The Politics of Polyphonic Singing

An essentially corporate activity with every part of equal weight, this music represents the common good.

Dhananjay Jagannathan
Dhananjay Jagannathan teaches philosophy and classical studies at Columbia University. His academic interests include Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of literature. He has written for Plough Quarterly and Earth & Altar.

In more ordinary times, on Sunday afternoons twice a month, I can be found on the streets of New York with a dozen other singers, performing the sacred music of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe.

Well, not always in the streets – on cold days in the winter we repair to the Graybar Passage in Grand Central Terminal, one of the most acoustically perfect spaces I have ever made resound.

Well, not I – but rather we.

For two years, I have been a member of the Renaissance Street Singers, directed by John Hetland, who founded the group in 1973. Before we start singing, John makes note to the audience, if there is an audience at the start, that the concert is free and that we are singing the music we love because we love it and we love to share it.

The message is clear: the music is religious (virtually all of it written for use in Christian liturgy), but you needn’t affirm any particular belief to be absorbed by its beauty. There are a few practicing and committed Christians in the group. Others are Jewish, and still others have no particular faith tradition.

I love these words of John’s: we sing the music we love because we love it and we love to share it.

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