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By Deal W. Hudson

3/2/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

As I turned around to open the door, I saw the hall was filled with other students and teachers who had watched our concert through the window.

I didn't want my students to listen passively to 20 minutes of Mahler, so I assigned each of them instruments, and I would conduct them, signaling when it was time for each instrument to drop out. We played the music loudly, and to my surprise the students started playing, in pantomime, their instruments with genuine earnestness. When all the instruments had finished playing and the music had stopped, we all shared a stunned silence. Mahler had indeed made the only sound worthy of what humans would suffer in the modern world.

Highlights

By Deal W. Hudson

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

3/2/2014 (1 year ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: orchestra, culture, education, teaching, virtue, beauty, mentoring, arts, beauty, Deal W. Hudson


WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - "What's Wrong with the Modern World" was the name of the course, and over 25 students from Mercer University Atlanta signed up to read Romano Guardini, George Steiner, Paul Johnson, Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats,  Ezra Pound, and James Joyce on the unraveling of Western culture that began with World War I.

But we did not merely read. We studied the paintings of Kandinsky, Klimt, Duchamp, and Picasso; read aloud from the plays of Becket, Buchner, and Brecht; traced the revolution in architecture from Gropius through Bauhaus to Frank Lloyd Wright; charted the influence of Darwin, Marx, and Freud; and shuddered through documentaries of the Holocaust, Stalin's purges, and his deliberate starvation of 3,000,000 Ukranians. 

We had begun with the poems of Yeats, but it wasn't long before his famous line, "the center does not hold," began to sound like an understatement.  The senseless warfare between the trenches at Somme; the materialistic reduction of the human person to Eros seeking Death; the death of freedom under the banner of human brotherhood; the sudden titillation with atheism - all combined to let loose years of human "relocation," humiliation, and slaughter that the so-called civilized world refused to see, until it was too late.  

As the culture critic described in his still haunting essay "To Civilize Our Gentlemen," German officers read Goethe and listened to Bach at night while gassing and dismembering thousands of Jews each day. Steiner raised the central question of the class, "How can we say that a liberal arts education makes us better, when the most highly educated - at the German gymnasium - men and women in 1930's Europe, would willingly participate in the creation of hell on earth?"

Such a question cannot be answered, of course, but it's imperative that we keep asking it. Why? As a reminder of the weakness and malleability of human nature. After all, we are not even a century away from the darkest decade in human history, 1935-45.  The only answer, the only appropriate answer, seemed to be a kind of silence.

But as we approached the end of the course, we realized that the silence we had reached was a loss of speech, not a total loss of sound.  I had recently listened to the conductor Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures at Harvard where he had used the finale to Mahler's 9th Symphony to illustrate not only a final protest against the loss of tonality in music but also the grief of a civilization on the brink of falling apart. The 9th was the last symphony Mahler completed, and the fourth movement, an adagio, begins as an elegy to the past but ends in a deathly whisper into the silence.  One by one the instruments of a large orchestra stop playing until there is only a string quartet, which plays towards a hardly audible end.

I didn't want my students to listen passively to 20 minutes of Mahler, so I assigned each of them instruments, and I would conduct them, signaling when it was time for each instrument to drop out. We played the music loudly, and to my surprise the students started playing, in pantomime, their instruments with genuine earnestness. When all the instruments had finished playing and the music had stopped, we all shared a stunned silence. Mahler had indeed made the only sound worthy of what humans would suffer in the modern world.

As I turned around to open the door, I saw the hall was filled with other students and teachers who had watched our concert through the window. "I don't believe you got them to do that," one of my colleagues said.  "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't believe it." Though I appreciated the compliment, I myself was not surprised at what we had shared.  This was a group of students who I invited on a journey, and none of them lagged behind.  

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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