A Thread of History

Having recently joined the FiSch Blog team, I thought I should introduce myself properly. I am currently a doctoral student working on British popular song during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of how I ended up working on this project is involved: its chief protagonists include my mother, who pushed me into a music degree during my indecisive youth, a marvelous music-history professor I encountered during my first degree, and a series of very nurturing supervisors, all of whom have had some interest in popular song or the music of Britain. My current project and my academic career are both products of those who invested in me and guided me, which is a wondrous thought.

Though my background is in music, I am now much more of an historian than a musician—but then I’ve always been better at writing stories than playing music! If we take History to be all that has happened, seen and unseen, since the beginning of time, then historians merely pull strands from a very long length of cloth that we can’t fully understand, gathering it into something manageable by following a single thread. Students of history are essentially story-tellers, tracing one of many threads—whether that be naval history or architectural history or religious history—to better understand how the cloth hangs together as a whole.

The thread I follow is music. As humans made in the image of a creative God, we have phenomenal powers to problem-solve, build, and create beauty. The natural world displays the glory of God (as beautifully described in Psalm 19); but man has a unique ability to create, reflecting (in his humble way) a stunning part of God’s character.

Music, I would argue, is singular even among the creative arts, as it is non-representational. Literature, the visual arts, and the dramatic arts largely consist of representations of other things (though of course this isn’t always the case): words recounting action or representing speech, actors portraying other people, sets depicting other places, marble modeling other objects, and paint mimicking visual perspectives. But music doesn’t represent anything; in fact, we’ve found that it can’t do so. In an interdisciplinary class of undergraduates I recently taught at the Ashmolean Museum, ten people listened to the same piece of orchestral music and subsequently described ten distinct images or narratives it conjured in their minds. Music communicates extra-musical ideas with wild inconsistency: it seems to have something different to say to each listener and resists definition or translation into other media. Rather, music produces emotion in us independent of words or reason. This innate sensuousness is why the church has historically been suspicious of instrumental music: it moves people without doctrine and without theology, and there could be danger in emotion untethered to fact or Truth.

But ultimately, music was created and sanctioned by God in all its glorious ambiguity and ethereal independence. It reveals something of His character through its overwhelming, un-tameable, mysterious and enigmatic beauty. Therefore as a Christian historian, I find music to be a thread well worth following…

Add new comment