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Volume 16, Issue 3: Musica

A Godly Hearitage Part 1

Duck Schuler

My son, Louis (age seven), sings all the time and at the top of his voice. He sings while schooling; he sings while playing with his toys; he sings on the swingset. Wherever he is, he sings. When he was a toddler, he was (in)famous for singing Psalms at the grocery store as he sat in the cart. As we loaded in the bags of potatoes and carrots: "Thee O Lord, yes, Thee we praise, and we give Thee thanks, O Lord. For the proud get their reward, and the wicked Thou shalt raze," emanated from his throat at full volume while everyone looked on.

We decided to see how broad-ranging his impromptu repertoire had become and wrote down everything he sang as he worked and played this past week. Included were snippets from Vivaldi's Gloria, which he learned this last year in the boys choir; phrases from William Byrd's Mass for Three Voices, which his sister learned in girls' choir; the theme from Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, which his mother practiced intensely for a few days when she had to play it at our local coffee house with a superb cellist; parts of the Bach motets and cantatas that I have the NSA choirs learning and that he hears each day from my office; several choruses from Handel's Israel and Egypt, which all the choirs at Christ Church are currently learning for a festival performance next year; and various other themes from Schubert, Schuman, Burgmueller, and Mendelssohn.
I often receive inquiries, emails, and letters from people who ask me advice on what to do with their children musically. They want to know what music they should listen to, which instruments are best to learn, and what is the best method of teaching a child about music. When I receive such questions, I usually cower at the overwhelming task that is required in answering, and therefore I often don't respond. After all, my kids lead a weird existence, musically speaking. But you don't have to be musicians to provide your children with opportunities to hear great music, especially with the number of CD players most people own today. All you need is a bunch of fabulous CDs to go with them. What you listen to makes a whole lot of difference.
Why should a kid know good music? Is exposure to great music primarily a tool to make your children smarter or more culturally literate than the kids next door? The so-called Mozart Effect makes music a tool for manipulation rather than for God's intended purpose of bringing Him glory. We pervert that which is good. Great sacred music is our spiritual inheritance.
In our house we listen to a lot of music from Bach's time and before. Do we do this because we like running backwards like a guy I saw on the University of Idaho campus the other day? Or are we merely historians and museum curators? No. This music is on the same wavelength spiritually as we are. This is music whose ideas were nurtured in the church. Even music from this time that is not explicitly liturgical is informed by the development of music that was liturgical. Our favorites include such composers as Josquin, Machaut, Dufay, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Sweelinck, Schütz, Praetorius, Purcell, Monteverdi, Bach, and Handel. Most of these composers are not household names, but they are great composers, and some were great men of faith as well. This is our heritage as Christians and most of us don't even know it. In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs says this about the Bible: "Therefore when you look into the book of God and find any promise there, you may make it your own; just as an heir who rides over a lot of fields and meadows says, This meadow is my inheritance, and this corn field is my inheritance, and then he sees a fine house, and says, This fine house is my inheritance. He looks at them with a different eye from a stranger who rides over those fields . . . This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to live upon it." We need to say the same thing about our Christian inheritance in music. Why should the classical music world enjoy Bach's St. Matthew's Passion more than the church does? It is our inheritance, not theirs. Unfortunately, it is often the case that we are willing to throw onto the trash heap all the great works of music our spiritual fathers have given to us for our edification. We allow those who know nothing about these riches to become the guardians of our inheritance. We should be ashamed.
As a starting point I would suggest buying the John Eliot Gardiner recording of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. It is a great masterpiece and fun to listen to as well. The oratorio is in two parts: the first describes the plagues and the exodus mostly from the perspective of the Psalms; the second part is a rendition of Exodus 15, the Song of Moses. In the first part, Handel writes music in pictures so that you hear frogs jumping around, flies and lice swarming, hailstones dropping, fire running along the ground, darkness that is thick, the smiting hand of the angel of death, God leading His people out of Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea covering the army of Egypt. It is like a movie in sound. The second part, the Song of Moses, is a portion of Scripture that every Christian should know well. It is a celebration of the Lord's victory over His enemies, and all of His doing, not Israel's.

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