“. . . ye, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow. . . “

San Diego Food Bank, 2013

San Diego Food Bank, 2013

We go through life ignoring the major part of what we see and hear. If you couldn’t filter out the sounds you’re not specifically listening for, you’d hear the din. And if you’re driving down the street and can’t focus your eyes on the path ahead instead of taking in the entire panorama, everyone else on the road better be doing more than defensive driving.

I’ve often taught “music appreciation” classes with the goals of making listening to music consciously enjoyable for the students and helping them understand something of the history of musical style and the place of music in various cultures.

I always include lessons in singing various kinds of melodies—from medieval chant to folksongs to popular songs, to opera arias (anyone can sing a couple arias from Carmen). One of my favorite ways to teach such music is to help students hear dissonances and understand that in tonal Western music, dissonances propel melodies forward because they are set up with chord progressions and they resolve into other chord progressions. Dissonances are to music what “and,” “but,” “so,” “however,” “therefore,” “because,” “even so,” and hundreds more words are to language. Most English teachers call them “transition” words—if they mention them at all. I think, rather, they are “connection” words.

Because the Congress is useless” is not a complete thought. It’s a fragment—even though everyone knows what I mean and agrees with it. The bolded words are like dissonances in music—they make the writing complex and interesting, and they propel the ideas forward by connecting them together. Of course the “because” clause here is a fragment because it is not connected to anything (somewhat like the Boehner/Cruz Congress).

Connect musical ideas and make them interesting—that’s what dissonances do in tonal music. And, like the connecting words in writing and speech, they are so integral a part of our musical patterns that we hardly notice them or know what they are. I’d say—because I’m an elitist and a snob—most people would tell you they don’t like dissonant music. That’s tantamount to saying they don’t like music. Period. All music is (to some degree) dissonant. “Row, row, row your boat” isn’t. “Happy Birthday” has hung on as a cultural icon because it has one crucial dissonance—at the point where we stick in the celebrant’s name. A sort of mellow dissonance, but dissonance all the same, the dissonance for which the song exists, both musically and textually.

Unemployment line, Olympia, Washington, 2013

Unemployment line, Olympia, Washington, 2013

Take the Christmas carol “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” one of those so ubiquitous this time of year that it might be said to be part of the collective unconscious of the entire English speaking (Christian) world. But a Muslim student told me once it was her favorite Christmas carol.

The standard accompaniment for the tune has dissonances (some so harsh that, if most people heard them in isolation, they would say they were noise) at the bolded words:

It came upon the mid –night clear, that glo –rious song of old; from an –gels bend –ing near the earth to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, good will toward men, from hea –ven’s all gra –cious King. The world in sol emn still –ness lay to hear the an –gels sing.

This little chart does not include the greatest dissonance—the complete change of “key” at “Peace on the earth, good will toward men. . .” It’s almost as if for one sentence in her essay, a tenth-generation American English-speaking student wrote in Arabic for no reason other than to spice up her writing.

I would not try to teach this tune to a group of Russian émigré students again for anything. It’s impossible to comprehend if you didn’t hear it in utero. I know. I tried it once at Bunker Hill Community College.

But the overwhelming problem with the carol—the reason almost no one knows more of the words than the first stanza—is the shockingly harsh dissonance of the words. They are not, like well-constructed dissonance in music, prepared for. They strike out of nowhere and leave the singer horrified. They are not what Christmas, or any other materialistic, capitalism-praising holiday can be about. Members of Congress, for example, cannot—could not, if they ever got beyond the pabulum of the first stanza—believe their ears upon hearing these words. But don’t go feeling all self-righteous about that. If we could believe our ears, Congress would be made up of a much different sort of people, that is, not so much like us.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow,
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hast’ning on, by prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

Nope, we don’t even hear the dissonance in that. It’s a hymn to, a prayer for, social justice. No member of Congress is bending low beneath life’s crushing load. Most of us aren’t either. But more and more of us are as the wealthy friends of Congress store up for themselves more and more of the stuff that makes people secure, such as food and clothing and health care and shelter (connecting words bolded).

I don’t know who the angels are these days. But they will eventually arrive. And when they do, those who rest beside the weary road will be able to send back the angels’ song of peace. If you can’t hear that, if it’s too dissonant for you, perhaps you need a course in music appreciation. Or ethical and socially responsible thinking and behavior. As opposed to unthinking militant christianism and capitalism.

I don’t know. Sermon over.

2 Responses to “. . . ye, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow. . . “

  1. Harold, dear lovely friend … quite a sermon! I hadn’t thought of passing tones, suspension and resolution, as inherently dissonant. But you’re right, it’s all in familiar expectation … But the social justice inherent in that hymn hit me in the gut some years ago. I used to post it around this time for others with eyes to read and ears to hear.
    Thank you for the reminder
    Thank you for the memories

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