The Real Presence

Social media (the tiny corner I frequent, at any rate: Twitter & some blogs) has been discussing a stupid poll (1) showing most Catholics don’t believe in the the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Well. Not to put too fine a point on it, most Catholics couldn’t pick a monstrance out of a lineup of migratory waterfowl, so I’m not real surprised here. Subtle teachings like ‘show up for Sunday Mass’ and ‘no sex outside of marriage’ seem to truly baffle your average Catholic, in my experience. Don’t let your view of the knowledge level of the faithful get skewed by hanging out with the people who actually attend Mass with you; most of the people saying they’re Catholic in this poll probably couldn’t name three dogmas of the Church to save their lives. If they even know what a dogma is. (2)

Since everybody’s got their opinion on the cause and solution to this problem, I will not offer mine so much as simply quickly review how such a stupendous and stupefying claim was communicated to the faithful over the years. Spoiler: the Church used to be wise enough not to confront the searcher or believer with a mere Wall of Words. The meaning of the word transubstantiation is not difficult to grasp, but the Reality being described by the word is truly ineffable. It would be wise to appeal to more than just the verbal intellect when trying to communicate something as profound ad the Real Presence. Consider:

Interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica, located in the historic district of Old Montreal, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

This is the view you get when you walk in the main doors of Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal. The art and architecture conspire to create beauty, mystery and focus. Nobody needs catechesis to understand something important is happening here, and where it is happening.

Walking down the center aisle, you get to the high altar:

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High Altar

There’s that Jesus fellow, front and center. Everything works together to tell you something important is here, something beautiful and mysterious.

Here’s another:

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York Minster, beautifully defining the skyline of York, as it has for 800 years.
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York Minster, West portals.
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Interior

The church in which the Blessed Sacrament is to be confected, consumed and reserved is the building in most traditional Catholic towns; in the larger towns and cities, there may be many churches, but generally, there is a main church – and no one can miss it. And in each, the art and architecture work together to draw attention to the main altar, which is what the building is built around, as it were.

Another:

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The Duomo, Milan.
High Altar

And on and on. Churches were constructed, from the very earliest days, to not just hold a congregation, but to give glory to God – and to help the people understand, through beauty, that something of infinite value was here. Nor were beautiful churches limited to major cities. Here is a church from a village in Southern Poland:

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Fewer resources to draw on, perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to matter: the people do the best they can, which is often spectacular.

If you’ve traveled to the older cities in the US much, you may have seen beautiful churches, often built by poor immigrants, all over the place. Up until maybe the 1950s, local Catholics building beautiful churches were the rule.

But this is just the start. A high mass sung in a great church is the greatest single work of art mankind has ever achieved.

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Something important, beautiful and precious is going on here. You don’t need a theology degree to see it.

Music, incense, pageantry, ritual, and the resulting solemnity all work with the building and artwork to convey one thing: this, here, is infinitely important. That’s how the Church for centuries treated the Real Presence; that’s how people came to know it and believe it. The teachings will always ring fantastical and hollow if the Church itself does not act as if it is true.

Now, if we just get the extraordinary ministers to approach the tabernacle with more reverence than if they were fetching a cup of sugar from a kitchen cabinet, that would be a start.

  1. Pretty much all polls are stupid; Pew polls doubly so, with their air of objectivity and Science! I imagine the Pew pollsters, if confronted with their obvious biases, would either give you a deer in the headlights stare, or, if really feeling it, a Snidely Whiplash mustache twirl and cackle. Or not. Maybe I should rephrase this: anyone who takes such polls as these at face value is stupid.
  2. As mentioned here, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the products of our local ‘Catholic’ prep schools – and, yea, well, um, not so much Catholic. OTOH, hanging out with the homeschooled Catholic crowd gives me a little hope. Leven, and all.

