Among G. K. Chesterton's many paradoxical and misunderstood quotes, there is one that goes, "A thing worth doing is worth doing badly." As was his custom, he was turning on its head the well known saying, "A thing worth doing is worth doing well." I have heard even wise men baulk at this remark, claiming that it was a call to mediocrity and undermined the pursuit of excellence. This, I believe, is a misunderstanding.
Anyone who has studied a musical instrument, and especially those who pursue it professionally, knows that it takes years, even decades, of bad playing before one does it well. This is true of almost all arts and abilities: we pass through a long formative and purgative learning stage where we do the thing less than well. Chesterton's point is exactly that: if you don't believe in doing a thing badly, at least at first, you could never hope to do it well.
Before you play the attached video, read the poem. Read it aloud, and then, play the video. The difference between what you have read aloud and what you hear in the video is the work of the artist. The mind boggles when you see the treasures that an artist can find and reveal for you.
This is one of the greatest short poems ever written. John Keats wrote it while he nursed his brother, Tom, who had contracted tuberculosis. Tom died in December, and two months later John coughed up blood at night in bed. He recognized the bright red color as arterial blood and knew that he had met his death. John Keats died of tuberculosis, aged 25, in 1821.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Of the 20th century philosophers in the Thomistic tradition, the most well known are Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and Étienne Gilson (1884–1978). Both had an interest in the arts and aesthetics and both published books on the subject. As a cello student I became particularly interested in Maritain's works, Art and Scholasticism and The Responsibility of the Artist, since they spoke immediately to my interest in Aquinas and art. For several years after having discovered him, my own thinking on this subject was governed by Maritain's interpretation of Saint Thomas and his reflections on art, and much of it still does influence my thinking. However, I disagree with him on some particulars about this or that artist. (He looked down upon Bouguereau, for instance, whose paintings inspired the design of this site.)
Later I discovered another Thomist, Charles De Koninck (1906-1965), who is much less known than either Maritain or Gilson, but who seemed to me to be a more helpful guide to Saint Thomas's thought. Mostly De Koninck lectured about the Philosophy of Nature, but he also directed some (in my view) amazingly wise Ph.D. dissertations and published a few books. Among his papers I found a draft in two versions titled Art and Morality. In them he disputes a common view of Thomists on art and morality, perhaps with Maritain in mind, and points to an insufficiency in their thinking. I had instinctively felt this problem while studying the relevant parts of Maritain's writings myself, but I didn't see the principles clearly enough to defend my uneasiness. It was exciting and remarkable to find someone who shed light on the very same difficulty I had detected only obscurely.
So, what is the dispute about?
Maritain and others held that there is no essential connection between art as such and morality. A good man can be a bad artist and a bad man can be a good artist. Isn't this obvious? They conclude that there is only a per accidens relationship between the two and thus art as such has no moral aspect. Maritain writes, for example:
Art in its own domain is sovereign like wisdom; through its object it is subordinate neither to wisdom nor to prudence nor to any other virtue.
And while he goes on to persistently defend morality for man as such, lest someone think he is advocating for men to do evil through art, he insists that the two spheres, art and prudence, do not relate in any essential way, and the injunction against evil can only be directed to man as man and not to man as artist.
De Koninck, on the other hand, thought this was insufficient. Taking his cue from a passage in St. Thomas's Commentary on the Posterior Analytics, De Koninck looked at the question more deeply. He found that arts which imitate human actions, such as drama versus architecture, have a relation to morality in light of their object. This arises from the fact that the human actions being imitated have themselves a real moral order or disorder, and they will either be rightly or wrongly imitated in the work of art. In this way such imitative arts are related to morality per se, and insofar as the artist falsely imitates good and evil, by portraying good as evil or evil as good, he is committing not only a bad human act—it being evil in itself or leading others to evil—he is also creating bad art, false art.
Since I find the latter view more thoughtful and convincing, I have typed up his two short notes and made them available in our library. Read Charles De Koninck on Art and Morality and see what you think.
I should add that the practical application of this for instrumental musicians is minimal, since the imitation of human acts in such music is accomplished only indirectly: by the way the sounds produced through the instrument move the emotions, ordering them well—or not. It is hard to see how this could be known other than by an intuition. Perhaps it can be divined by putting to yourself the question: am I made better, more able to live virtuously, by hearing and knowing this music—or not?
In 2003, while I was a student in the School of Music at Yale, I was searching for biographical information on Alfredo Piatti. After years of working on his pieces it seemed only natural to know something more of the man. I was attracted to one work, by Morton Latham, which I secured through inter-library loan. When it arrived, the librarian was so concerned about its fragile condition that I was required to read it only in the reading room in Sterling Library.
Since then a scanned copy has become available. I have taken the liberty of preparing an online version, further enhanced with images to complement the charming story. It is a unique sort of biography in that the author was a close friend of Piatti, and it is predominantly written as a series of anecdotes.
Please enjoy. Alfredo Piatti: A Sketch by Morton Latham
Cello students looking for a teacher should inquire with Peter Dzialo for availability. He offers private cello lessons in CT.
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"Like a good instrument, a good bridge can outlast centuries."
Bridge photos by Gerard KilBride and Mick Quinn, who are known for their passion for stringed instruments.