Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Great Music is Great Music

A few weeks ago, as church was ending, I heard the organist start the postlude with 13 notes that sounded very familiar. Actually, they started to sound familiar by the fourth note. And as I heard these notes, I said to myself that he could be about to play only one of two pieces that I knew of; and since there wasn’t a wedding going on, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t Wagner’s Wedding March. After he got through the first 13 notes, the next four told me that he was indeed about to play the only other piece I knew that started that way…the Throne Room theme from Star Wars: The Original Movie, or Episode IV: A New Hope, or whatever you want to call it.

It’s a great piece of music, but one that, like the traditional Wagner and Mendelssohn wedding marches, many church organists wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, and won’t play for a wedding.

Why not?

Well, with the Wagner and Mendelsohn pieces, it’s because they know too much, they’re overthinking the sources, and ruining two perfectly good pieces of music for those who’d like to use them.

The problem for these people is that in the case of the Wagner Bridal Chorus, it’s the music from a wedding that’s doomed to tragedy in his opera Lohengrin, and therefore “inappropriate” for a church wedding. With the Mendelssohn, the problem is that it’s from the incidental music from a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a farce about love. This, in their eyes, also makes it inappropriate for church use.

Do I even have to tell you why many organists would consider any of John Williams’s themes from Star Wars to be inappropriate for church use?

These organists would insist that only “proper liturgical music” should be played in church…for preludes, postludes, offertory music, and for any movements of the bridal party. And yet, this rule is broken all the time. I challenge anyone to tell me that the Widor Toccata is a piece of liturgical music. Or the Finale from Louis Vierne’s Symphony #1 in D Minor. These are both well-known organ showpieces, that no organist worth their pedal shoes would deem inappropriate for church use. And what of selections from Handel’s Water Music? Jermemiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary? And please don’t even try to tell me that everything that the sainted Johann Sebastian Bach wrote was liturgical.

Here’s the thing…great music is great music…no matter what it was originally written for. A quick bit of research at Wikipedia shows that the Wagner and Mendelsohn pieces entered the popular mind as pieces to use for weddings the same way that many wedding traditions get started in the English-speaking world…as the result of a royal wedding. In this case it was the wedding of Princess Victoria (daughter of Queen Victoria) to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858. The Princess was a great admirer of Mendelssohn’s music, and whenever he was in England, he would come to play for her. Is it any wonder, then, that she chose one of his pieces for her wedding? She (or her mother) chose both pieces not because of any associations they had with either Lohengrin or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but simply because they were great music.

Indeed, it seems that those two pieces became the victims of their own popularity as organists and clergy later declared them verboten because of their sources, because they represented sentimentality rather than religion, or, ironically, because they’re too often used in movies and on TV. Consider that the Wagner and Mendelsohn marches wouldn’t be used in so many movies and TV shows if it weren’t already being used in so many weddings in real life.

But great music is great music, and let’s face it…John Williams writes some great music. So why should his music…or Wagner’s, or Mendelsohn’s…not be played for a church service simply because it’s not liturgical music? If we’re really going to apply that rule, then let’s apply it consistently, and strike anything from being played that’s not based on a well-known hymn tune.

I, for one, was thrilled when I realized what our organist was playing. And I look forward to hearing more great music played for the prelude and postlude.

No matter what its pedigree may be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Celebrating Christmas

It’s the day before the day before Christmas Eve, and I have to ask…how many of you have been out caroling, or at least invited to go? How many of you have set up your Christmas tree, whether it be real or artificial? How many of you have put up your Christmas lights? I’ve seen a lot of huge displays in my neighborhood. Have you gotten out the Christmas music to play, or have you had the “All Christmas Music All the Time” station on, ever since they switched over from their normal head-banging music format on November 1st?

And shopping! Were you out with all the Black Friday craziness, or did you stay at home and do all your shopping online? Maybe, like me, you got started early, back on November 1st, and were practically done by the time Thanksgiving arrived.

Christmas parties! How could I forget about those? How many of you have been to, or given, Christmas parties so far? Or maybe you’ve got yours coming up tomorrow…or even Christmas Eve.

And let’s not forget church! Christmas Eve service, Christmas Day service, or both? When I was a kid, and a boy soprano in the paid choir at The Episcopal Church of St Andrew in South Orange, NJ, you got a 50¢ bonus if you made it to both the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. 50¢ was four comic books, so I could be counted on to make it to both services.

