Give the Young the World of Good Music

[W]hen modes of music change, the fundamental mores of the state always change with them.” – Plato, Republic, 400b and 424c

A few years ago, as preparation for a course in European history, I assigned the students in our high school di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard as summer reading. What better introduction could there be to the perplexities and controversies of Italian unification? As a reward for good behavior, we all met one evening at a student’s home to watch the Visconti film. When we reached the ballroom scene, the girls gasped.

“Look at the dresses!”

“We were born in the wrong century.”

What has this moment to do with my thesis of good sacred music for the young?

Everything. Modern young people recognize and respond to beauty when they encounter it, for human nature has not changed despite the best efforts of the educrats. It has changed exactly twice since the Creation — at the Fall and at the Redemption — and it will not change again until the trumpet sounds on the last day. Of course it has always been susceptible to warping; the Catechism has a word for that, and Dante offers ample testimony, as do most morning’s headlines; but it also remains susceptible to beauty.

Early in one school year, I taught the students one of the Eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas; I don’t now remember which, but these things tend to sing themselves, because they make so much sense. They therefore learned it quickly; and young David, a new freshman, became angry. He pounded upon a desk.

“Why have I never heard this music before?” he demanded. “This is what Church music should be!”

David is not some elitist aesthete; he is a normal, red-blooded American male. He was outraged at the loss (dare I suggest the suppression?) of the patrimony. Too many publishers of hymnals seem to suppose that the laity will be drawn to pabulum, will find the old music foreign and irrelevant. But honest observation of nearly any congregation encouraged to sing along with pap shows us many of the middle-aged valiantly participating because they are trying to “build community,” while the young, if they are polite, try not to show that they are embarrassed by the antics of their elders; the young do not sing.

I had only forty minutes, twice a week, to teach a course in music history. When we reached the early Baroque, I could not give them all of Vivaldi’s Gloria, but I played a recording of the first two phrases. “Is it silly,” I asked, “to spend so much time and effort on eleven words?”

The verdict was No.

“Don’t be stingy with God,” said a girl.

The first time I taught the chorus “The Lord Is Our Refuge” from the Bach cantata Denn Du Wirst, we took our time to make sure each section knew its business; then we put it together and sang the whole thing through. At the end, young Gaby was bouncing in her seat.

“I love this man!” she exclaimed. After school that day, she compelled her mother to take her to a used-record store, where she found a recording of the B-Minor Mass and a simple turntable. Bach died, we are told, in 1750, but that is not true. For Gaby and the others he still lives.

A few years later I taught that chorus again, to a new group of students. They loved it so much, we took it to a competition of the Illinois High School Association. (Most people suppose the IHSA is only for athletics, but it does sponsor musical events.) By the time the students were halfway through, the judge was nodding and tapping his foot, and at the end he applauded; this never happens. Our accompanist reported another judge’s remark that most of the school choirs were singing “garbage” that day, and I did not rebuke our students when they gloated.

Here, then, is my plea to music directors and pastors: Give the young the good music, for they understand and respond to beauty.

Elizabeth Altham About Elizabeth Altham

Elizabeth Altham has recently retired after twenty-two years of teaching in a small private school. Besides earlier articles in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, she has written for The Latin Mass and Sursum Corda. Her YA novel, The Misplaced Spy, was published in 2009 by Blue and Gold Media.


  1. Excellent article.

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