Tolkien, Mozart, Plato, Latin, Phonetics, Music, the Cosmos, and everything else that has to do with Gregorian Chant

Jake Tawney - Tolkein


During a Latin lesson with my daughter some years ago, we were discussing English derivatives of her Latin vocabulary for the week.  The word in question was amble, related to the Latin ambulo (“I walk”).  I asked my daughter if someone who ambles is walking slowly or quickly.  She looked up in the air with a wrinkled forehead, (what she always does when she is thinking seriously about a question that she has deemed worth thinking seriously about).  She casually remarked, “Slowly.”  Not to be taken in by the possibility of a random guess (there were after all, only two choices), I asked her to explain why.  Having already crafted a response during her gaze at the ceiling, she said, “It just sounds slow.”

I thought for a moment before deciding that she had wisdom beyond her years.  In general, of course, most children have wisdom beyond most of our years.

It just sounds slow.

She’s right.  The very phonetic construction of amble could not possibly refer to anything involving a quick pace.  Even the vocal production of the word ambles off the lips when spoken.  It takes time to speak the word.  Yet there is a distinct pace to the word that is not at all lazy, which is quite different from the manner in which the word slow drags out, hanging on through the concluding vowel sound and giving the impression that it may never end.  The word “amble” has medieval roots and refers to a particular horse gate.  An “amble” is a gate between a canter and a walk, so it has some pace to it, but one that is measured.  Both words, of course, are quite different from the word quick, which cannot be spoken but quickly; the clipping of the ‘k’ happens before the opening ‘q’ can even get started.

Contrary to deconstructionism, words have meanings in and of themselves.  They are not artificial sequences of phonemes invented simply because something “had to have a name”.  No, to amble means to amble, and no word other than amble could more perfectly describe the action of ambling.  This, by the way, is why the process of translation from one language to another is impossible.

My daughter’s response reminded me of what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter address to his aunt,

“And the meaning of fine words cannot be made \’obvious\’, for it is not obvious to any one: least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. They think argent \’means\’ silver. But it does not. It and silver have a reference to x or chemical Ag, but in each x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation: x+y or x+z ; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different responses, but also because they are not in fact used when talking about Ag in the same way. It is better, I think, at any rate to begin with, to hear \’argent\’ as a sound only (z without x) in a poetic context, than to think \’it only means silver\’. There is some chance then that you may like it for itself, and later learn to appreciate the heraldic overtones it has, in addition to its own peculiar sound, which \’silver\’ has not.

“I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies – and alas! little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine or enlarge them.”

I have yet to decide if the the Thesaurus is the greatest or worst thing to happen to language.  On the one hand, it allows students to see that the range of available vocabulary is much wider than they anticipated, and thereby invites them to be students of language.  But on the other hand it flattens the nuances present in words that are similar, but not identical, which leads to the misuse of words.  Synonyms are synonyms … they are similar, not identical, and certainly not transposable.

Words have objective meanings, and not simply because man said so.  The very phonetic construction of a word makes it uniquely suitable to describe what it is that it describes.  Let us not forget that words exist to disclose the truth of being.  It is the downward pressure of objective truth that gives words their existence and purpose.  A writer that has mastery over a language understands this, for it is this understanding that gives him his mastery.  Every sound, every word, every pause exists to serve the whole, and the alteration of any one part would cause the whole to be a different whole.

The objective meaning of words and their power to effect what they signify, (for in this way all of language is sacramental), is precisely why the improved translation of the Roman Missal is so important for our time.  It is also why, even though the new translation is a vast improvement over the former anti-translation, it will never be able to communicate the Latin in the same way that the Latin communicates the Latin.

Of course, we should avoid the other extreme, which is to say that man had no part in the production of words.  While the phonetic construction is not at all arbitrary, it remains true that humans had a subjective part to play in the construction of vocabulary.  It is analogous, (analogous, mind you, not identical), to the question, “Who wrote the Bible?”  On the one hand, it is God’s Word breathed onto paper.  On the other hand, it was not “dictated” but inspired, and as such it bears the human stamp of the author.  So it is with words.  Man had a part to play in the development of the word “amble,” but it is not arbitrary convention.

Creation is this way too, but on a cosmic scale.  Like a great epic narrative, each being and action occurs precisely so as to make the whole the whole.  There is little point in asking “What if God did things differently?” for he did not do them differently, and the way that he did things is the only way that they could have been done, not because of a lack of power on the part of God but precisely because of his infinite perfection.

Music too is this way.  In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI commented on the music of Mozart following a concert:

“Everything is in perfect harmony in Mozart, every note, every musical phrase is as it is and could not be otherwise; even those opposed are reconciled; it is called ‘mozart’sche Heiterkeit’ (Mozart\’s serenity), which envelops everything, every moment. It is a gift of the Grace of God, but it is also the fruit of Mozart\’s lively faith that, especially in sacred music, is able to reflect the luminous response of divine love, which gives hope, even when human life is lacerated by suffering and death.”

In a great composition, there are not too few nor too many notes.  Every note and every rest is placed by necessity, not arbitrary creativity, and thus it strikes its own perfection.  Quite apart from authorial intentions (though the intention of the author is certainly a tool of receptivity that brings about the perfection), music has an objectivity to it.  It says what it says, or rather it sings what it sings, and this is because music is a language too.  In fact music is the highest language, the language of heaven.  This is why Plato said in The Republic that good music is the first step towards forming a good society, and bad music is the first step towards a bad society.  It is no coincidence that a modernity which has relativized its beauty, most especially in music, has also relativized truth and goodness.  Likewise, in making music a matter of industrial efficiency that marches forward towards a pseudo-dramatic pseudo-climax, we done the same with truth and goodness.

Music, as both a language and a vehicle of beauty, is objective.  This is why a song in a minor key always elicits a sadness or somberness, and music in a major key elicits feelings of joy and excitement.  This is not at all because we have been trained to associate the two as a sort of Pavlovian response.  No, it is because the objective structure of the minor key discloses sadness.  Actually, it is quite the other way around: the reality of sadness itself pushes down from above to form the minor scale.  Likewise, joy and happiness bring about the reality of the major scale.  It was not simply an act of discovery on the part of early musicians that one scale happens to sounds dark and the other bright, but rather an act of Platonic anemnesis in which the musician remarks, “Yes.  This is why these notes exist … to disclose this reality.  Indeed, it could not be otherwise.”

With this understanding, we can begin to grasp why certain music is uniquely appropriate for the sacred liturgy.  It was not so much that Gregorian Chant was “discovered” to contain certain elements that suit it for liturgical worship.  Less so was it that chant was artificially created to “match” a certain liturgical tone.  Such a flattening of chant’s relationship to the liturgy will necessarily lead people to believe that other forms of music might be discovered or created that could rival the proper place of chant.  No, the reality is much more profound.  It is the very nature of the Liturgy that pushes down on the music itself.  The Gregorian melodies of old are not simply “the best we have come across thus far” but rather  are uniquely suited to the Liturgy.  It is in these melodies that Liturgy moves and has its being.  This is precisely why the Church, when allowing the possibility of other types of music, always brings us back to Gregorian Chant as the standard by which all music should be judged.

Much as “amble” sounds slow, so too Gregorian Chant sounds heraldic, angelic, divine, liturgical … indeed perfect.  Much as the word “silver” could never replace “argent”, for despite their similar meanings the words are not at all similar in their phonetic overtones, so too could certain styles of music never replace the chant that is proper to the liturgy.  While some songs may be “religious” in theme, the “melodic overtones” or the “grammar” of the notes is not at all the same as truly sacred music.  Such a swap would be the misuse of music, an act akin to randomly selecting a synonym from the thesaurus and using it without any further considerations of the subtle but profound differences found amidst the apparent similitude.

To assume that any style of music, so long as the lyrical content is religious, is appropriate for the Mass is to deny that music has objective meaning apart from the intentions of the author and performers.  It is a deconstruction of the meaning of music, not very different from the deconstruction of language that occurred during the last century.  In a talk titled “The Language of Beauty,” Dr. Peter Kreeft reminds us that in the history of philosophy, deconstructionism is the final skepticism.  Metaphysical skepticism began with the nominalists and the denial of universal ideals.  Epistemological skepticism, as found in David Hume, denies the existence of universal concepts and truths.  But linguistic skepticism denies even the objectivity of words themselves.  It was Nietzsche that said, “We will not be done killing God until we have killed grammar.”

The destruction of language begins with the destruction of the highest language, and that is music; and the highest form of music this side of heaven is the music which brings us to that side of heaven: the music of the liturgy.  If, as Dostoevsky said, beauty will save the world, then that salvation must find its beginnings, like anything, in the liturgy.  The liturgy starts, from the very first notes of the Introit piercing through the architecture, with music.  Beauty will save the world, yes, but perhaps it is Gregorian Chant that will save beauty.

© Jake Tawney. All Rights Reserved.

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8 thoughts on “Tolkien, Mozart, Plato, Latin, Phonetics, Music, the Cosmos, and everything else that has to do with Gregorian Chant”

  1. Pingback: A new blog found, and Pope Benedict, and Mozart « Our Lady and Sheen

  2. Hello,
    I think some linguistic theories would disagree with your idea that words are what they mean. I don’t know if you’ve read Dante, but I think that’s the idea he had (“nomina sunt consequentia rerum”?!)

    But in recent times there are theories about signifiers/signified which postulate that a word (signifier) has no real relation to what it means (the signified) … I mean, “ambulare” sounds slow but we can’t prove that it wasn’t completely by chance! The Latin word was obviously derived from something else (Indo-European root), but we don’t know a whole lot about how language originated … so MAYBE early humans developed words which sounded like things (some words are still like this, see onomatopoeia), but doesn’t the very fact that there are so many languages, some so different to each other, testify to the fact that words aren’t essentially related to what they describe?

    So I can’t really agree that words have objectivity, and I can perfectly well square this with believing in objective realities (eg existence of God). It would be nice if externals always did correspond to internals, Dante-style, (and it’s nice to make that happen eg use of symbols in liturgy or art) but if we say that they do, then we’d have to say that an ugly person is necessarily a bad person etc etc.

    Super interesting topic though! (esp for a languages student like me!)

  3. I think the Thesaurus is like Google – it’s great tool for those with discrimination but apt to hurt those who use it unthinkingly.

    (Just think of a school essay comprising paras derived from an hour’s Googling and modified, with the Thesaurus’ assistance, to avoid charges of plagiarism!)

  4. *laughs* Oh, that’s delightful! I hadn’t really thought about it, but a lot of words do sound like what they are– especially when they have to do with horses. Even someone who doesn’t know horses will most likely be able to tell a “trot” from a “gallop,” and “lope” sounds exactly how it feels.

    I have yet to decide if the the Thesaurus is the greatest or worst thing to happen to language. On the one hand, it allows students to see that the range of available vocabulary is much wider than they anticipated, and thereby invites them to be students of language. But on the other hand it flattens the nuances present in words that are similar, but not identical, which leads to the misuse of words. Synonyms are synonyms … they are similar, not identical, and certainly not transposable.

    I think that the thesaurus, on paper, is flawed.
    Put in the context of a computer, where you can have a long list of synonyms and by “touching” a word, get the definition? That is possibly the best thing going.
    Of course, I regularly angst over a word choice for far too long, just for it to be ignored or misinterpreted by the person I’m talking to. Ah, humans…..


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