Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 535:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 535.

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 created them.

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 chemists.

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 Nazi army.

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 work.

(Theme music)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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