What I like best about Christmas is that it is a time of year when even
those most relentlessly secular of modern institutions, National Public
Radio and the Public Broadcasting System, will broadcast messages like “For
unto us a child is born, for unto us a Son is given,” or “Son of God, love’s
pure light,” or even “Jesus Christ our Savior is born,”
It will do so, of course, not because it wishes to endorse the religious
beliefs of one of the many belief-systems available in our proudly
multicultural society. It will do so because it just can’t get
away from Christmas music this time of year and not all the Christmas music
worth listening to has to do with Rudolph or sleigh bells or Santa Claus.
Indeed, I would argue that most of the Christmas music worthy of an NPR
programmer’s attention has an explicitly religious and more explicitly
So, like the message or not, it’s part of the cultural heritage we as
Americans share and enough of it is of sufficiently high quality that it
simply has to be played this time of year. One might not hear a
preacher deliver the message in prose, but you can be sure that Luciano
Pavarotti or some English cathedral choir or Jessye Norman will sing the
message this year as in years past.
Go tell it on the mountain.
It is appropriate, I would contend, that the message of Christmas should
be delivered and received so persistently in the form of music. For music
has the capacity to reconcile what would seem to be
contradictory impulses in human nature into a harmonious way of being and
living that bears a strong resemblance to the promise played out in the
manger in Bethlehem.
I believe I am one of the most self-consciously individualistic persons I
know, believing as I do that the individual person is the basic building
block of society, and that if we all have equal rights no individual has the
right to order another individual (assuming we’re talking about adults)
around. I think the glory of our society, both real and potential, is its
ability to accommodate and celebrate the
individual person, even the rather odd ones. I love it when individuals
express themselves, even in ways I find dubious.
I am also director of my church choir. Before the midnight service
tonight, I will be reminding them that what we’re striving for here is a
unitary sound, a blend in which all the voices sound like one. If any one
voice, not matter how beautiful or modulated, stands out from the others
(except in a passage written for solo with accompaniment), we will not have
achieved what we want, and we will not have glorified God to the full extent
of our potential.
The individualist encouraging individuals to suppress themselves for the
sake of the whole, for some abstract concept of unity? When I hear a
politician talk of the need for unity my whole being goes on suspicious
alert. Yet I will be doing that very thing tonight, as I do repeatedly and
as I try to practice when I sing in a chorus (as I have on a
semi-professional level all my life) or play in a band or an orchestra.
How can that apparent contradiction between celebration of individuality
and sacrifice of individuality for the good of the whole be resolved? It can
be because participating in a musical ensemble is a voluntary activity and
it offers rewards that are sufficient to make many people, even stubborn
individualists like me, gladly give up the opportunity to stand out in a
crowd. Because when ensemble music works as it is intended to — and it doesn’t
always — it sounds so good and feels so good to be a part of that the
sacrifice of individuality doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. It feels
like a privilege.
You don’t weep at the loss of your ability to stand out. You weep with
gratitude and wonder, even astonishment at the capacity of human beings to
produce something so beautiful and emotionally moving.
Producing those kinds of sounds doesn’t come entirely naturally, except
to those few prodigies who seem to have been born with more talent than the
rest of us could display no matter how hard we work. It requires work and
discipline, including individual work done by oneself to learn the notes
well enough that you can listen and blend and add one little piece to the
wholeness of the sound. And most of us do that work gladly and joyously,
spending years to improve our abilities an inch or so at a time.
What I garner from this is that human beings are distinct individuals who
enjoy their individuality but at the same time are social beings who enjoy
working, playing, cooperating and producing together with other people. But
this working together with others works best when the community activity is
voluntary and when there is a payoff for cooperating. When cooperation is
forced, when it is carried out with resentment or reservations, it may be
possible to produce something of value through the process. But the product
will almost always be inferior to what is produced through voluntary
cooperation in which the individual person is still free to decide, moment
to moment, how much of his or her individuality he or she will give up for
the larger experience or goal.
One of the things I learned from singing under the great choral conductor
Roger Wagner, when I was at UCLA, was that great music is most likely to
come from an ensemble when the skill required is also suffused with enjoyment
and pleasure. We worked hard, but even as he insisted on accuracy and
excellence, Wagner saw to it that it was fun. I have extrapolated from that
and other experiences the lesson that if you’re not having fun doing what
you’re doing, whatever other rewards may flow from it, you might think about
doing something else instead.
That’s what music teaches me. I don’t think it’s very different from how
the Prince of Peace would have us live giving up little pieces of ourselves
(in some ways our whole selves, but He celebrates our individuality more
than we do if that’s possible) not just voluntarily but joyously for the
sake of the greater good that can come when we do so. That’s not a bad way
to think around Christmastime. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that
the season is so suffused with music that it would be hard to imagine it