Restoring Our Musical Tradition
by Fr. Hervé de la Tour, SSPX
Some of the most unforgettable memories of the June trip to Winona, secondary to the ordinations, are the evening campfires. Families gather together singing and playing music. Young people enjoy the old ballads that have become classics because they have lived through generations and embody sentiments of country, home, and God. These songs are part of our culture: Irish and Scottish songs, Civil War songs, Cowboy songs, etc. Here is the preface to a recent songbook used during these campfires.
Only the Lover Sings
“ ‘Only the lover sings.’ How profound are these words of St. Augustine. For song is the marriage between poetry and music, and like any marriage it is caused by love. Whether one sings to God, to his beloved, or even to his homeland, he sings out of love. Sometimes it is a manifestation of joy, sometimes of sadness, but it is always a manifestation of love. The one who sings goes beyond the ordinary because he desires to express something which otherwise could not be expressed. Just as the aritst does not merely state something but paints it, so also the singer does not merely say something but sings it.
“Only the lover sings. This is the reason singing is so natural to a Catholic, for the Catholic life is a life of love because it is a life of sacrifice. Thus all the cultures of Catholic Europe had (besides the sublime chant of the liturgy) their own folk music with beautiful dances and songs. But today no one sings. As culture becomes less and less Catholic, truth falls away and with it goodness, beauty, and of course charity. When man forgets God, he remembers only himself. But a selfish man does not know how to love, and therefore he is unable to sing.”
Henri Charlier was one of the prominent Catholic thinkers of the 20th century. His writings on education are very similar to those of John Senior. Both strove to restore Christian culture. We have indeed lost so much in this domain. Here is what he says: “There are two treasures which seem necessary for childhood formation: folk songs and Gregorian Chant. These two sources represent the essentials of the musical tradition of mankind.
“Gregorian Chant is, in some ways, an easier introduction to music since the notes are not proportional. At the same time, it introduces us to the singing of the psalms from the Divine Office and to a profound culture which is accessible to everyone through the missal and the breviary. Gregorian Chant is thus the natural bond between music and the most serious thing a man will do in his life.
“Folk music, on the other hand, sustains him in a human, familiar, and national tradition. It is the foundation and complement of Gregorian Chant.”
As an example of what has been lost and needs to be restored, allow me to quote The Story of a Family, the biography of the Mr. and Mrs. Martin, the parents of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. In describing Mr. Martin, who has been beatified by the Church, the author, Fr. Piat, says:
“He liked reciting good poetry...he bequeathed to Marie and Therese a real gift for mimicry. He could imitate intonations and words of the Auvergne dialect, bird songs, drums, and military bugle calls, all with an accuracy, a cadence and expression which gave the illusion that it was the real thing. Above all, he cherished a real cultus for the old folk songs and had an immense repertoire.”
The Purest Form of Beauty
Music is necessary for everyone, regardless of age. That being said, the need is more vehement for youth. Children may not enjoy a long hike, but they will run and dance all day. In fact, dance can be united with music, not separated from it. Some of the folk dances were sung and danced at the same time. In many of our parishes like St. Marys or Post Falls, children are taught the traditional folk dances (Irish, Mexican, Polish, etc.)
Here is some advice on how important it is to make good music a part of home life for your children. It is drawn from the writings of Myrtle Douglas Keener, a renowned educator:
“Modern education leads the child away from things ideal and crushes the natural craving for beauty. To eliminate beauty from education is to destroy its very soul. Can we afford to have our children grown into adult life unmindful of all beauty, lacking the true touch of sympathy that will reach to the deep things in nature?
“By singing, we bring the very young child in touch with the purest form of beauty and satisfy his natural craving for melody and rhythm. But to secure this development parents must begin in the home and not leave this important element in child training to the school and until an age when these inborn desires are weakened or lost.
“How then shall we proceed to this joy-inspiring work with our children? The singing of beautiful songs is the first step for the child.”
Queen Isabel of Castille applied these principles in the education of her children. Here is a passage of her biography by W. T. Walsh:
“She liked to have about her cavaliers who were good musicians. Garcilaso de la Vega, the knight who killed the giant Yarfe before the walls of Granada and who was sent later as Ambassador to Rome, was an excellent harpist. Francisco Penalosa, another Spaniard, was one of the most brilliant musicians in the papal choir where Palestrina, half a century later, was to lay the foundations of modern music. Isabel hardly ever traveled anywhere without musicians about her. In her chapel she had more than forty trained singers, besides organists and players on the clavecin, the lute, the viol, the flute and other instruments. She took them to camp when she went to war.”
Someone once said: “I pity Americans because they have no light, no song in their lives.” It is up to us to restore traditional folk singing! It starts from simple Mother Goose melodies and leads to more elaborate songs. Here is the advice given to parents by Maria Von Trapp:
“From the very time when the first baby is born, the mother should sing to her child. There are innumerable lullabies, nursery rhymes, and little prayers to be found in songbooks, just waiting to be brought to life. Parents will be astonished at how soon the little ones will carry a tune, and this will lead naturally to singing in parts, with Mummy taking over the second and Daddy later adding the third. Singing is something natural. If only one could cure that horrible phobia we come across so often: ‘I can’t sing—I don’t have a piano!’
The Most Beautiful Instrument
“The most beautiful instrument is the human voice, which God gave to everyone.
“From years of experience here in America we know how much fun everybody gets out of singing ‘rounds’; so let us begin by singing every round first in unison; and when everyone knows the melody well enough to hold his own, in two parts; and later, in three or four–whatever this particular round calls for. Very soon you will hear these rounds sung whenever there are two or more people in the same room, or in summer while weeding in the garden. Singing rounds is the most natural and easiest way to school the ear for part singing.”
To conclude this article, here is what Fr. Schmidberger said when he was Superior General of the SSPX:
“It is very important in this country, that we have not only technical studies and natural sciences, but that we also especially have musical efforts, a musical atmosphere. Besides studies for languages, for history, music is very important for the formation of Christian souls. It is a part of the interior life–on a natural level, yes, but a step toward approaching God, and thus forming true Christian personalities.
“You can be assured that music is an important step for the rebirth of America, of Catholic America. Everywhere that the Faith is living, there are also the arts: art, theater, music, literature, drawing. The arts are important for our spiritual life–they are signs of it—and the more we are living it, the more these arts must be manifested.
“May our families and our schools be homes where good music reigns, where children are encouraged to sing beautiful songs, where Christian culture is not forgotten but passed on!”
I will end with the inspiring words of the seminary songbook:
“May we pilgrims of this valley of tears be always found following the words of St. Paul, ‘singing and making melody in our hearts,’ until we all one day join the eternal song of praise at the Marriage Feast of our King in Heaven.”