Noble Simplicity and Beauty

I feel inclined to offer a few reflections on the beauty of the liturgy. I’m far from being the first, as I do little more than resume a theme of Benedict XVI:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.

It is the second idea with which I am concerned – the role of art and beauty, which both have their role in the liturgy. At the same time, beauty does not have to be elaborate or difficult, but there are certain objective rules for beauty, as for language and musical harmony. Many people perceive beauty to be subjective. What is extremely ugly for some is held to be beautiful by others. I think particularly of brutalist sculpture or atonal music.

I battled for a long time in my teens to learn to appreciate the atonal music of composers like Arnold Schönberg and more recent modernists. One young composer told me that I needed new ears for new music! The ears I have are quite good enough… Schönberg invented a system called the twelve-tone row – total chromaticism, which he saw as a development from the extreme chromaticism of post-Romantic composers and the Wagnerian school. This kind of music is also called atonal: without tonal reference, without harmony or rhythm, without any objective communication. The effect is random noise made with musical instruments or other objects that produce sounds, like a child who has never had a music lesson bashing away on a piano keyboard. The assumption is made that each listener will “compose” his own music or hear things in it that others do not hear. The same principle goes for the kind of modern “art” that involves throwing paint onto a canvas! Modernist artists and composers will deny that their work is random and unskilled, but I doubt their sincerity. I remain convinced that beauty and ugliness are governed by immutable and eternal rules, harmony, melody and rhythm in music – and form and colour in art.

I have met a number of composers who have broken with the tyranny of atonalism. One I have known is Nicholas Wilton, a music graduate of London University, who has done some beautiful church music. Recordings and scores can be ordered from his site. Most importantly, this music is not a pastiche of older styles, even if some pieces are reminiscent of Bruckner or the Renaissance English tradition. Some of his music has a melancholic Germanic feeling about it, and the sense of harmony is there. I remember long discussions with Nicholas in which he told me about composers he knew who were returning to the objective laws of music and harmony. Harmony was studied by the ancient Greeks, and both Plato and Aristotle expounded at great length on the laws of aesthetics – objective beauty.

I very much believe in objective beauty, based on harmony, form, symmetry and many other aspects we all notice and to which we are sensitive. As is evidenced by the monastic tradition of liturgy, beauty can be sober and simple, but it follows laws of objective beauty. This is the genius of the Roman rite, following the Curial / Franciscan tradition as well as the northern European and French variants. Compared with the Byzantine tradition, the Roman tradition in all its local uses is sober. Its simplicity is noble and leads us to contemplation.

Simplicity is perfectly compatible with beauty. I have never hidden my love for the Arts and Crafts movement of a hundred years ago. Here are some previous posts of mine tagged with the term. See my Arts and Crafts: an influence in Anglican aesthetics in particular. It is an aesthetic reaction from the over-decorated and tedious style of Victorian industrialism, aspiring to a humanisation of work and a renewal of craftsmanship. We find simplicity and a feeling of the medieval. Was this the noble simplicity that some of the Vatican II Fathers thought of through the so-called other modern? I rather like some of the churches built in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s and the monastic vestments inspired by the Liturgical Movement. The spirit of Arts & Crafts pervades as mankind once again reacted from the industrialised inhumanity that produced Nazism and World War II! Again, man sought his soul and God through the madness.

There is a distinction to be made between noble simplicity, on one hand, and banality and aesthetic dissolution on the other. It is not simply a question of plainness and lack of decoration. It is above all clarity and harmony – objectivity and communion.

