music is just a little too pleasurable to us in this world to be totally, um, kosher, even if the intent is theologically virtuous. I once speculated that this sort of moralizing in the Confessions had something to do with the distrust of temporality in the Plotinian philosophy that was Augustine’s waystation on the road to conversion—and, after all, music is the most temporal art form there is.
But Augustine goes on, and in the process, shifts the playing field a little:
On the other hand, when I avoid very earnestly this kind of deception, I err out of too great austerity. Sometimes I go to the point of wishing that all the melodies of the pleasant songs to which David’s Psalter is adapted should be banished both from my ears and from those of the Church itself. In this mood, the safer way seemed to me the one I remember was once related to me concerning Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who required the readers of the psalm to use so slight an inflection of the voice that it was more like speaking than singing.
However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom. Thus I vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise.
Augustine is getting a little tricky here. He’s gearing up to make a point about virtuosity, but you almost don’t notice that he’s really talking about two forms: musical and verbal. That’s because the inherent virtue of verbal virtuosity is assumed. (Sprechstimme is “safer” than singing?) And if you get the sense that Augustine is about to start separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff, you’re right:
I am inclined—though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject—to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. See now what a condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for me, those of you who can so control your inward feelings that good results always come forth. As for you who do not act this way at all, such things do not concern you. But do thou, O Lord, my God, give ear; look and see, and have mercy upon me; and heal me—thou, in whose sight I am become an enigma to myself; this itself is my weakness.
According to Augustine, music plays on “weaker minds,” or in Augustine’s case, on that part of his mind that is still weak. But then again, Augustine’s primary weakness is that he is “an enigma to myself”—apparently, what troubles him about musical pleasure is that he can’t get a handle on it, he’s not sure how it works or why it happens. It’s not only music itself that’s too shifty for his taste, it’s musical pleasure as well.
Now, Augustine is indulging in a kind of meta-version of what’s called praeteritio—bringing something up by saying how you’re not going to bring it up. (Example: I’d never stoop so low as to point out that Matthew’s blog posts can often be too long.) Augustine is exorcising virtuosity by applying it. He tap-dances around the line between speech and song with such dexterity that by the time he reaches his summation—See now what a condition I am in!—we don’t even notice that the seeming self-deprecation is actually an assertion of intellectual authority. It’s OK if weak minds respond to singing, but when Augustine responds to it? He’s “sinned wickedly.” But, of course, he recognizes his sin, which at once sets him above the rabble while playing on our own vanity to support him. Those of us without such fault, weep for him. “As for those of you who do not act this way at all”—you can almost see Augustine working the audience, daring anyone to raise their hand. In admitting that he hasn’t always practiced what he is now preaching, Augustine’s preaching is more effective, not less. And the fact that his argument against virtuosity is, in fact, supremely virtuosic, well, somehow that ends up in his corner, too. Only a virtuoso can recognize such subtly pernicious virtuosity. Knowing enough to avoid what he knows: that’s Augustine’s main intellectual strategy throughout the entirety of the Confessions.
So where does Nadia Boulanger figure in all this? Via this old chestnut, which I have seen attributed to her more often than not—
To study, music, we must learn the rules; to create music, we must break them
—the holy-writ justification for every species counterpoint class since. But it’s also a Hollywood-level cliché in composer biographies. Many composers are known for breaking with the past—but such composers always come pre-packaged with the necessary mastery of the past they broke with. Beethoven, we are often reminded, studied with Haydn and Albrechtsberger. Berlioz and Debussy both picked up their Prix de Rome. Schoenberg wrote theory textbooks. The leading contemporary example is John Adams: while the poetic impetus for his rejection of atonality may vary—hearing a Hendrix song blasting across Harvard yard? reading Silence? listening to Götterdämmerung while driving across California?—his thoroughly hexachordally combinatorial Harvard education remains a constant biographical presence.
Is this trope a hangover from Augustine? Probably. I mean, your average born-a-saint, stayed-a-saint, died-a-saint story? Boring. Sinner-turned-saint? Thanks to Augustine, a probable best-seller. An asserted virtue comes with more dramatic impact if it’s the result of apostasy. The narrative even has a permanent place in the shaping of world history—remember the old Vulcan proverb that only Nixon could go to China. (I seem to recall an opera about that as well.)
Like Augustine said, “Grant me chastity, but not yet.” At times in the Confessions, you almost get the sense that Augustine is going out of his way to maintain his sinful life, the better to eventually make a rhetorical example of his conversion in the telling. (Augustine as Nicely-Nicely Johnson.) Interestingly, the composer-biography version of that—Elliott Carter moving his ultra-modernist inclinations to the back burner while mastering Boulangerian neo-Classicism, George Gershwin sounding out both Boulanger and Ravel for lessons in Paris (both, recognizing the limits of Augustinian emulation, turned him down)—usually result in far less vehement rejection of past ways. (Carter, for example, has always extolled Boulanger—while, of course, deriding the conservative nature of his own Harvard education.) Some composers really want to learn the rules before they break them.
But most don’t. The Boulanger prescription continues to be challenged (usually by students) and defended (usually by teachers). And yet the two-step seems to have a place on the dance card generation after generation. Maybe some people just take a while to decide what they want to do. Maybe some people just can’t get energized about a new path unless they’re simultaneously rejecting an old one. But maybe two millennia of redemption narratives have imperceptibly eroded the pathways of civilization into Augustinian channels. Make me a maverick—but not yet.