October 19, 2017

“Lo, How a Rose:” Experiencing The Power of Beauty

phoenixboyschoir.jpgIt 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.

Comments

  1. Beautiful, thank you.

  2. I too can remember the first time I heard “Lo, How a Rose…” I was seven and it was an LP of a German boy’s choir my parents had. I had the same kind of experience as you.

  3. Fantastic, Michael! I shall link to this post later today.

  4. Mark Ritchie says:

    Thank you for telling the story not just of yourself, but this wonderful song. I well remember as a young husband singing this with my wife in a ten-person choir in the early 80’s. I already liked classical music, but this pre-Bach stuff was otherworldly. Our choir director was a graduate student at SMU and we were his project. To this day I can sing the bass line and every word (in English that is).

  5. Christopher Lake says:

    Wow, what a great, moving piece of writing! This essay in itself is beauty! Thank you, Michael.

  6. You touch on something I’ve long wondered about. I live in the Ozark region of southwestern Missouri. The Ozark heritage is similar to the Appalachian’s. The land is grows nothing but rocks. One had to be tough and long-suffering to survive.

    One of the most distinguishing features of culture here is the lack of any degree of appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. This is deep rooted, and can be seen as well in the predominant expressions of faith that took root in this area.

    I can only assume that the poverty that was part of common life left little room for the development and appreciation of beauty. But there’s more to it than this, for there are other regions on earth with impoverished peoples that seem to have developed a deep love of beauty. Indeed, beauty is an attribute of the nature of God and not dependent on wealth, nor control by an elite.

    There is here even a degree of anti-beauty sentiment. I assume it is the same where you live. If beauty is celebrated all, it is of the cheapest, most commercial sort. You know; the kind the Christian book stores are filled with. I find it hard to stomach. These are sweet and good people, and I’ve had to work at not being a snob about these things. But I long for beauty.

    Any thoughts?

  7. The Advent and Christmas season is my season of music. I listen year ’round, but on the first Sunday of Advent all other music is forgotten but music which focuses on the promise and Incarnation of Christ. This is where I have found transcendent beauty and the genuine feelings that A.W. Tozer once described when he said, “Truly great emotions arise from great thoughts.” There is a combination of holy awe and intimacy in the best Advent and Christmas music that is not duplicated in any other music. Over the years, my wife and I have collected hundreds of Christmas albums and we never tire of their winsome appeal. I recommend the choral music of John Rutter, other choral CDs from Kings College or Trinity College, James Galway’s Christmas, and many of the collections that include medieval carols. The medieval songs, like “Lo How a Rose” are so stark and yet lovely, like Bethlehem itself must have been.

    Thanks, Michael for this post.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    We need beauty, IMonk.

    To counter the Cult of Ugliness all around us — in books, on TV, in Media, even in the racks of Christian Bookstore kitsch.

    (A friend of mine coined the term “Cult of Ugliness” several years ago; since then I have heard it from others, including Pope Benedict. Google the phrase sometime.)

    I’m a veteran SF litfan. And I noticed that around 1968 there was a paradigm shift in SF lit, similar to that in the culture around it. To show SF had now Become Serious Literature, you had to celebrate ugliness and nihilism; it showed what a Serious Author you were. Continued over forty years it chipped away at the sense of beauty and wonder; bright futures abandoned for crapsack-Dark Futures, which were in turn abandoned for No Future, until all that’s left is the weary ennui with Appropriate Ironic Quip of the Seinfeld Sneer.

    I am reminded of Screwtape’s dissertation to Wormwood regarding Music and Noise. Today, the Noise is what’s trendy.

  9. An example of anti-beauty sentiment or what the above writer calls the cult of ugliness occurred in a conversation I recently had with our youth pastor. I recounted to him things my wife read me from a book called “The Geometry of Love” The writer describes an ancient but not well known church in Italy. She goes into unbelievable detail concerning the meaning and history behind all the myriad of architectural details in and out of the building. After describing these things briefly, I wondered aloud how someone would derive the depth of our theology out the ugliness of our typical protestant metal-structure church addition. He related it to a discussion taking place as to how we should celebrate the opening of the new building. The pastor did not want make a big deal of the building because he feels it is the people that are important and not the building. So the youth pastor said, “During your first sermon, take a cup of coffee and throw in on the floor. Then say, ‘That’s the first carpet stain. Now we don’t have to worry about the building’. In fact, the young man actually said he loved that the building is ugly. In other words, ugliness honors God.

    When I told my wife this story, she asked if he felt the same way about his wedding. In other words, did he want to have an ugly ceremony? And if he did, did his wife? She doubted that he did. I haven’t asked him.

  10. I wonder how much of being moved by beauty is reliant upon either the disposition to really listen or look (music is generally background noise for doing something else) or situations where you are forced to consider it (like middle school chior).

