Higher Education Liberal Education Students

Our Musical College: Even the Dog Sings! (Video Highlights)

St. John’s, as I often say to new acquaintances and prospective students, is a very musical college. When they inevitably ask what I mean, I reply that ours must be one of very few colleges—and quite probably the only one—in which all students must sing in chorus throughout their freshman year, and must study music for the entirety of their sophomore year. This emphasis on music has its roots in the past, but it is also perfectly consonant with the tenor of our own times.

Music, you probably know, was one of the original seven liberal arts, which had their origins in ancient education, but were codified into the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) in the middle ages. In this context, music is a mathematical art. It is founded on the discovery, attributed in legend to Pythagoras, that musical tones seem to relate to one another in simple, small-number ratios. From this perspective, music is the science of mathematical relations made audible, and our students learn about this aspect of music when they study the monochord in the music tutorial, and when they study the physics of waves in the laboratory tutorial.

But the power these relations hold over human beings is something else again. For most of human history, hearing music was something of a rarity. In order to have musical experiences, people had to travel to places where music was being made, or be acquainted with someone who possessed and knew how to play an instrument, or had to procure and learn how to play an instrument themselves. Yet for millennia people overcame these obstacles in order to hear and experience the power of music.

No wonder, then, that the technology of sound recording, once invented, spread far and wide almost immediately. Or that music has finally—beginning with the cumbersome Walkman of a few decades ago and progressing up to today’s smartphones and mp3 players—become completely and unobtrusively portable.

Music is now everywhere around us. For many, it is the soundtrack of their lives. They read, study, cook, clean house, meditate, and exercise to music they themselves have compiled to accompany their activities. They make their own videos of life experiences, and set them to music of their own choosing that represents to them the beating heart of those experiences.

The ubiquity and individually personal meaning of music today, together with the power it holds over our souls, make music nearly impossible to ignore as an element of a liberal education.

That is why our students study some of the great masterpieces of musical imagination. Sophomores spend quite some time with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Measure by measure, the mathematical elements are analyzed, the melodies and harmonics examined, the rhythm and meter explored, the lyrics and gospel texts scrutinized. Fundamental questions about the power of art rise up from this study like scents from a morning flower garden. Can the mathematics of music explain its emotional and spiritual effects? What does Bach’s passionate music have to do with Matthew’s gospel, which makes up the skeleton of the work? Does the music have a power over the listener that the Bible does not have over the reader? And is this good or is it downright heresy?

Our students spend time with Mozart and study closely one of his operas—Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute. Who are these characters that step out onto the stage and sing their particular music—music that belongs only to each of them, that reveals or shapes their character over the course of the opera? What is the relationship between the music and the words? Da Ponte’s and Schikaneder’s libretti, considered on their own merits, are pretty poor examples of literature. But set them to Mozart’s music and they soar! They are playful or tragic. They tug at our heartstrings. In Mozart’s hands, they are invariably beautiful. What makes them beautiful? Are there elements of beauty as there seem to be elements of music? Are the two related? And what about the “ugly”? Are things ugly because they do not have the same concord with nature as beautiful things, because they are in discord with nature? Is the beauty of a musical composition to be found in the mathematical order of the piece, or is it more complicated than that?

Asking questions like these and bringing them to bear on one’s own musical life, which is nowadays quite often a rich and substantial part of everyone’s life, ought to be a rich and substantial part of a liberal education. And so it is at St. John’s.

We have taken seriously the effort to restore music as a liberal art to the curriculum. Since a close study of musical elements and musical literature can best be undertaken by learning to make music, we ask all of our students to use the one musical instrument they have in common—their voices. Freshmen sing together, learning the fundamentals of melody and basic notation, before tackling some of the great choral works by Lassus, Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and others.

The college also has numerous other opportunities for playing music and singing, and for listening to the musical performances of fellow students and tutors. In addition to the Freshman Chorus, which performs twice a year, there are also the St. John’s Chorus, the Madrigal Choir, Primum Mobile (an a cappella ensemble), and the St. John’s College Orchestra. Near the end of every term, a Collegium is held on an evening, at which anyone who wishes can sign up to give any sort of musical performance for the delight of the assembled crowd. Because St. John’s is such a musical college, I don’t think there is anything quite like the shared experience of the Muse at play in our community.

As a small indication of the musical life here at St. John’s, here are some musical performances on our campus.

In this video, the Freshman Chorus sings “Sicut cervus” by G.P. Da Palestrina at the Spring Concert.

And last, but not least, an incomparable rendition of some song or other by the illimitable Arcadia.

Yes, St. John’s is so deeply devoted to the liberal arts that even our college mascot is a musical liberal artist!