Music at Masses Review: TAC Baccalaureate & St. Therese Alhambra

Was blessed this weekend to be present at two very beautiful masses, the baccalaureate mass for our son’s graduation at TAC, and a 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning mass at St. Therese’s in Alhambra, California. These masses were both very different and yet very much the same, one a huge celebration in a gorgeous church presided over by a bishop and half-dozen priests, with a amazing choir and organist, and all the pomp and ceremony one could want. The other was a low mass in a pretty parish church, with the only music being the typical Latin commons for the Kyrie (yes, it’s Greek, I know) Sanctus and Agnus. The priest also sang a bit of an old Marian hymn as an illustration of some point in his homily.

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Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Ojai, CA

They were the same in their reverence, and in being directed to the glory of God and not the glory of men.

The choir at TAC is amazing. A school of 350 or so students can somehow produce a choir more than worthy of their beautiful church and school. There has long been a frankly shocking amount of musical talent at that school, given that there’s no music program as such (the students study music a little as part of their Great Books program). Yet in the now decade that I’ve been going down to campus, seems there’s always something musically excellent going on. At the family of the graduates dinner Friday night, for example, two different acapella groups founded or peopled by students, or both, performed, and both were excellent.

Interior of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel
Interior.

Saturday morning, the baccalaureate mass began at 8:30 in a packed church. Here’s my one and only complaint about that beautiful building: site lines from anywhere other than the nave are terrible. When it’s a full church, half the people are in the transept or side aisles, and might as well be outside for as well as they can see anything. This obscured vision is a result of the sanctuary being recessed enough to be mostly invisible from the transept, but mostly from a nave and side aisle design in a building that’s not that big. In gigantic cathedrals, it’s often possible to see fairly well from much of the side aisles, as the columns are farther apart and the nave wider. In Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Chapel, all you can see from 90% of the aisle spaces is the columns and the nave – the altar and sanctuary are totally blocked. Of course, for 95% of the masses celebrated there, everybody sits in the nave and it’s no problem, so this is a minor complaint, really.

The Mass began with Come Holy Ghost while the faculty and graduates filed in, followed by the chant Introit while the clergy and Bishop Barron processed in and the altar was incensed. The mass commons were some lovely polyphony I didn’t immediately recognize, most likely Palestrina, perhaps – one of that crowd. They also did motets for offertory and communion including Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and more chant propers.

For the recession, the choir sang the hymn tune from Jupiter from Holst’s the Planets – an extreme case of redeeming some beautiful secular music, in this case, from the hands of a goodball gnostic astrologer. Lovely.

Or it seems you can just listen to it – here. Audio is a bit spotty, but you will get the gist. Bonus Bishop Barron homily.

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St. Therese of Lisieux, Alhambra, CA, interior.

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we – my wife, mother-in-law, our 15 year old son David, freshly-minted graduate Thomas, elder daughter Teresa, who lives in Alhambra, and our younger daughter Anna Kate who flew in from New Hampshire to surprise her big brother, gathered for the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Therese’s and brunch afterwards. Younger daughter also is graduating, in one week! She had handed in her senior thesis Monday, defended it Thursday, then flew out Friday, flew back Sunday in order to take her finals! Insane, but typical – those two are only 20 months apart in age, and were often thought to be twins growing up (and fought like cats and dogs). Despite needing special permission to defend her thesis early so that she could leave Friday, and despite having to try to study for finals on the plane, she was not going to miss this.

Our older daughter Teresa helped arrange all this, picking up Anna Kate at the airport and putting her up, and driving her to the graduation. I love our kids! There are far better than I deserve, that’s for sure.

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Modern-ish, but lovingly executed and not unlovely. It’s heart, and the hearts of all those involved, are in the right place.

Mass was what you’d expect early on a Sunday morning – very low key. The people, which included a passel of Sisters of Charity (they always look so happy!), knew the chant propers and sang them well. Quiet, reverent and of course efficacious.

