A programme that shows how music raises human dignity

Gareth Malone (BBC)

Having drawn attention to a book entitled Human Dignity in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, edited by John Loughlin (Bloomsbury Academic), I would like to briefly mention the chapter on “Western Christian Sacred Music and Human Dignity” by Jonathan Arnold of the Faculty of Theology at Oxford. The reason I do so is because I recently watched a two-part TV programme on the efforts of Gareth Malone, famous for getting diverse groups to sing together, to persuade prisoners at Aylesbury Young Offenders’ Institute to form a choir.

Arnold writes about the “healing” properties of music, referring to the 6th century Christian philosopher, Boethius, who put sacred music “at the heart of human dignity and development.” Doing a quick summary of the development of sacred music in the West, he reminds us that music “ennobles human dignity because it can point towards something far greater than itself, but which it alone can express.” He also points out that in what he describes as the fragmented nature of our “post-secular society” there has been renewed interest in choirs and community singing because of the human need “for creating communities”.

Perhaps the Governor of Aylesbury Prison had this in mind when she invited Gareth Malone to try to form a choir within its walls. The obstacles were formidable, due to the need for security and the impossibility of predicting which inmates would be available to sing on the day or which of them would stay locked in their cells. Despite this, Malone did manage finally to get four young men to agree to think about their lives and turn their thoughts into rap lyrics which, after some stressful rehearsals, they sang to his accompaniment before an audience of parents, friends and staff.

Part music therapy, part entertainment and part the young men’s humbling admission in their singing that “I done the wrong thing at the wrong time” as one inmate put it, the final concert was a moving experience. Some of the parents were in tears. This was not monks singing the Divine Office in Gregorian chant within a beautiful chapel as religious Orders have done for centuries, but I still think a slender thread linked these two groups. The Psalms sing of sin, regret and the need for forgiveness; perennial themes that the Aylesbury prisoners understood in their bones even if they couldn’t easily articulate them.

Arnold writes that “Singing together at whatever level, brings great benefits to human dignity” and concludes with the conviction of Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan that he believes it is “God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination…and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.”

By inviting Gareth Malone inside its walls Aylesbury Prison was doing its best for a brief period to bring a more humane element to a harsh and inhospitable environment; to show these young men that their stories were worth sharing and being set to music. One of the prison officers involved in the programmes said, “It shouldn’t be us and them. We’re a community”. And, as the programmes showed, one of the ancient, enduring ways of bonding individuals into a community is singing together.