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Music for Masons

The MHS Review 240 Vol 3, No 6 May 28, 1979

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David M. Greene


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My maternal grandfather was a Mason. In fact, he was doubly a Mason, for that was his surname, and my mother, decades uprooted from her home, used to try to re-establish touch with reality by telling puzzled strangers in alien climes that her people were the Masons of Virginia. Grandfather was also a Freemason. I have no notion of his Rite or Degree--he died four years before I appeared on the scene--but in a trunk up in the attic he left his apron and sash with tarnished trim and little silver things on them, and a sword and scabbard.

I tell you this to prove that I have some insight into Freemasonry. It's little enough, I grant you. I went to the University library this morning further to enlighten myself, but all I could find was (1) a work exploring whether or not the Jews were excluded from the order: (2) another on the progress of Freemasonry among American Blacks; (3) the complete history up to 1913 of a lodge in Lancaster, Pa. These, valuable as they are in their own right, help me very little. My impression is that the movement began among actual stonemasons in England, who were forced, by the exigencies of castle­-building, to move about a lot. In the eighteenth century, having become more idealistic and more generally fraternal, it spilled over onto the Continent, where it became very popular. Inevitably it became mixed with, or confused with, the winds of freedom that were blowing, and some people, like Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress, suspected the members of being Godless Communist Pinko Atheists. (In Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, set in Germany in the early 19th century, the poor mad protagonist suspects die Freimaurer of somehow producing the hallucinations that plague him.)

Mozart wrote a good deal of music for Masonic ritual, or inspired by Freemasonry (most notably The Magic Flute), and in the past thirty years his efforts have been recorded "complete" several times. But the offering at hand is something completely different (as John Cleese would say). By all odds, it is side one that is most interesting, though, lacking notes or text, I see what is going on there as through a glass, darkly. There was once a Westminster record of a Music for Masons Mass and a motet by Francois Giroust, but it did not prepare me for this. The composer (1750-1799) was director of Louis XVI' s church music until the Revolution, when he became an ardent anti-Royalist. The great Belgian musicologist, Fetis, pronounced his religious music not very good. He was probably right. Le Deluge, will not, I think, replace Haydn's Creation (to which it owes some of its naive scene-painting), but it is a curious reminder of what must have impressed your average lodge-brother. I'm not at all sure how it functioned as a "ritual." There is obviously a storm (symbolic, I'm sure) at the outset. At its height, a basso, who wanders nervously back and forth between the channels, notes that there are tempetes and eclairs. In a bit, things calm down, and he opines that the silence is an image du neant (picture of nothingness) There is a passage for tenors and chorus, and then we get some pretty pastoral stuff with flutes and arpeggiating bassoons, which permits the basso to breathe again, until he sees helas!, that his brother has become a victime. At that the tenors take off in a florid passage in thirds, with trumpets. after which the narrator speaks soothingly of testimonial flowers and kisses, and there is a long quasi-Beethovenian apotheosis, with a prominent section for that French brass instrument I think of as the greasehorn. It all ends with a very noble brass-accompanied chorus. I don't think I want to see the ritual. I recall too well my induction into a secret society in which we neophytes on a symbolic pilgrimage, stopping periodically to hear inspirational words from persons in nightshirts pretending to be Greeks.

The two Mozart songs, the duet, and the aria are all simple things to be sung by only average-musical brethren. Tenor Schuyler Hamilton imitates an average brother very well. The fortepiano staggers tinnily along with him. The Beethoven song is more of the same; the little march for winds--is there a hint of the Marseillaise?--is fun, but too brief. The song by Friedrich Heinrich Himmel, Prussian court-conductor and friend of Beethoven, is a hearty affair and the chorus sounds as if the wine was particularly efficacious. The record ends with a sober funeral march by Henri-Joseph Taskin, member of a musical family, and related to the Couperins. Altogether a quaint slice of history, this record! _________ _

Review of Masonic Music page 47

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