Today, I watch music change us. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
It's late. I'm just back
from hearing the University of Chicago Motet Choir.
Forty apple-cheeked, bespectacled young students
ran a gamut of fine music. We heard 40 serious, and
slightly nerdish, students -- full of the wonder of
Hans Leo Hassler and Jacob Handl. We heard 40
budding mathematicians, philosophers, poets, and
It was an eerie experience for me. For there I
stood, forty years ago. The same music shaded my
whole learning of thermodyamics and beam theory. It
ran in my mind and tempered my life when I, too,
was infinitely young.
Now they sing a Byrd mass -- the same Byrd mass I
played in my head all through basic training. The
army took me from the university. For two years the
music I'd sung sustained me.
My wife nudges me. "Look," she whispers, "they feel
as though they're the first people who've
discovered all that music." She should know. She
and I met, long ago, in a group singing Vaughan
Williams, Poulenc, and Purcell.
The performance on stage is clean and in tune. But
it lacks passion. Of course it does. Youth itself
lacks passion. Passion is still hypothetical. These
singers have so much to learn. The Latin mass is
still an antiquarian exercise. What's the meaning
of "Dona nobis pacem" -- "Give us peace" -- when
you've yet to suffer strife?
Now they do a piece by the fine German choral
composer Hugo Distler. Distler wrote during
Hitler's rise. He was anti-Nazi, and he suffered
for it. He committed suicide when he was only 34.
He expected to be drafted and couldn't bear the
idea. Not even his music could sustain him in a
Now that's drama that a 20-year-old can fathom.
Suddenly the singing takes on a new dimension. It's
strong stuff. And so I watch process taking place.
It's the same process that shaped me. Music is
molding the lives of these 40 smart young people.
It is at once a window into the world and into
history. It is a mirror of themselves.
Next week they'll be back to their paper chase. But
the medium of music will reveal things about
physics and literary criticism they couldn't have
seen otherwise. I know, for I've walked precisely
that same road.
This was an important night for me. It helped show
me who I am, by reminding me just where I've been.
Tonight, I looked back and saw the abstract power
that music has had in my life -- and that it has
had in yours.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds