In some ways it is surprising that I became an artist (apart from the lack of talent in painting that is…before someone comments!). I always find that music can transport me more readily and more powerfully than any painting can.
At one point I was deciding whether or not I wanted to be an artist or a banjo player (I am being serious – Appalachian clawhammer style…but that’s another story); but the point here is that in the end I chose art. The reason was that although I found listening to music more compelling than looking at art, I always find painting more absorbing than practising scales. And if I was to be a musician, practising is how I was going to have to spend most of my working day. So picked the activity I enjoyed most.
I have described before how the chant and the music of Palestrina that I heard at the London Oratory drew me into the Church (see Glory be to God for the Brompton Oratory). This is not the only time that I have been moved to tears by the beauty of music. Before I became a Catholic I would very occasionally have these experiences where its beauty struck to the soul and stopped me in my tracks, I could feel myself breaking out in goosepimples and the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. Somehow I would feel vulnerable and embarrassed, as though it was opening up my soul for all to see and it was out of my control. My pulse raced and I felt flushed.
These pieces of music, I believe, were awakening my spirit to the glory of God although until the experience in the Oratory I would not have recognised it as such. I was being prepared, despite myself, for the reception of the Word. Most were not overtly religious pieces and if, like this one, it was intended for the liturgy, I did not hear it in a liturgical setting. It is because of these experiences that I have the conviction that beauty in the wider culture is so important in directing us to God. Although I did not interpret what I was feeling with a connection with the divine at the time, I feel certain now that these experiences contributed to my becoming a Catholic. These pieces of music grabbed my soul and whether I knew it or not, sent it spinning in a Godly direction, modifying my taste and preparing me for the next step until I was ready to receive Him. This is why we want a beautiful and noble pop culture that takes you from where you are and sends you in the right direction.
So here is one of those pieces (there are about 8 of them altogether). I first heard Mozarts’s Laudate Dominum (from Vesperae solemnes de confessore, KV339) when I was a student at Michigan Tech, about 25 years ago. Michigan Technological University, is a small engineering college in a remote part of Michigan, the ‘UP’ (Upper Peninsula) which is on the southern shore of Lake Superior. I was doing a Masters in Engineering there, and had volunteered to sing in a choir, something I had never done before. There was no audition. After a conversation with the director I was told that I was probably a baritone, so that’s where I went. Musically I was at the level of having to learn my parts by listening to my neighbour and memorising it. Most of the singers were better than I was and we had some strong sopranos and altos and this piece required one of these to be good enough to do a solo. I can remember at the first practice of this piece and doing the choral part, and then hearing the solo, accompanied at this point by piano. Even this stopped me in my tracks, but for me it is the occasion that we actually performed is as memorable as the music.
One of the choir members was a religious (I’m guessing now a Franciscan) who was priest at Our Lady of Peace, which was in a tiny little hamlet of about 100 people called Ahmeek. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a remote area with a very small population and lots of trees. Just to give you an idea: a hundred years ago it had a thriving copper mining industry. The biggest town was Calument, MI which had a population of 100,000 and almost became the capital of the state. Now Calumet has, according to Wikipedia, a population of 723. Yes, 723 people. This has declined from the time that I was living there when the population was about 850. The only big employer in the area is the university, founded originally to give engineers to the mines, but which was maintained by the State as it provided also excellent engineers for the car industry (about 10 hours’ drive south, in Detroit).
The Copper Country Chorale, our choir, went to give a concert of Bach and this piece by Mozart in the little white clapboard church. The town was silent on the Sunday afternoon that we went there. Once we got into the church we realised why. All 123 of the population were in the church waiting for us. I have never sung before such an enthusiastic and appreciative audience, who perhaps had not heard something like this before. After the concert in which the Mozart was sung by our soprano beautifully, and the applause died down, an announcement was made that the town would like us to go down to the basement of the church. So we wound our way down the stairs, one after the other. In the basement there was a huge homemade banner which read ‘The Town of Ahmeek Welcomes the Copper Country Chorale’, and trestle tables covered with tablecloths and laden with plates of homemade sandwiches and cakes. There was something so human and genuine about it all. I was a cynical 24 year old, but the natural generosity of the community touched me and I felt myself pushing back tears for the second time that day (please don’t tell anyone else about this – I’d be ashamed for people to know it. I’m an unemotional Englishman.)
Anyway, here’s the music: I have linked through to an old recording, so I hope you’ll forgive a little scratchiness to the sound. Lucia Popp, who sings this has the version that I have heard that I like the most. She is a Slovak soprano who died in 1993.
The photos, by the way of the the church in Ahmeek and scenes from the Keweenaw Peninsula, a little spur of land that contains Ahmeek and juts into Lake Superior. The final one shows the university.