‘The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra’

Degas- l'orchestre‘To each person, God gives some talent, such as writing, just to name one, and to many persons He has given musical talent, though not as many as think so. For the young Lutheran, the question must be: Do I have a genuine God-given musical talent, or do I only seem gifted in comparison to other Lutherans?

If your talent is choir or organ, there’s no problem. Choir members and organists can be sure their gift is from God because who else but God would be interested? Just like nobody gets fat on celery, nobody goes into church music for the wrong motives.

But for a Lutheran who feels led to play in an orchestra, the first question must be: Are you kidding? An orchestra?

In the Bible, we read about people singing and playing musical instruments, the harp, trumpet, psaltery, but always in praise of the Lord, not for amusement. We do not read that our Lord Himself ever played an instrument or enjoyed hearing others play theirs. The apostles did not attend concerts or go to dances. Are you sure this is what you want? Do you know what you’re getting into? Opera. Is that anyplace for a Christian? Don Juan and Mephistopheles and Wagner and all his pagan goddesses hooting and hollering, and the immorality – I mean, is anybody in opera married? You play in an orchestra, you’re going to wind up in opera, and the next thing you know, you’re going to be skipping Sunday mornings.

If you steer clear of opera and stick to orchestral concert music, where are the Christian composers? Modern ones are existentialists, the Romantics were secular humanists, the eighteenth century was all rationalists, and the seventeenth was Italians, except for Bach, and you can’t make a living playing Bach. You go in an orchestra, you’re going to be devoting your life to a lot of music that sort of swirls around in spiritual mystery searching for answers that people could find in the Bible if someone showed them where to look.

But if you’re determined to play in an orchestra, then you ought to ask yourself: Which instrument is the best one for a Lutheran to play? If our Lord had played an instrument, which one would he have chosen? Probably not a French horn. It takes too much of a person’s life. French horn players hardly have the time to marry and have children. The French horn is practically a religion all by itself. Should a Lutheran play the bassoon? Not if you want to be taken seriously. The name says it all: bassoon. Maybe you’d do it for a hobby (“Let’s go bassooning this weekend, honey!”) but not as your life occupation.

Many Lutherans start out playing clarinets in marching band and think of the clarinet as a Christian instrument, clear and strong and almost human, but a symphonic clarinet is different from the band clarinet: it’s sardonic, skeptical and definitely worldly. The English horn sounds Christian, maybe because we think of it as the Anglican Horn, but it’s so mournful, so plaintive. And so are English Horn players. They all have incredibly complicated problems, they’re all depressed, especially at night, which is when the concerts are. The oboe is the sensualist of the woodwind section, and if there’s ever a wind a Lutheran should avoid, it’s this one. In movie soundtracks, you tend to hear the oboe when the woman is taking off her clothes, or else later, when she asks the man for a cigarette. The flute is the big shot of the wind section. Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, both millionaires (how many millionaire bassoonists are there?), because everyone knows it’s the hardest to play. To spend your life blowing across a tiny hole – it’s not really normal is it? The flute is a temptation to pride. Avoid it. The last member of the woodwind family is the flakiest, and that’s the piccolo. No Salvation Army Band ever included a piccolo and no piccolo virtuoso ever did an album of gospel music. This is not a devotional instrument.

violinWe come now to the string section. Strings are mentioned in the Scripture and therefore some Lutherans are tempted to become string players, but be careful. Bass, for example. An extremely slow instrument, the plowhorse of the orchestra, and bass players tend to be a little methodical, not inventive, not quick, not witty or brilliant, but reliable. This makes the instrument very tempting to German Lutherans. And yet, bass notes have a darkness and depth to them that, let’s face it, is sexual. And when bass players pick up their bows, I don’t think there’s any doubt what’s going on in their minds back there. The cello section seems so normal, and cellists seem like such nice people. The way they put their arms around their instruments, they look like parents zipping up a child’s snowsuit. They seem like us: comfortable, middle-range. And yet there is something too comfortable, maybe too sensual, about the cello. The way they hold the instrument between their legs: why can’t they hold it across their laps or alongside themselves? The viola section is not a nice place for a Lutheran and here you’ll have to have to take my word for it. I know violists and they are fine people until, late at night, they start drinking a few bottles of cheap red wine and roasting chickens over a pit in a vacant lot and talk about going to Yucatan with a woman named Rita. Don’t be part of this crowd. The violin is a problem for any Christian because it is a solo instrument, a virtuoso instrument, and we’re not solo people. We believe in taking a back seat and being helpful. So Christians think about becoming second violinists. They’re steady, humble, supportive. But who do they support? First violins. You want to get involved with them? The first violins are natural egotists. The conductor looks to them first, and most first violinists believe that the conductor secretly takes his cue from them, that he, a simple foreign person, gets carried away by listening to the violins and falls into a romantic, emotional reverie and forgets where in the score he is and looks to the concertmaster, the No. 1 first violin, to find out what’s going on: this is what violinists believe in their hearts. If the conductor dropped dead, the rest of the orchestra would simply follow the violin section, while the maestro’s body was carried away, and nobody would know the difference. Is this a place for a Lutheran to be? In the biggest collection of gold-plated narcissists ever gathered on one stage? No.

