May 28, 2017

Fridays with Michael Spencer: December 2, 2016

Black and Red Snow. Photo by Karen Eck

Black and Red Snow. Photo by Karen Eck

Today, Michael Spencer’s classic post, “Lo, How a Rose:” Experiencing The Power of Beauty.

• • •

It was Christmas of 1968. I was a seventh grader at Estes Junior High School. School was a huge part of my world. My father was beginning down the road to depression. I was an only child, and my life wasn’t full of the activities of a typical middle school boy today. My dad didn’t want me to play sports, so I came home every day and watched television, or played with my friends up the street. Looking back, there was a simplicity and goodness to my life, and there was also, right in the center, an emptiness.

My parents were uneducated and unsophisticated “country” people. Mom had grown up on farms in rural western Kentucky. Dad was an eastern Kentucky mountain boy who wound up making his way to the oil fields of western Kentucky where, after a painful divorce, he met and married my mother. We had a good family in many ways and a broken one in others, but it was completely devoid of anything you would call beauty; artistic beauty. There was no music. There were only a few cheap wall decorations. There were almost no books. Because I was an only child, I was treated as special, but I wasn’t introduced to the world of beauty. My parents knew the beauty of nature, but they lived in a city. They knew the beauty of family, and shared that with me. But what they knew of the beauty of music was the sound of folk music in the hollers and on the porches of farmhouses, and I was not there.

My parents did not know the world of artistic beauty. They were strangers to it, and would remain so throughout their lives. I went with dad to stock car races and with mom to Gospel quartet shows. At church, I heard the choir and sang hymns, but there was no awareness in my life of the beauty of great music; music that moved the soul and told the mind and heart of a greater beauty beyond. Every week, we would go to a friend’s home and hear a little country band play in the basement while my parents played Rook. I never knew there was anything else or anything more.

School was my only hope of an outlet from this world. It was at school a year before that I had first watched a real play; “Macbeth,” no less. I never forgot that introduction to Shakespeare and that bloody story of evil unfolding before my childish eyes. And it was at school that I first discovered the beauty of music, in “Lo! How a Rose, E’re Blooming.”

Seventh graders were required to take music class. We were not music enthusiasts, to say the least. There was about us all the sense of artistic compulsion, but in the cause of sheer endurance. Nothing more. Our teacher was Mr. Waite, the assistant principal. Mr. Waite was a towering, imposing, intense force to be reckoned with. He managed rooms full of junior high students with a firmness that produced consistent results. Fear of impending doom concentrates the mind wonderfully, and sometimes, in our case, frees the voice to do great things.

I later learned that he was, in fact, a boisterous, happy and spontaneous man who could make anyone smile, but we rarely, if ever, saw that smile. He was turning seventh grade Philistines into singers, and this was war. His entrance into our tiny music room was like the arrival of a holy prophet bound and determined to convert the captive heathen to the true faith. He did not abide any misbehavior, and we would sing whether we liked it or not. We were there to sing, and we would learn to sing and we did sing. Or else…I’m not sure what would have happened, but I didn’t want to find out.

I couldn’t read a note of music, and though Mr. Waite diligently taught us, and I surely nodded at every lesson, I never learned to actually read music. But that didn’t mean I didn’t learn to sing. I was blessed with a good voice and memory. I loved to sing with a group. If we couldn’t read the music, we could still memorize our part, and I did.

Christmas approached that seventh grade year, and we prepared for a Christmas music program for our parents. I am sure I was in the choir and sang several pieces, but I only recall one piece. Mr. Waite used a small, seventh grade boy’s choir, and among other things, we sang a classic arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.”

I knew the usual Christmas Carols from church, but I had never heard this song or anything of its kind. I didn’t understand the text. I didn’t understand the scriptural references. I certainly didn’t understand the beautiful arrangement by German composer Michael Praetorius. I did know that this song was an experience of beauty that moved my young soul like no other music I’d ever heard. The mysterious moving of the notes, slipping in behind one another, created an interaction and harmony unlike anything in my hymn-singing tradition. (Think “When We All Get To Heaven” and you have my total experience.) I was captivated. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, but it was what C.S. Lewis called “longing for joy.” Having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.

I remember our performance well. There was a small group of us formerly rowdy boys, all standing in white shirts, singing words from the 15th century, in almost complete ignorance, but now under Mr. Waite’s tutelage, becoming instruments of beauty despite our depravity and barbarian natures. My mother was there, and I am sure she was proud of me in my shirt, tie and cowlick, but I could never tell her, or anyone else, what I was really feeling. I didn’t have words for it myself. I couldn’t have told Mr. Waite what happened to me in those rehearsals and in that performance, but I had entered a whole new world.

I wonder how many people in my world have never been moved by music? They listen to the radio or CDs and are excited, or manipulated, but never moved by pure beauty like a visit from a spirit. How many have never been drawn into the beauty and the mystery of wondrous art like this seventh grade boy? Perhaps that day was my biggest step toward believing that God was real, good and loved me. Could the empty universe of the scientists have produced such a sound, and such a feeling to accompany it? Was this all there was, or was there more? And when this world is exhausted, is that all there is, or is there more beside? Is there what Lewis called a heaven of music and silence?