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7 Responses to Noble Simplicity and Beauty

  1. ed pacht says:

    I very much believe in objective beauty, based on harmony, form, symmetry and many other aspects we all notice and to which we are sensitive

    I can only partially agree with that statement. I don’t think it is possible to identify objective rules that distinguish beauty from non-beauty – there are too many variables from culture to culture, from era to era, and, yes, from artist to artist. In fact it is all too easy to build a work of art, visual, musical, or literary in accord with the rules that come down to one and end up with something cold and/or banal. Art ultimately attempts to draw the observer/participant to a place beyond all his perceived rules. However, beauty is not random. It is always ordered, even if it seems to argue wuth the order we try to impose. I’d suggest that what really happens is that an innate and God-given order imposes itself upon the truly sensitive artist. A sunset is not a random splattering of color, but rather an expression of an order that is only partially understood (at most) by the observer. It is indeed the order in and of itself that produces the intense beauty. I write poetry. Insofar as there is beauty in it (I leave that for others to judge) it is the beauty of the words, the images, and the underlying concepts that determines the beauty and comes to find expression. The poet needs to be sensitive to the beauty that is there. It is likewise in music, in architecture, in liturgy. These do not achieve beauty randomly, nor by an imposed pattern, but by honestly expressing what needs to be expressed. I’ve seen liturgy done accurately according to Fortescue or Ritual Notes or Dearmer that has seemed cold, forced, and artificial, as troubling as many of the sloppy examples of so-called “contemporary liturgy”, and I’ve seen truly beautiful celebrations according to modern rites I generally dislike. The difference is in whether the organizers are listening to the source of beauty or whether they are imposing their own ideas willy-nilly. The esthetic dimension of the Faith is an important one, but one that always transcends full understanding. To seek the beauty and hear its message – that’s where the real beauty and truth will come from.

  2. Patricius says:

    “The assumption is made that each listener will “compose” his own music or hear things in it that others do not hear. The same principle goes for the kind of modern “art” that involves throwing paint onto a canvas!”

    I despise modern artistic theories of this sort. Where then, if this is indeed applicable, is the artistic concept inherent to the artist himself? Or has his work merely become the stimulus of other artistic concepts made by people who are not artists? If so, Art has no intrinsic value and you might as well have produced a blank sheet of paper.

    As for Liturgy I tend to view it as in a balletic or masque tradition. All you need is a team of pious men who have impeccable taste, skilled choreographers, musicians, ministers with perfect diction who can stand up straight and look the part, a nice, clean church and they all of them know it all inside out – there you go, decent liturgy.

  3. Sandra McColl says:

    In my days in the music faculty, a composer came in full of a book called ‘Ear Cleaning’, the message of which was that young people needed their ears cleaned of pernicious influences like Beethoven and Brahms so that they could learn to appreciate ‘new music’. My response (left unuttered for fear of getting into trouble) was that the ‘new music’ had to accept that it was in a marketplace where it had to compete with Beethoven and Brahms if it were to gain immortality (or any audience at all).

    • How amazing! I saw this book in the music shop where I once worked, but never had the will to read it. The title reminded me of my mother telling me, when I was a lad, to scrub behind my ears when I had my weekly bath! Those were the days before daily showers… 😉

      • ed pacht says:

        That author may indeed have stumbled upon a truth he would probably dislike. Music is no longer a commodity subject to marketplace competition, but bad music has become an all-pervasive medium in which we are forced to live, and there is precious little room left for good music, whether traditional (liturgical or ethnic) or formal (‘classical” or the best jazz). Ears do need to be cleaned, by judicious application of the silence that is so seldom permitted in contemporary life.

      • My prescription:

        – One ten-foot sailing dinghy
        – The sea

        Take at least twice a week in generous doses. Salt water does wonders for the human body, and the silence of the sea is just the ticket for the soul.

      • ed pacht says:

        Something similar for those, like me, who are land-bound & can’t sail:

        –a cliff
        –a rock to sit on
        –crashing surf below

        At one such spot, on Bailey’s Island in Maine, I used to spend a weekend each August (alas! the opportunity no longer exists) to sit on the same rock looking over the same bay, meditating and writing poems. Wonderful cleansing! Something similar in practice, or at least in memory still does wonders.

        There’s a riverside park among the pines in my town. My practice for years has been to spend some serious time on Good Friday (tomorrow!) by the river in silence. No music – I fear to drown out the voice of God.

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