ELEISON COMMENTS DCCCXXXII (June 24, 2023) : SOLZHENITSYN APPLIED
Last week in these “Comments” Solzhenitsyn argued that the arts show what is going on in men’s souls; that modern arts betray a spiritual emptiness in modern souls; that such a spiritual emptiness does not bode well for man at any time. Solzhenitsyn himself was not a Catholic, in fact in his youth he was without God. But eight years’ suffering in Communist prison camps taught him that there is a God, which gave him a spiritual life and insights into reality sorely lacking to many souls, dried out under Communism in the East, but also desiccated in the West by centuries of rationalism and materialism (that includes far too many “Catholics” – think of Vatican II). Let us apply a few of Solzhenitsyn’s lessons to our own lives.
Firstly, our scorn of the arts, an example of which is how every newspaper will print poetry today as though it is prose (materialists do not like poetry always suggesting that there is more to life than just prose). But by our God-given nature, men have, beside their material bodies, a non-material soul which responds to, and needs, stories, music, pictures and/or sculptures. These “arts” are the highest and most spiritual products of men gifted to write stories or play music, create paintings or sculptures. Here is why they and their public are apt to say that “artists” are at their best “inspired”; why atheists can hardly produce true “arts”; and why the greatest of “artists” and “arts” in recent times can invariably be traced back to Christendom, as Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) realised. Now in the exercise of his art any artist is normally striving to share something important to him. That is why the arts are a good indication of the contents of men’s souls, and why popular stories, music or paintings manifest a people’s spiritual life.
Hence Catholics should never underestimate, as they are liable to do under the pressure of modern scorn of the arts, the value and importance of stories, music and visuals. Solzhenitsyn is right to say that today’s senseless stories, jarring music and ugly visual arts reflect very badly on what is going on in modern souls. He reads in them the fiery glow, or doom of Western so-called “civilisation”. Compare Wagner’s grand opera Twilight of the Gods (1876), in which a whole world order, the gods’ Valhalla, comes crashing down in flames, on stage. Yet modern parents will often not care what music their children listen to. Nor will they pay much attention to what music they themselves like. Hence Rock “musicians” are free in effect to steal their children’s affections from their parents as the Pied Piper of Hamlin stole away by his music the children of Hamlin. Too late, parents can realise what a bad example they set for their children by listening themselves to trash by way of “music”. But how dare anyone speak of trash in music ? Because that is what modern music is, broadly empty of melodic, harmonic or rhythmic worth or interest. Because if music does not edify, it is bound to corrupt. By its very power, it must do one or the other.
Now there is a limit to what music one can force oneself to like. If I have a trash soul, I cannot like decent music overnight. On the other hand, I can love nothing of which I have no knowledge. So the least I can do to raise my soul is get to know a better music. The best music is Gregorian chant. Next down is polyphony, then is classical music. Lowest of all is modern music, jazz, pop, rock and rap in that order downwards. Why ? Because “Melody” said Mozart, “is the soul of music.” Gregorian chant is pure melody. Rap is none. At a major pivotal point on this downwards ladder is the classical musician Beethoven (1770-1827), uniquely combining much order still of the 18th century with much passion of the 19th century. On the one hand he is by moments too angry and violent to please tranquil souls. On the other hand he is not so calm as to say little or nothing to modern youngsters, who are too shaken up to be able to stand too much order.
But for anyone who might wish to get into the world of classical music, a marvellous introduction might be the BBC’s 2003 film, Beethoven’s Eroica. The film is a reconstruction of the very first performance of the “Eroica” Symphony in a Viennese aristocrat’s private palace in 1804. We see the variety of human reactions to this epoch-making music, brand-new in its day: the lady of the house thrilled by hearing the cavalry charging; her domestic staff, alternately listening and flirting; a Czech General put off by the length and originality of the symphony but deeply moved despite himself; the famous composer Joseph Haydn who is fully grasping that a new era has come in music; and so on. The film presents very well both this human context and the historical setting of the Third Symphony, with Revolution all around. The film is easily accessible at youtube.com/watch?v=UtA7m3viB70 Highly recommended.
Good art builds natural values in the soul,
A serious help to its supernatural goal.