Let’s be clear about the brass section. First of all, the rest of the orchestra wishes the brass were playing in another room, and so does the conductor. His back is toward the audience, so they can’t see what he’s saying to the brass section; he’s saying: You’re too damn loud, shut the fuck up (in Italian, this doesn’t sound course at all). The brass section is made up of men who were at one time in the construction trades and went into music because the hours were better. They are heavy dudes, and that’s why composers wrote so few notes for them: because they’re juveniles. The tuba player, for example, is a stocky bearded guy who has a day job as a plumber. He’s the only member of the orchestra who bowls and goes deer hunting. It’s not an instrument for a sensitive Lutheran, and anyway, there’s only one tuba and he’s it. The trombonist is a humorist. He carries a water spray gun to keep his slide moist and often uses it against other members of the orchestra. A Shriner at heart, he knows more Speedy Gonzalez jokes than you thought existed. The trumpet is the brass instrument you imagine as Christian, thinking of Gideon and of the Psalms, but then you meet a real-life trumpet player and realize how militaristic these people are. They don’t want to wear black tie and play Bach, they want tight uniforms with shiny buttons, and they want to play as loudly as they possibly can. Most of the people who keel over dead at concerts are killed by trumpets.

There are two places in the orchestra for a Lutheran, and one is percussion. It’s the most Lutheran instrument there is. Percussionists are endlessly patient, because they don’t get to play much. Pages and pages of music go by where the violins are sawing away and the winds are tooting and the brass is blasting but the percussionist sits and counts the bars, like a hunter waiting for the quail to appear. A percussionist may have to wait for twenty minutes just to play a few beats, but those beats have to be exact and they have to be passionate and climactic. All that the epistles of Paul say a Christian should be – faithful, waiting, trusting, filled with fervor – are the qualities of the percussionist. The other Lutheran instrument, of course, is the harp. It is the perfect instrument for a Christian because it keeps you humble. You can’t gallivant around with a harp. Having one is like living with an elderly parent in poor health – it’s hard to get them in and out of cars, impossible to satisfy them. A harp takes fourteen hours to tune and remains in tune for twenty minutes or until somebody opens a door. It’s an instrument for a saint. If a harpist could find a good percussionist, they wouldn’t need an orchestra at all; they could settle down and make wonderful music, just the two of them’.

– Garrison Keillor, ‘The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra’ in We Are Still Married (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989), 30–4.

9 thoughts on “‘The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra’

  1. This is one of my favourite essays from my favourite author. I have a hardback copy of this book dating from 1989 and was looking to send the essay to a friend. Thank you for publishing it online.

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  2. ML Mak :
    This is one of my favourite essays from my favourite author. I have a hardback copy of this book dating from 1989 and was looking to send the essay to a friend. Thank you for publishing it online.

    You can find this in Audio form, along with “The Radio Announcer”. Absolutely wonderful, backed by a symphony orchestra. The Nuances are superb as Garrison tells a story, and elongates the actual essay. You would enjoy it.

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  3. I am looking for the sheet music for the Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra.

    Can you help me?

    calvin Dyck

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  4. Lol. What he says about the french horn is all too true. We spend so much time practicing that we might as well open up a church.

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  5. Where would I find the orchestra sheet music or score for the Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra?
    Jeraldine Herbison

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  6. As a former young Lutheran I find this essay hysterical every time I read it. I love Garrison Keillor because he captures small-town Midwestern attitudes and mores so perfectly. I just keep wondering — why did the saxophone not get a mention? THAT is the instrument that is playing when the lady takes her clothes off, at least in my opinion!

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  7. In the brass section, in the set of brackets the word should be “coarse”.

    It’s a very funny piece of writing. David Malouf offers this gem about opera: “Here then, to begin with, a series of paradoxes: that this most artificial of all dramatic forms speaks for what is most natural in us; that this latest, and arguably most over-civilised of forms, puts us in touch with the primitive; that an art that is often thought of as being intended only for socialites in evening dress, for snobs and stuffed shirts, releases in us the most naked emotions. We see this clearest in those characteristic instances of the operatic, the love duet, the death-bed aria, the ensemble.” Sounds like Sunday morning to me.

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