We may not often get to have the 90+ minute high sung mass celebrated in a great church by competent, devote people, but I’ll take a revenant low mass celebrated by people who care any day of the week. I’m grateful to all the people who helped bring about both masses, even and perhaps especially those whose devotion helped to transmit a culture in which such things can take place.

St. Joseph Iconography

Happy, Holy and Blessed Feast of St. Joseph! Moving on from the celebration of some minor saint who is patron of some island somewhere, we reach today the feast of St. Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin, Terror of Demons and PATRON OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH. You know, this guy:

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This Bulgarian icon wonderfully expresses the tenderness and affection of St. Joseph for his family, and they for him. Joseph holds Mary and Jesus and lays his cheek on her head, showing both his love for her and her Child, his foster Son. Joseph’s attention is entirely on her. Mary leans into Joseph, who has the God-given role of protector and provider for her and Jesus, but her gaze is fixed on her Son. Jesus, nestled in her lap and embraced by the strong arm of the carpenter, turns his gaze to us, and blesses us.

As in all great icons, there is a world of theology behind these simple images and gestures. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 1:20-21, an angel gives Joseph instructions:

“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home. (1)

The angel addresses Joseph as “son of David,” showing that Joseph himself is of the royal blood of the great king. He is instructed to take Mary into his home as his wife, bringing her and her Son under the jurisdiction and protection, as it were, of the King. Note the gold cloak Joseph wears – the color of kings.

Joseph has traditionally been honored as a most humble and obedient servant of God.His blue tunic, just peaking through, is the color of the sky, traditionally seen as all-encompassing, nurturing, feminine and passive in the sense of accepting. So Joseph’s cloths tell us he is a king, but not the Great King. His is to accept obedience to a higher authority, as he does without comment or hesitation when God’s angel gives him instructions.

His eyes are on Mary. All the saints are secondary causes used by God to effect our salvation; the first and greatest saint is Mary. Thus, in the economy of salvations, Joseph turns his attention to Mary, who, through her fiat, brought Christ into Joseph’s life, and into our lives. This is the mystery of the Body of Christ, in which each of us has a role and finds salvation through being a channel of the grace of Christ’s saving sacrifice to each other. No one is saved alone. Each receives God’s grace from the hands of others.

Mary of course has her eyes on Jesus, while acknowledging Joseph by the simple act of leaning on him. She and her Son in fact leaned on Joseph, who provided for and protected them the rest of his life, in response to God’s will.

Mary wears red, a color of power, as in fire, and life, as in blood. When she is depicted alone, she is usually shown in dark blue or black – colors of the night sky, of mystery, of feminine potency. Here, in her home with her family, her ‘true colors’ as it were are allowed to show. Alone, she is often depicted with some red or gold tunic peeking out from under the dark blue or black cloak:

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Seven Sorrows of Mary. Note the royal gold trim and jewels, and the stars on her blue cloak.

Alone, we are invited to think of Mary in her humility, with just a little reminder of her power and glory. Even in the first icon, showing her with her family, she has some blue tunic showing. Her glory and queenship rest upon her humility.

Finally, Christ, seated on Mary’s lap as on a throne and supported and protected by Joseph’s arm, turns His eyes on us, and blesses us. He comes to us not as a bolt from heaven, nor in private revelation, but in the simple, human son of real human parents. He is able to bless us, to be with us and to save us, because two humble people said ‘yes’ when asked to die to themselves and live only for God. While God needs nothing, He chose to glorify Mary and Joseph by giving them a key role in His act of salvation. He Who needs nothing allowed them to support and sustain Him, and through them He saved the world. We are to imitate Mary and Joseph, say ‘yes’ to God’s commands, and be given our salvation through becoming channels of God’s grace to others.

The Child wears gold for kingship (a stronger gold than Joseph’s) and white for purity.

Back to Joseph, here a some other traditional-style icons:

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From Orthodox Christianity

The first two images above have all the traditional elements: Joseph in a black or midnight blue tunic with a gold cloak, holding Jesus with both arms, eyes locked on the Child. Jesus, thus sustained and protected, holding onto Joseph’s hand, looks out at us.

