When did you know glory?

I have done many things in my life that other people seem to think are impressive — starting university early or getting a job as a bank programmer in my teens, for example. But I don’t feel anything other than a mild sense of accomplishment at most of them. And there’s the issue of hypersubjectivity. When I have done well in a course, I don’t really see that as something that I’ve accomplished. It’s that I’ve been assigned the grade be someone. Maybe they really like the way I write or the way I think. Maybe they just like me. But I am under no illusions about it being objective, because I have written good assignments. I believe I have indeed written well and produced excellent work. But I don’t see any real connection between doing that and getting a high grade. Much as I see no real connection between doing work badly and getting a poor grade — if there was a connection between them, the courses in which I was assigned a terrible grade would be a sign of having done bad work and those with good grades would be that of excellent work and I am absolutely certain that’s not the case.

I was, in my second year at college, given a final grade of five percent in a course. Not just in a single assignment but a course. The professor obviously didn’t like me — not because of the grade but because she made that very clear in class. I didn’t want to fight so I figured I’d just ignore her and do the assignments and have it over with that semester. But when I received my final grades (which, at that point, was done by mail, as there was definitely no online interface for it, that being the nineties), I had completed seven courses, five of them 90% or above, one in the high 80s and 5. Five. I was shocked someone would do that. I mean, if you’re going to fail someone, you can definitely do that — and I definitely have on occasion when the work wasn’t up to expectations. And if the work is completely useless, I’d have no hesitation at all about assigning zero. But five is a calculated insult.

Anyway, I availed myself of the appeals process to have the final paper reread by an independent marking committee at the university and was assigned a new grade for the course. It wasn’t even close to five. It was in the mid-90s. There was a subsequent investigation into the professor’s conduct and a significant portion of her grades were changed, although I can’t remember how far back they looked into it. Last I checked, a few years later, she had still not returned to the department but I hadn’t had to take another course in the department in awhile and I soon graduated and went to another school for grad studies. My point, though, is that glory is an odd thing. Most of the things we work hard to achieve aren’t dependent more than vaguely on that work. Most of the things we really achieve are given to us mostly by other people based on our personalities and how much they like or hate us rather than being accomplished.

Except writing and studies and music. Sure, there’s external recognition of those things. But people are always talking about how important it is to be self-confident. I think the idea is far overrated but this is where it does indeed matter. You know whether you’re doing well. You know if you’re studying something and understanding it. You know if you’re making good music or haven’t graduated from shower-singing and car stereo karaoke. Perhaps that’s where the real intrinsic sense of achievement, of glory arrives.

Music is what really comes to mind, though. I have a love-hate relationship with Christian church music. I love a lot of it and hate a lot of it. It’s not that it fluctuates. My personal view is that there has been an incredible amount of beautiful music written for the church — Palestrina, Montaverdi, Byrd, Tallis, Bach to name a few. But here’s the problem I have. The English had a fantastic level of talent at one point. And then, as the Baroque period took over, it disappeared and never again recovered. The result? Who was the last English composer whose work is worth performing? Not sure. But it was definitely in the Renaissance. You might ask about Handel but seriously, we’re talking about someone who is German and wrote in a Germanic style. Sure, there have definitely been some contemporary English composers in the religious music scene but how far back does that go? Twenty years? Maybe thirty before you run into the absolute worthless detritus of Rutter and Vaughan Williams. So going into a church is often a musically painful experience. You can go in and hear beautiful Latin masses and Bach chorales. Or you can get Victorian excrement. It’s hit or miss. I prefer the certainty of spoken ritual unless I can be sure.

But I have no illusion about having to believe the text to set it to music. Neither do most choral composers, I suspect. The reason this comes to mind is that the Gloria, a movement of the standard Christian mass (not just the “ordinary” but all modernized versions, I believe) is something that I have set to music more times than I have fingers.

The question, though, is one of knowing. Have I ever known a piece of music in the way people mean that? Perhaps. Do I believe that’s a valuable exercise in the choral scene? Not in the slightest. There are so many choirs that go to the extreme of memorization, of imposing that instead of using the score to be perfect in performance, relying on the memory. It doesn’t work. It’s a huge amount of effort and the music generally lacks polish as a result. It’s nothing but fundamentalist silliness — just because choirs in ancient times may have performed from memory doesn’t mean modern ones should. They often had a very small repertoire and could sing the same things in performance every day. There was also often no other work for the singers, them being hired specifically to perform and having the entire week to learn the music from memory. Added to the fact that in much of that time period in question the scores weren’t standardized — nor could a lot of the performers even accurately read the words.

If a director is expecting memorization, it’s nothing but amateur theatrics. Looking impressive. As if holding a score on stage is in some way not impressive. Yes, pop singers can do it — but look at the relative complexity of the music. Memorization makes things incredibly difficult for us as composers and arrangers. We expect the singer to be able to read the score and sing the music that’s written. Not to have to learn it. Shakespeare wrote for memorization. As a result, his language is stilted and programmatic, expectation-based and rhythmically patterned. It kills innovation and diversity. It makes things sound the same. Things that were once seen as merits and now are an affront to the compositional art. The takeaway from this? Memorization, in music as in all other forms of education, is worthless. If you’re being asked to do it, it’s probably for show and will have an unkind effect on your performance in the long-run. How sad.