Lest We Forget: A Brief Memorial Day Essay

I am a product of both war and peace.

My father’s side of the family includes several men through the generations who did their military duty, including my grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War era.  He is a hero for many reasons, although his military service was not heavily involved in combat.  When I lived in his house during college, I was touched by the reverence with which he would raise the flag on the pole in his front yard every morning, and every night he would bring it in.  He and my grandmother would fold it together, just like I learned to do as a boy scout.  Love of this country is not casual for them.

On my mother’s side of the family, most of my ancestors were Mennonites, including several ministers.  They were pacifists, and they lived their religion.  This was a people that had been evicted from several European countries because of their beliefs, until they finally landed in the barren heartland of America.  They set to work, growing crops where nobody else could – making a bit of Heaven in places other settlers saw as Hell.  I can imagine the disappointment and the fervent prayers of my great grandfathers, ministers who preached in both English and German, as the dark days of the second World War dragged on.  How frightening it must have been, living in that uncertain world of constant threats, but holding to the conviction that it was better to die than to kill.

Memorial Day is about memory.  It is certainly about the memory of those who died to give us the freedoms we now trample under our feet.  But it is also about the memory of those who lived to preserve our freedom – those who survived to tell the stories, and to write new ones.  The Greatest Generation was not only composed of the dead – it was the generation of those who picked up the pieces of the war and fashioned them into a shining new America.

How many of our young people understand the sacrifices of the past?  The immediacy of technology has produced a silent cultural nihilism.  We live so much in the now that even what happened this morning is old news.  We are losing track of where we came from, not stopping to realize that those points in the past are vital to understand our current trajectory.  We have lost the skill of sacrifice.  And yet, the ability to live happily in this ignorant state was purchased with the lives of men and women who did their duty when the need emerged.

I am indebted to hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the rights to speak my opinions, to pursue my goals, and to worship my God.  But in my remembrance, I must also remember the wives and parents who stayed home and waited by the radio and the mailbox.  I must also tip my hat to the factory workers who made tanks and uniforms instead of cars and pretty dresses.  I have to remember the American people as they were back then during the world wars – and hope that by some miracle I will someday measure up to their standard of hope and patriotism.

Thanks to the veterans who bought our freedom.  Thanks to the Americans of the past who help me remember what that freedom means.  Most of all, thanks to the Christ who bought all of us with an infinite price to give us an infinite freedom.  In Kipling’s Recessionalwe read, “Lord of the nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget, lest we forget.”  If we forget our veterans, we miss the rich lessons of our nation’s past.  If we forget our God, we jeopardize our nation’s future.  The best honor we can give God and our veterans is to live up to the brilliant potential they have granted us.

Practice is theory is practice.

I’ve been pondering the idea of music theory lately.  As some of you know, my choral setting of the text Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains has recently been published by Jackman Music.

Having a print publication out there opens me up for some criticism.  On the one side, I’ll hear from people who know just enough theory to be dangerous: “Um, didn’t you see all the parallel fifths?  They’re even in the first measure!”

For the record, yes.  I saw them.  Actually, I wrote them.  On purpose.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll have some comments from people who are very well-versed in theory: “It was a good attempt, I suppose.  But didn’t you it came out a bit predictable?

If you equate listenability with predictability, I suppose you’ll apply that label to most music.

The trouble is that for so many musicians, a working knowledge of music theory gives a false sense of expertise.  Traditionalists want stringent adherence to rules.  Never mind that the greatest composers in history intentionally broke those rules on occasion; we must honor their memory by following the rules without deviation.

Some modernists, on the other hand, find the rules of tonality and trite and boring, and they dismiss any music that follows the rules as unoriginal, repetitive, and dull.

The problem in music theory, as in politics, is that there are so few moderates.  I suppose this makes sense: how many people are passionately moderate about a given subject?  I have never seen a rally to encourage moderation on any issue; it’s either left or right, either for or against.  In music theory, it’s either traditional or modern.

Here’s my trouble: I agree that music written strictly by the rules is often dry and unappealing.  I also agree that music written without any rules is often unpleasant and irrelevant to the audience.  I want to have it both ways.

So like so many other composers do, I pick and choose.  I decide when I want to be tonal and when I want to be atonal.  I sometimes resolve suspensions properly, and I sometimes don’t.  I am not a Mozart or a Beethoven, but I do something they did: I write what sounds good to my ears.  My audiences generally seem to appreciate and agree with those choices.

In my listening, I also try to be empathetic.  I listen for what the composer was trying to accomplish and the road he took to get there.  I consciously choose to avoid thoughts about how I would have done it differently.  All composers (even those I really can’t stand) have lessons to teach and techniques to examine.

Theory is a science that simply examines practice.  Practice comes first.  Musicians make music first, and then theoreticians dissect it.  Some theoreticians do become great composers, but they must bring more than theory to the table; they must combine their knowledge with an undefinable human element in order to make organic music.