The last two images, of the angel appearing to St. Joseph in a dream, also have Joseph in blue, but with a red cloak in the first and a brownish cloak with just a hint of gold in the second, lying in what might be a red hammock or blanket. In both the angel is dressed as a royal messenger.

There’s a lot more to traditional representations of St. Joseph, how he became portrayed as an old man with a flowering staff (medieval embellishments) sitting flabbergasted on the edge of the Nativity scene (nod to the mystery plays, or maybe the other way around) – but that will have to wait until next year.

  1. This calls to mind a story I once heard from a woman who did prison ministry. She’s trying to explain the perpetual virginity of Mary to a bunch of scary looking dudes who aren’t buying that Joseph kept his hands off Mary all those years, until one very large and scary dude opined that it made sense to him: “Who’s going to touch God’s Baby’s Mamma?”

Concrete Sins: Update

In the comments to the previous post, Richard A linked to this, this, thing, playfully nicknamed Our Lady of Minas Morgul, and I had to share:

I’m somehow not surprised that this is a real Catholic church building, St. Francis de Sales (who is doing 1,000 RPMs in his grave at the moment) in
Muskegon, Michigan. I was surprised, although I should not have been, that googling this structure yielded many articles *praising* this building. A fine example of Bauhaus, Modernism, Brutalism – you know, just what the typical Catholic in the pews wants in his church building.

While a comment at the above link mentions the obvious goal is evangelization of the orcs, I had to surf around a little to find some pithy, real world reactions, such as these from reddit:

  • “It looks like the Borg assimilated a group of Lutherans.” (I laughed)
  • “This looks like where you fight a final boss”
  • “This could literally be a building in 1984”
  • “Looks like exactly the type of place you would serve the flesh and blood of someone to others.” (ouch!)

Going back a few posts to those discussing the heresy of Americanism. In 1899, Archbishop Gibbons answered the Pope Leo XIII’s concerns about Americanism with firm assurances that nothing of the sort was going on; by 1964, a parish in Michigan is hiring a famous Modernist architect to design its church. (Aside: where does a parish get the money to hire a famous German Bauhaus architect? And the money to build the monstrosity?)

I’m sure there’s no connection.

Here’s a slightly more flattering picture of the interior:

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And a quotation from William Torrey Harris: “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world. ” The purpose of school is, according to Harris, making obedient automata out of the students. So, what is the purpose here, in an environment so suited to Harris’s ideal?

As for praise, no less an oracle than Concrete Construction Magazine assures us that this building “fully demonstrates the architectural potential of cast-in-place concrete construction.”   Who could doubt it?

So, any of youse guys got anything ‘better’ than this?

Concrete (and Wood and Steel) Sins

May God forgive us for modern church architecture.

Have we turned the corner on terrible church buildings yet? I sometimes think we have, but that may be just me putting the blinders on so I don’t have to look at this:

There is nothing to recommend this building. It is preposterous and ugly by any standards. That it claims to stand in the line of the many noble and glorious cathedrals around the world is an insult to our intelligence.

Or this:

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This building, on the other hand, is not so terrible in and of itself – it would make a daring convention center – and has been enholied by the beautiful masses celebrated there, especially by the current archbishop. But in and of itself, as a church? Not so much.

Or this:

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Wouldn’t this make a great Apple Store? The bomb-shelter greenhouse look will come back into vogue some day, eventually, and we’ll be ready for it! Not so ugly in and of itself, but insulting when compared to the thousands of much-beloved churches around the world.

and pretend they are anything other than hideous abominations, insulting to both God and man.

Ya know? Or this:

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Berkeley Newman Center. If it weren’t for the sign out front, you’d be hard-pressed to identify it as a church. Looks like a detail from rejected plans for the Maginot Line.

The bomb shelter look was big. I remember reading about the Los Angeles Cathedral, how they took care building it to last 500 years at least. This is achieved by deploying thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Unlike many ugly parish churches, which probably have a 50 or so year life expectancy before the repair/tear down calculations starts to get (mercifully) interesting, these monstrosities are built to last. If the goal was to burn through the Church’s money while saddling her with repulsive buildings for generations or centuries to come, the outcomes would not have been any different.

The L.A. Cathedral is in a class of its own – there’s just no redeeming it, artistically. It is a giant, $200,000,000 middle finger to the Catholics of L.A. To get rid of it is almost impossible. I fantasize that a billionaire might come along, buy land next door, and build a huge beautiful Neo-Gothic or Romanesque Revival church, seamlessly incorporating influences from Mexico, the Philippines, Asia, Africa and so on in order to honor the remarkably world wide nature of L.A.’s Catholics, and then offer it to the diocese. The underlying tensions would thus be exposed. And L.A. would get a nice church.

At least in San Francisco and Oakland, one gets the feeling they were trying for something good, even if they went about it under the constraint that whatever was built must rebuke the pre-Vatican II church. The unhealthy compulsion to be different, which has lead to many bad fashion decisions and questionable tattoos on a small scale, leads to stuff like this when writ large:

These are a few of the approximately 800 louvres, I guess you’d call them, that make up the walls of the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Louvre mania! And an imposing image peeking past the cables and braces!

These features appear to be slabs of laminated 2 x 12s, bolted to laminated uprights(1) with some seriously industrial looking galvanized hardware and bolts. They would make excellent work benches and picnic tables. Here? Oh, I’m sure there’s an artist’s program somewhere that describes how they are meant to let in the light in some deeply meaningful way that only a uncultured peon would fail to understand.

The effect is just weird. Like I say, not irredeemably ugly, just – weird. With 2,000 years of church architectural experience to draw on, this is what you do? Only if hell-bent on rejecting all that collected experience and wisdom.

I cherish my visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, and my many visits to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College, as both buildings are very beautiful and built in the last decade or so. Beautiful and appropriate churches can still get built, if people want to build them.

Obligatory note: over the centuries, many people have pushed and pulled church architecture in many different directions with greater and lesser success. Gothic, after all, was an innovation at one time. I’m not wedded to any particular style or approach, as long as it strives to embody the true, the good and the beautiful. For a century now, many architects have actively rejected those ideals. Such should not be let anywhere near a church design project.

Final funny (at least to me) moment: Youngest son and I were visiting the Oakland Cathedral for a Boy Scout function, when a mom came up to me (I was just sitting there! Minding my own business! I swear!), pointed at the huge image of Christ Enthroned, and asked: “What is He doing with his right hand?”

Somebody thought a 70 foot tall heavily pixelated image of Christ partially obscured by structural members was a good idea, the dominant and central statement of the building. Right.

I answered honestly that he was giving a blessing, and that such images – Christ enthroned giving his blessing – are quite common. She was hesitant to accept this, but eventually gave in. “I thought he was flashing a peace sign. I was afraid they’d gone hippy on us.”

“I have no comment.” I smiled.

  1. I have to think the external frame, or a steel core to the uprights, or most likely both, are actually holding this thing up. Those louvres have got to be heavy.

Russian Cover Band, Hieronymus Bosch, Bach, Western Civ, and all that

There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.

Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.

Raphael detail
Botticelli detail
Durer detail
Bosch detail

But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous? 

I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing. 

Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:


They do Chicago better than  Chicago does Chicago. (1)

Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it. 

This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show. 

I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he  even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.  

But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian!  Obvious double agent/love interest.

Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this: 

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While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals. 

I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places.  It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world. 

Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age. 

Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts  – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes. 

Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults? 

Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is. 

Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good. 

Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801! 

It’s so common to think of Bach as  – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten. 

So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them. 

The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough. 

The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.

The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice? 

  1. The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.