Barnes to discuss ancient Greek literature, music


James Buckser
Staff writer

Philip Barnes got involved with choral music when he was about 6 or 7 years old.

“The local choir director came to my prep school and auditioned everybody, and I wasn’t very good,” Barnes said. “But the deal was, you can either have all the kids or none of them, so if a kid shows interest, you have to take him. I was one of those kids.”

Since joining that choir in school, Barnes has gone on to record 16 albums with the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, direct church choirs in St. Louis, and host “Re-Choired Listening,” a weekly program on St. Louis’ classical radio station. He is also an educator, teaching Greek and Latin at John Burroughs School, as well as classes through Chautauqua’s Special Studies. 

Barnes will bring his knowledge of music and learning to Chautauqua at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy as a part of Week Six of the Interfaith Lecture Series, with its theme “Literature and Meaning-Making.”

Before Barnes embarked on his musical and educational career, he studied at Chautauqua through the Bell Tower Scholarship, designed to promote understanding between the British and Americans.

It was through the scholarship that Barnes first visited St. Louis, where he has spent much of his career.

“I got to visit a very famous school there, and I got to visit the head of school, and the head of school met me. Two years later, he appointed me to the faculty,” Barnes said. “My life took this unexpected turn where now I’ve lived in America longer than I’ve lived in England.”

Barnes said the catalyst for this turn in his life was Chautauqua Institution.

“I owe Chautauqua hugely,” Barnes said. “It changed my life.”

Barnes’ “Re-Choired Listening” had a home on St. Louis’ classical radio station, which was closed for some time after the Lutheran Church sold the frequency to a contemporary Christian operation, Barnes said, which resulted in St. Louis lacking classical radio.

“It took about 18 months, I suppose, for people to realize, this isn’t a temporary thing,” Barnes said. “If we don’t actively raise money and work on the idea of bringing back classical radio, it won’t come back.”

A number of people were “instrumental” in bringing classical radio back, Barnes said, including the CEO of Centene.

“He wanted classical radio back, and he had a lot of good friends who helped,” Barnes said. “About 10 years ago, it was relaunched — new frequency, new studios, new everything, and I was one of the local hosts tapped to be part of the programming.”

Barnes said it was important for a city to have a classical radio station, culturally.

“It’s part of the culture of the city. Just as it would be important for the city to have an art museum, I think in a similar way it’s important for a city to have a really outstanding sports team,” Barnes said, “something that has a local element to it, that local people can take some pride in, and they can effect and they can follow, and feel that the music, or the sports, or the art or whatever is accountable to local residents.”

Today, Barnes said he will speak about the “intersection of religion and literature before Islam and Christianity and contemporary Judaism,” through the ancient Greek perspective.

Barnes said the worship of Greek gods is “always to be found in Greek literature,” particularly in plays, but that a modern audience can lose sight of the religious aspect the works hold in addition to the artistic. 

Barnes plans to discuss these works through his distinctive lens.

“I tend to look at literature as a libretto for music,” Barnes said. “The perspective I bring is, ‘How do words and music complement one another?’ ”

Barnes will focus this broad topic on his own work translating Greek, and having that put to modern music by contemporary composers and sung by a choir.

“I would like people to focus greatly on the natural music of words,” Barnes said. “So often, we tend to think of words in one part of our brain and music in another part of our brain, and I think that’s an unnecessary and actually unhelpful division.”

The ancient Greeks are the best way to open this discussion, Barnes said, because of the Greek tendency to merge art forms; the Greek Chorus singing and dancing; and the Greek word “ode” referring to song and poetry.

For example, he said, their understanding of the word “chorus” didn’t distinguish between people who sing and people who move, he said.

“The Greeks didn’t distinguish between so many things that we separate,” Barnes said. “… It would be so amazing if we could realize again how well the two go together.”


The author James Buckser

James Buckser is a rising junior at Boston University studying journalism. At BU he works with The Daily Free Press and WTBU News, among other campus publications. He is very excited to be reporting on the Interfaith Lecture Series during his first season at Chautauqua, and for the opportunity to interview a wide array of interesting voices. While currently residing in New England, James grew up in Upstate New York, and is looking forward to returning. Outside of reporting, James enjoys going on poorly-planned runs and playing the guitar badly.