Mr. Waite, I owe you a great debt. You transformed us into the conduits of beauty, and you put the music of the gods on our lips when we were too young to know what it all meant. You rescued me from an artless world and showed me worlds beyond. You did what every educator should long to do- bring the experience of truth, beauty and wonder into young hearts and minds, and so capture us that we can never be happy again without tasting more of that miracle. You gave me a great gift, a gift that life, with all its pain and loss, will never take away. I will always have that song. And now, I have the Rose of whom the poet wrote, and the beauty that made that wonderful song beautiful is mine as well.

• • •

Photo by Karen Eck on Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    some of Michael’s writing moves me to tears

    ” ….. I did know that this song (Lo, How A Rose E’re Blooming’) was an experience of beauty that moved my young soul like no other music I’d ever heard. The mysterious moving of the notes, slipping in behind one another, created an interaction and harmony unlike anything in my hymn-singing tradition. (Think “When We All Get To Heaven” and you have my total experience.) I was captivated. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, but it was what C.S. Lewis called “longing for joy.” Having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.” (Michael Spencer)

  2. if there is a place
    mountains end and mist begins
    it remains unseen

  3. “Could the empty universe of the scientists have produced such a sound, and such a feeling to accompany it?” Exactly my feelings on this matter. Life is an emergent property, and once having emerged is now more than the sum of its parts. And we souls are also an emergent property, and having emerged (been created) and “having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.” Proof, you want proof? Listen to the music.

  4. “with our sails to the wind of joy”
    When we leave it often looks small on the waters, and often sadness, our memories of that person to be kept. But at that very moment you know that there is rejoicing, as the sails of one as glorious as any big ship there ever was, reflect the brightness as it moves toward that joy.

  5. William Martin says:

    First time I ever did Choir this was one of the songs. It moved me and I couldn’t have put it better than Micheal did here. Only I was 51 having never done anything like this before, The practices were the greatest and so much fun being able to laugh at ourselves and mistakes we were making. We had the director doubled over at times. Such beauty. Never forget. It took a long time but it happened. My mom always laughed at my voice growing up as it was always all over the place. It took 30 years for bass to become steady and booming. I cried on stage as men I knew put their arms around me and we sang.

  6. senecagriggs says:

    What a wonderful, wonderful post.

    I love music; it has always had the power to move me to tears

    • I find that music bypasses the intellect, which wants to dissect and analyze, and goes directly to the heart and soul.

      I am so happy that Michael had that wonderful experience of awakening to beauty; it reminds me of Helen Keller’s famous and amazing moment when she “awoke” to language.

      • Christiane says:

        “I find that music bypasses the intellect, which wants to dissect and analyze, and goes directly to the heart and soul.”

        Heather, I was told that the part of the human brain that processes music lies adjacent to the part of the brain that is involved with emotions and memories.
        Music also seems to temporarily awaken memories in people with dementia.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKDXuCE7LeQ

    • +1

      I was talking with a bassist in a worship band the other day and he asked if I played an instrument. I laughed and said, “Unfortunately, I can’t play a thing, but I LOVE music.”

      You should see how many cd’s I have in my house and van.

  7. William H. Martin Jr says:

    I just have to say it is posts like this that make me have joy inside and gladness that I have been able to read them. I’m Glad in my heart to have come back here as I thought I never would. Never knew what a poe was lol. Looked it up and it said point of exile. Some kind of game I guess. Expanded I wonder if it was something Edgar Allen did in his style. Never really read him. Some wonderful things to dwell on spent hours trying to sleep as thoughts crossed my mind from here. Thanks really…

    • That Other Jean says:

      Another meaning of “poe,” and one that is probably used here more often than “point of exile” is “such good satire that it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell that it isn’t true.”

      Most of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories are well-written, horror and mystery tales that will keep you awake; but his poetry makes wonderful use of sound, repetition, and rhythm. You might give them a read, when you can.

      It’s great to see you back again!

  8. This former music school music teacher had tears in his eyes reading Michael’s post.

  9. Mike Jones says:

    Beautiful art of any type, including beautiful music of any genre, to me is the greatest apologetic.

  10. Burro [Mule] says:

    I don’t think there has been any major decision in my life that has been decided on other than aesthetic grounds. My life has not been easy, nor has it been effortless, but it has been beautiful.

  11. seneca griggs says:

    BTW, there are so, very many humorous musical jokes.

    For instance: What the difference between an onion and a bagpipe?
    Answer: Nobody cries if you cut up a bagpipe.

    What do you call a trombonist with a business card?
    Answer: An optimist

    Oh well, you can find them all on Google.

    • My dad is a trombonist. I think I’ve heard that one before.

      Here are few more:

      Q: What did the trombonist get on his IQ test?
      A: Drool.

      Q: Why do people play trombone?
      A: Because they can’t move their fingers and read music at the same time.

      Q: Why is a dead snake in the road more tragic than a dead trombonist in the road?
      A: The snake may have been on the way to a recording session.

  12. Thank you, Mike, for posting this again. Each year, it’s one of my favorite things to read at Christmas time. I can and will never hear this song without thinking of Michael and remembering his love for it and for music.