Dr. Melissa Brotton
ENGL 459: Milton
29 May 2014
Milton and the Organ The church band played in the early morning service. The musicians were fiercely praising God with all their hearts – their passion for God evident. Yet no one was paying attention to the music or to the lyrics; in fact, few people were singing. All eyes were on the drums; horrified looks were plastered on the members’ faces. The older ladies in the congregation, inflamed with indignation, approached the pastor after church. How could you let the devil’s instrument into the church? Don’t you know that drumming to a sacred hymn is scandalously disgraceful to the Holy Lord? Emphasized beats can only lead to sinful clapping and immoral dancing.
In much the same way, organs stirred up feelings of outrage and brought forth the condemnation of the Puritans during the time of Milton. The organ’s haunting notes provoked Christians in ways that were believed to be unholy and disgraceful. When the Commonwealth Decree of 1644 declared that all organs be destroyed, Puritans throughout England were elated while the hearts of England’s musicians laid shattered. Milton being both a devout Christian and a skilled musician, naturally, felt conflicted. This paper will explore Milton’s changes in his opinion of the organ by comparing his writings before and after the Commonwealth Decree of 1644.
Milton grew up in a household that had music seeping from its walls. This impacted Milton and his writings profoundly. Milton’s father was a musician, but not your regular run-of-the-mill musician. He was a composer of first-class quality (Spaeth 12). While at Oxford, Milton the elder, was awarded a gold medal and a chain by a Polish prince for his In Nomine of forty parts (E. 437). Milton, the elder, is constantly listed amongst the most renowned composers of the time, and his pieces are always displayed in the best music books of the Elizabethan-era (Spaeth 13).
John Milton, the poet, celebrated his father’s music in the Latin elegy, Ad Patrem, which was an elegy specifically dedicated to his father: Nor blame, Oh much lov’d fire! The sacred Nine, Who thee have honour’d with such gifts divine;
Who taught thee how to charm the list’ning throng,
With all the sweetness of a siren’s song;
Blending such tones as ev’ry breast inflame,
And made thee heir to great Arion’s fame. By blood united, and by kindred arts,
On each Apollo his refulgence darts:
To thee points out the magic pow’r of sound;
To me, the mazes of poetic ground;
And foster’d thus, by his parental care,
We equal seem Divinity to share (qtd. in E. 440).
It is in this elegy that Milton’s love for music and appreciation for his father’s talent becomes clear. Milton attributes his father’s talents as “gifts divine” and compares the music his father makes to “the sweetness of a siren’s song”. Milton uses his father’s musical abilities as a defense for his poetry as well. Not only are they “by blood united”, but they are also united by their “kindred arts”. Consequently, if his father’s gift comes from the Divine, his poetry must also be a divine gift. Milton expresses this belief in the line, “We equal seem Divinity to share” (Spaeth 13).
His father’s music not only impacted Milton’s poetry, but it had a major effect on his life. For recreation, Milton’s father would not only study the science of music, but he would often practice and compose music (Spaeth 12). It is only natural that he passed these skills on to his son, and as a result, Milton became a rather skillful organ player. According to all biographers, Milton’s favorite instrument was the organ; he not only had a profound knowledge of the organ, but he had a warm tenderness towards the instrument (Spaeth 28). Milton’s fondness for the instrument is evident in his declaration that the organ has the “power over dispositions and manners, to smooth and make them gentle from rustic harshness and distempered passions”