Have you done, or are you planning to do any of these things this year? And you’re able to do this without having to hide? You’re able to do these things in broad daylight (so to speak)? You’re able to do these things without fear of reprisals from armed government agents? If so, then let me let you in on a little secret…


Who are these people claiming that there’s a war on Christmas?

They’re people who confuse our trying to be considerate of the large portion of our population that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and may not wish to have it shoved down their throats for six to seven weeks out of the year; with being told that you can’t celebrate Christmas at all.

They’re people who think that just because they’re still the majority religion in this country (for now), they should be able to call the shots for everyone.

They’re people who feel threatened and “bullied” because their child’s public school no longer does the annual Christmas-themed program in December, and has moved to a more generic winter-themed program in February, out of sensitivity for those in the school system (teachers included) who don’t celebrate the holiday.

But really…I ask of you…how can a 900-lb gorilla be bullied by anyone? Usually, when the 900-lb gorilla claims he’s being bullied, it’s because he’s being asked to share…which is something he’s never had to do before.

Is it really that horrible to say “Happy Holidays” to someone, knowing that no matter what they celebrate, you’ll be safe…even though upwards of 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form?

Now I’ll admit, some people carry trying to be considerate of others to ridiculous lengths. Take the tree for example. It’s a freaking Christmas tree. It’s no more a “holiday tree” than a Chanukah menorah is a “holiday candelabra.” I can see where some of these well-intentioned, but ham-fisted attempts at inclusion may get to some people…

But they, by no means, constitute a “war on Christmas.”

What they do represent, however, is our good-natured struggle to figure out how best to be inclusive during a season whose main holiday has both religious and cultural significance and both religious and non-religious aspects to it.

And if the people who declare that there’s a “war on Christmas” really can’t celebrate the holiday without making everyone go along for the sleigh ride, whether they want to or not; if Christmas is totally lost to them without all the external trappings, then I would suggest that they read the definitive work on the subject, by Theodor Geisel.

That’s Theodor Seuss Geisel.

And maybe after that, their hearts will grow enough sizes to not get into such a snit about sharing the holiday season with others.

Merry Christmas to all…and to all a good night!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Complicated and Disruptive Idea of Raising the Minimum Wage

It’s complicated. Lots of things are...and we do ourselves a disservice by trying to oversimplify everything, or assuming that there's always a direct one-to-one correspondence between Act A and Result B.

We saw this with the Atkins Diet. Doctors were so sure that this was a fraud because we “knew” what caused weight gain and weight loss, that they never bothered even using the Scientific Method to test it out, until years later, just to shut people up.

And then they found out that the endocrine system was a lot more complex than they had imagined, and that Atkins was right.

There’s something similar going on with researchers discovering that being a little chubby might actually be good for your health, and certain people just not wanting to believe the data because we “know” that being fat is bad for you, and being thin is better.

I’m thinking about this now in terms of raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. A lot of people say that it’ll hurt the economy. It’ll cause massive job losses. Everyone will get acne.

But what we forget is that things are complicated. It’s not a “Do X, always get Y” proposition. There are many variables; there are many unknowns. There are many possible results, both good and bad, that we may not have seen coming. For some reason, we always seem to forget the Law of Unintended Consequences.

So...you say that raising the minimum from about $7.50 to $15 will cause massive job losses? Maybe this is true...but maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it means that one person in a family can work that $15 job for 40 hours instead of two of them working the same number of hours at $7.50. And maybe that frees the other person to go back to school…or to take care of the kids. Maybe it means that instead of both people working 40 hours a week, they can each work 20.

And maybe it’ll cause massive job losses at first. But then maybe, after all the dust settles, and there are people out there with more money to spend, more jobs will be created to go after that money. Maybe what we’ll see will be a case up trickle-up economics.

Yes, increasing the minimum wage from roughly $7.50 to $15.00 would be disruptive, but disruptive isn’t always a bad thing…it simply means that massive changes would occur from the way things are now. And if that’s the case, then maybe a little disruption every now and then isn’t a bad idea.

The automobile was disruptive. It was bad for the horse and buggy industry, but it enabled people to travel farther than they had before. The computer has been disruptive…in all of its forms, from the largest mainframes to the smallest mobile devices. It pretty much killed the typewriter industry. And yet, who among us would go back to the days before widespread computer use?

Let’s take a chance on a little positive disruption here, and see what happens if we increase people’s wages rather than cutting them. I think we might be pleasantly surprised with what happens after the dust settles.