    On of my first memorable listening experiences was on a school trip from NY to VA.

    A friend let me use listen to his walkman which had Van Halen’s 1984 albumn in it. I remember starting at the first song and rewinding it (remember cassettes?) a number of times thinking that nothing coming afterwards could be as good. Eventually, after a bunch of listens I would let it play through the next song. I kept going that way through the whole albumn.

    I don’t know if I really “got” what David Lee Roth was singing about, but the music and the way it gave sound to emotions was a religious experience of sorts for me.

    Not exactly fine art and certainly not puposely pointing to the divine, but I think creativity cannot help, but point to the Creator even if only in shadows.

  11. George C., I fully agree with your final paragraph.

    I’d like to hear from the Orthodox on this. I recall that Orthodoxy came to Russia because the Czar, wanting to establish a religion to bind the nation together, sent out men to search for and bring back the most beautiful religion they could find. What they discovered and brought back was Orthodoxy.

    A fascinating, and deep study of the theology of beauty by an Orthodox theologian is “The Beauty of the Infinite” by David Bentley Hart.

    I’m not Orthodox, though I am drawn to its appreciation of the beauty of God and creation.

  12. I have a similar experience with this piece. I was raised the son of a southern baptist music minister, and was therefore thrust inevitably into all sorts of the music productions done there. Sang in choirs, played guitar for youth worship, trumpet in church orchestra. As you can imagine, very little of the music we ever sang (or the texts used for it) had much aesthetic value.

    but one year for the annual christmas cantata (usually a typical SB fiasco), we did a production compiled by, among others, Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. David Hamilton, the arranger for the whole work, did a chillingly good job with a few of the pieces – namely, a brief use of Lo How a Rose. That, and a piece called “This is Love” which simply compiled several scriptures set to lush orchestration, left a permanent impression on me as what modern church music COULD be. Praetorius’ setting of this text, like you said, iMonk, is gorgeous, haunting, and leaves a permanent mark.

    While I love things like the Indelible Grace movement and Red Mountain Church, I hope we can also somehow maintain the integrity of the choral/orchestral music which has been kept safely in the church for centuries. It, like the old churches of the mainline denominations and Roman Catholicism, seem to evoke a sense of God’s majesty and man’s humility like few other things. And their beauty seems to evoke a shadow what our corporate worship in the New Jerusalem will be like.

  13. I was the daughter of German immigrants, and we did not have much in the early years. One event we went to each Christmas was sponsored by a Catholic Society of Germans in Chicago. Every Christmas, they had a party. We would all come decked out in our finest. My sister and I always had those little red velveteen Christmas dresses. There would be a fine meal, at beautifully set tables with candles, etc. Then the lights would be turned down completely, and our attention would be directed to the front, where Advent candles would be lit, with Scritpures read, etc. Then, to top it all off, we would all sing together “Stille Nacht”, auf Deutsch, of course! I was so moved by the simple beauty, and even as a very small child, would wonder at God becoming a man in Bethlehem. After Stille Nacht, the mood would suddenly change, we’d hear bells, and some loud ho-hoing that heralded the arrival of…..St Nicholas!! 🙂

  14. Nice post, Michael.

    Ah, Chaplain Mike. You speak my language. And yes, Kings College is some of the best out there. Those Wilcox descants for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” are magnificent.

    I highly recommend to everyone a DVD called “Carols from King’s” put out by BBC. The performance was from December 2000, but the set also has a service from 1954. And the extra material talks about the traditions behind the Service of Lessons and Carols and its performance at King’s.

  15. My sister sent me the link to your blog. Good post.

    Unlike you, we were exposed to classical music from an early age. I remember enduring many choir concerts at church (my father sang bass in the choir) as a child. The words were often in Latin, and the program provided a translation. I could understand neither the spiritual meaning (why anyone would want to sing those words) nor why every line had to be repeated so many times. It seemed to me that once a line had been sung once that should be good enough. When the concert was finally over, my mother and I would clap enthusiastically – because it meant we could finally leave. (I don’t know what my sister thought of it.)

    I played violin starting in fifth grade, which exposed me to a lot more classical music (classical in the broad sense, not the Classical period of Beethoven and Mozart). I also loved the Christmas carols in different languages in a book that my father got out at Advent every year. To this day I would rather sing Adeste Fideles and Stille Nacht than O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.

    But what you post most reminded me of was the appreciation for church music that I gained in ninth grade, when I was finally in the adult choir with my father (my older sister had also been in it but had by then graduated and gone off to college). I remember singing “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” that year, but it wasn’t the one that really got to me. The haunting melody and words that made spiritual things seem real was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” In large part through the music we sang in choir that year, that through repetition seeped deep into me, I went from being an agnostic (yes, I joined the church choir not sure if I believed in God) to faith in Christ.