Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let's Have Fun!

I am having a really wonderful and surprising experience with this book I'm reading. I’m starting to work on my chapter on the Berlioz Requiem, and I needed to learn about church music in the Nineteenth century. This book is called "Church Music in the Nineteenth Century," by Arthur Hutchings. Considering its title at least 50% promising, I brought it home, or rather, I had my husband bring it home for me, as I leave the house but rarely. It was written in 1967. I expected it to be curmudgeonly and/or dry as dust, and I readied my pen to take down some boring but necessary facts and figures. But! So far from being wrong in that presumption was I that I quickly found myself actually delighted by the book! It is an absolute treasure.

For starters, there is the most charming preface I have ever read. Some excerpts:

"I lack courage to forgo this traditional opportunity to forestall criticism, for I have discovered that if the subject upon which I so readily agreed to write were comprehensively surveyed, even in a small book, I should need more time and travel than I can afford for several years to come."

Then he talks about how it's easy to say what was sung in Vienna at Schubert's church, or at Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey; but what was sung forty miles away at Kuckucksdorf am Donau or Little Cucking? "An exercise bombastically called research, but accurately called prying into cupboards and pestering friends, leaves my answers still vague."

Thus, he says, "It seems sensible to supplement knowledge with imagination and to declare any indulgence in guessing." He says if he didn't do it this way, he "should keep the publisher waiting for a very stodgy tome."

He then does this great joke where he says, "I wanted to dedicate these pages to Canon Kenneth Meux," and delivers a whole long paragraph about what a great guy Canon Meux is, but then he says, "Yet he would agree that the dedicatees should be Mgr. Paul Grant, President of Ushaw College, and the Vice President and Choirmaster, Mr. Laurence Hollis. My protestant tongue does not falter at 'Father Hollis' but Ushaw proudly recalls the style of address brought from Douai and still used in this country during the penal years."


So if that preface were not enough to stoke me up greatly 'pon the reading of this un-stodgy tome, here is the first paragraph of the book:

"We hear more sermons on faith than on hope, without which faith lacks radiance. Most outstanding men of the nineteenth century were such optimists that they either forgot the Devil or treated him as a medieval superstition. Two vast wars have since then set carpenters and clerks killing and maiming carpenters and clerks, few of whom wished to kill and maim; they could acknowledge their contribution to human error but could they reasonably believe that the horrors they witnessed were the just retribution for their sins? The wars 'came'; evil overtakes us because evil is with us."


I genuinely did not expect a survey of church music in the Nineteenth century to indulge in such whimsical flights of fancy, nor did I anticipate an exposition on Good and Evil and the Hearts of Man. It just goes to show you that you quite literally can not judge a book by its cover. I was struck over and over again, reading through this dude’s words, by the love of his subject that shone forth betwixt each page, but even more than that, I was struck by how much he clearly enjoyed the act of writing itself. Clever turns of phrases, beautiful and evocative passages, and always taking an extra moment to point out something humorous or interesting. He uses his imagination! He holds no grudges, even against the atheists. He speculates. He turns what could be dry historical facts into a rich and inviting world. Even when I disagreed with him on some point, or found a section boring, which is surely the fate of almost any book, scholarly ones especially, I still felt compelled to continue, because his prose was so charming, his weird personality apparent on every page.

It reminded me, as almost everything does these days, of my deep and abiding love of Jacques Barzun. I love a smart fancy person who can be serious without taking himself too seriously. There is a certain ease of address with Barzun that I enjoy whenever I encounter it. Can’t we just write down our thoughts and have fun doing it? We can’t, really. We need too many footnotes. We are too scared of the job market. And the disciplines have separated and become so rigid—gone are the days when somebody in the academy could write about Berlioz and baseball and race in America and crime fiction and the educational system without batting an eye. (And by "we" and "somebody" I don’t presume to mean "me," obviously, as I am nobody’s idea of a public intellectual, being but a proto-junior junior scholar who doesn’t really know about anything yet, except zombie movies, and certainly not baseball (sidenote: how much would I love to read something Jacques Barzun wrote about zombie movies?? Impossible to quantify)). I would just like to encourage everyone to take pleasure in writing, I guess, and I would like to try to continue enjoying writing even as I (hopefully) become smarter. I would like to read things written by people who like to write. I would like everyone to write in an enjoyable and compelling manner, such that people outside their discipline could still read and appreciate their words. This is how the Humanities will thrive, and how people outside the academy will understand what it is we are doing and why it is important for the world.

Anyway. This book is really taking the bad taste out of my mouth that was caused by the inadvised reading of two back-to-back devastating New Yorker articles, about global warming and the CIA's predator drone program, all at once, without coffee. Jesus, where is the New Yorker of bygone days, which taught me about how insights happen and how bees communicate???? What good is learning about this horrible world if there's nothing I can do about it except get blown up in my bed by an errant missile launched by a remote-controlled robot hovering in the sky over Pakistan whose coordinates got screwed up by the guy operating it from a bunker in suburban Denver?


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