Justice Scalia on music: ‘Well, they had to do *something*’

Justice Scalia on music: ‘Well, they had to do *something*’


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2016

by Joel Cohen

The time, the mid-1990’s. The place, the Library of Congress, where the Boston Camerata has been commissioned to produce a concert around an exhibit entitled “Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture.” The performance is attended by then-Vice President Quayle and his wife (who introduces the Camerata), by then-Speaker of the House, the late Thomas Foley, who dozes tranquilly in the front row during much of the performance, and by several Supreme Court judges, including the just-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, There is also, from the College of Cardinals in Rome, an important, red-clad delegation of elderly church princes; they provide the event with an impromptu audience singalong. As Camerata musicians process in to the Gregorian tune of Pange Lingua, they are joined, ad hoc, by the cardinals’ rumbly, offkey bass-baritone voices.

About halfway through the program, Camerata rips into Guillaume Dufay’s (1400-1474) semi-raucous, mildly transgressive Trumpet Gloria (Gloria ad Modum Tubae), in which the lower voices imitate trumpet blasts, while the two top voices chase each other in a playful, catch-me-if-you-can round. Joel Cohen, Camerata’s director at the time, expains to the assembled dignitaries that the very conservative and authoritarian Council of Trent’s (1545-1563) austere strictures concerning wayward church music was aimed squarely at such musical shenanigans.

We understand that Justice Scalia, ever the defender of order and tradition, hears the piece and then comes down decisively on the side of those sixteenth-century counter-reformers, and against the trumpeteers. “Well, they had to do something,” the eminent jurist is heard to say.

Guillaume Dufay is not available to comment.

In deference to the controversial, recently departed Justice, we are happy to acknowledge his enormous erudition, and his genuine interest in musical art. And our sympathies extend to his friend Justice Ruth Ginsburg, with whom, we understand, he attended many, many opera performances. May his successor, like Justice Scalia himself, be more than happy to stay awake during early music concerts!

Joel Cohen

justice scalia


  • Paul D says:

    Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, both opera lovers, served as supernumeraries in a performance of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Washington Opera. Justice Scalia wound up with Zerbinetta on his lap.


  • DESR says:

    A great man, by most accounts: and one of whom even his bitterest opponents can find find at least something good to say. So unlike the array of loonies, misfits and oddballs currently before the American people in the presidential pre-elections…

    The fact that he enjoyed both hunting (is shooting) and opera is an excellent sign of his having defied lazy, or easy, categorisation.

    • Milka says:

      If hunting and appreciating opera makes one a great man we are indeed in trouble
      for the human race . Many people regarded him with distaste if not worse .

  • Daniel F. says:

    I do not share many of Scalia’s political/judicial inclinations, but his musical tastes were SO unlike those of the current POTUS, whose musical tastes are, at best, jejune. And speaking of the POTUS: he waited nearly five hours after Scalia’s death was announced, until a time just prior to the Republican debate to express his condolences–in other words, an attempt to make political capital out of the death of an eminent man. Pretty low rent stuff.

    • Pete says:

      Don’t call someone jejeune if you can’t spell jejeune:)

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      Anything else you’d like to throw at POTUS? Republicans are equally engaged in low rent stuff, and more, since POTUS took his first oath of office. Blaming Obama for everything is silly. That said, I would not mind a performance of Goetterdaemmerung on the steps of Capitol Hill. No one will likely keep up the attention throughout the whole piece. What a shame…

    • jim says:

      Strange math you’ve got there. Not sure where you got the 7 hours from. Scalia’s death was officially confirmed by SCOTUS around 2:30 pm, and Obama made his address shortly after 5:30. And I suppose it’s Obama’s fault the debate was scheduled for that evening?

      • Daniel F. says:

        A very minor matter in the big scheme of things, but you have your time zones bolixed. I learned about Scalia’s death shortly after 4 PM EST. Obama spoke shortly before 9 PM EST. Even were you correct, I think the President of the country needs to be among the FIRSTt to speak about the unexpected death of sitting Supreme Court Justice, as he would have been had it been a Democratic appointee.

        • Stephen says:

          What a ridiculous assertion. Of course, if he’d spoken immediately and not mentioned the vacancy caused he’d have been accused of either shirking his constitutional responsibility, or of politicizing by trying to be the first to speak. POTUS isn’t CNN, he’s not required to sprint to the podium the moment a person dies, and since the main thing that matters is that constitutionally, he has a new obligation; perish the thought that he should take advisement on that first, get the facts. He’s the commander in chief and not the news anchor in chief.

          Could it also possibly be that he knew that whatever he said would be the latest target practice for the Republicans – irrespective of content – and he figured that he might as well speak closer to give them less chance to be ridiculous about it (which they were anyhow)? Or could it also be that he wanted to address the country and it was easier for the networks to break in to coverage when they actually were basically live on political matters anyhow, so they liaised as they do and said, sure, let’s do it during the pre-run of the debate rather than the afternoon soaps, and give the guy a bit of dignity since he was the longest serving supreme court justice and deserves better than a hasty minute of non-coverage in the afternoon?

    • Frank says:

      Yes, it was Obama who was politicizing Scalia’s death, not the Republican candidates, who made it clear that they were against any effort by the senate to exercise their constitutional duty to hold hearings for POTUS’s future supreme court nominee.

  • Joel Cohen says:

    Any friend of Justice Ginsburg’s will receive respect from me. And Scalia was indeed a highly cultured man. This said, 15 years later, I have still not digested, nor reconciled myself to, the judicial coup-d’état that was the Bush v. Gore decision.

  • CapnTom says:

    Such a sweet piece. It never ceases to amaze me at how a story like this – on a classical music blog – can feature the impact of a notable person. It makes me wonder if writers in, say, the plumbing arena, also can tell such warm and personal tales. Everyone has an “angle”, and writing to that angle, like this piece does, just adds a little more suppleness or nuance to our lives. Bravo!