Saturday, January 22, 2005

Music: sacred & profane-5

There is almost a subversive quality to Debussy’s score, for music, as a dynamic art form, is essentially linear. We process sound in sequential units. This is in contrast to the fine arts, which are static--excepting the film medium. In a painting, everything is given all at once, and from only one perspective.

What Debussy has done is to simulate the fine artistic medium in the musical medium, fostering an atemporal music style which is a tableau frozen in sound--of drama transmuting into decor--of time as space.

In traditional music, the listener is on a boat, moving downstream towards a foreordained destination. In Debussy, the listener is on the bank, watching the play of light upon the waves. Just as solid objects lose their crisp lines in reflected space, Debussy dissolves the formal borders of ordered sound into an ever-shifting skin of light and shade.

This is a musical throwback to the old ut pictura poesis school of art. Indeed, the analogy is closer inasmuch as Debussy’s music is less a direct evocation of nature than a musical allusion mediated by painters and poets like Monet, Turner, and Verlaine--just as Proustian prose was inspired by Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens, while Ruskin’s prose was inspired by Biblical typology.

This is a brilliant experiment, and works well on its own terms. But its very success is a dead-end. Having done it once, there’s no much value in repeating the experiment.

Music which is too abstract loses its allegorical appeal. It works on one plane rather than two, whereas the highest art of music sets up a referential relation between the subject and object of music.

But music which is too concretely particular loses the story, the narrative thread of great music. Once again, it ceases to be an allegory of the mood and motion of life. If atonalism is a limiting-case of the universal, then Impressionism is a limiting-case of the particular.

Artistic tradition makes the creative process harder and easier at the same time. In one respect, it is easier to sit on the broad shoulders of a genius like Bach or Handel than to reinvent the wheel each time. Tradition makes us collectively smarter than we would be individually, left to our own devices.

But tradition also sets the bar, and the bar rises with the passage of time. It is harder for Brahms to compose after Bach and Beethoven, because his predecessors have used up some of the best moves. It is harder to do something that is both truly new and truly great, because some of the best options have already been explored and exhausted.


And then there was Wagner. There’s a sense in which German music never recovered from Wagner. Post-Wagnerian music is either imitative or reactionary in relation to Wagner. One way or the other, every post-Wagnerian composer must come to terms with him--whether terms of peace or unceasing hostilities.

In my opinion, Wagner was a more stimulating music critic than a composer. Wagner was a magnificent charlatan--a composer without the taste, talent, or technique to complement his grand pretensions. But by sheer force of personality he managed to project the image of a great composer. Brahms and Debussy were too astute to be wooed by the circus act, but there was enough P. T. Barnum in Wagner, abetted by the German flair for dogmatism, to garner a worshipful throng.

It is true that there was a limitation with opera seria. You end up with a disjointed string of great hits that don’t amount to a unified composition. Is there a way of writing large scale music that is one piece of music, however many the movements, rather than a lot of little orphans, however individually fine?

Traditionally, the unifying principle lies in the text, not the music. In an oratorio, for example, the dramatic narrative supplies the common thread. And the music mirrors the mood of the text.

The question, though, is whether musical drama ought to be more integrated than this. For narrative continuity is not a musical solution to a musical problem. It would be more artistically satisfying if both the text and the music, worked on their own levels, so that the musical setting of a text was equally true to textuality and musicality alike.

Not only is this a musical defect, it is a dramatic defect as well. For t function of the traditional recitative-cum-A-B-A aria was to show off the voice. Certainly, few forms are less plausible, from a dramatic standpoint, than having the action come to a screeching halt as the character launches into a recitative, then shifts gears to an aria with a fast movement, followed by a slow movement, followed by a decorated version of the fast movement.

Of course, musical drama is a highly stylized art form to begin with. As with any art form, there is a willing suspension of belief. But we accept the conventions for their vocal value rather than their dramatic value.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with putting a fine voice on public display. The question, though, is whether one can do greater justice to each component of musical drama.

But Wagner’s questions are better than his answers. He has a reputation for being a great composer, although, as has been said, there were some weighty dissenters--such as Brahms and Debussy.

And there is, indeed, a less charitable construction to put on his music theory. Wagner lacked a facility for melodic invention. To conceal his lack of musical talent, he resorted to certain gimmicks. He begins with a trite tune. To make it sound a little less trite, he casts it in a minor key, with chromatic progressions--a stock-and-trade of Victorian hacks and amateurs. He then has three additional tricks in his bag for padding out his poverty of musical imagination. One is to turn the melody into a leitmotif. This gives him an excuse for recycling the same unpromising material ad nauseum under the guise of thematic unity. In addition, he strings out the material by taking the same melody, and transposing it in semitonal progressions ad nauseum. Finally, he smothers everything in the brown sauce of his orchestral gravy--the musical equivalent of the King Rat.

There is, of course, more to Wagnerian opera than the sound. Jon Vickers once described Tristan & Isolde as an extended allegory and apologia for Wagner’s sex-life. And much of the enduring appeal lies in its vicarious justification for the like-minded listener.

Beyond that is the faux-redemptive motif in Wagnerian opera generally. Redemption is a Christian concept. You don’t find it in Classical literature. Redemption is what converts tragedy to comedy.

In Classical tragedy the protagonist may undergo a rite of passage--but his ordeal, and ensuing enlightenment, does not result in spiritual rebirth or awakening to a greater good, but in a clear-eyed and dry-eyed disillusionment.

In post-Christian art, you have a repudiation of Christian redemption, but man cannot live with despair, and having had a taste of Christian redemption, the post-Christian artist can’t quite limp along without it. A fall from knowledge does not mark a return to unfallen innocence. In its place he either offers an anachronistic version of redemption or some sort of profane substitute.


Mahler is Wagner with taste. But although tasteful padding is better than tasteless padding, it’s padding all the same.

The appeal of Chopin carries a bit more warrant than Wagner, for Chopin is a melodist, and if he only had the craft and the taste to complement his melodic muse, he might be another Schumann. But he is a stillborn composer of Victorian finger-exercises.

Actually, Wagner was not the first composer to try his hand at continuous musical drama. Way back in 1820, Schubert began the composition of Lazarus. It is a highly experiment work, and to my ear, less than successful--which may be why Schubert dropped the project before its completion.

As a composer, Schubert is everything that Wagner is not. I’d suggest that post-Wagnerian opera should go back to Schubert’s abortive work for inspiration. It may turn out to be a cul-de-sac, but it’s a more promising lead than Wagner.

It’s surprising, in a way, that big Baroque music is not more cohesive, for counterpoint is all about repetition with variation. In sacred music, Baroque composers apply this technique to individual movements. But why not extend it to the work as a whole in order to pull the pieces together into a fuller fugal form?

In fact, in one of his cantatas ("Gelobet sei der Herr," BWV 129), Bach does apply the principle of imitation to the whole work. Why not do that with bigger pieces, where the need for a unifying principle is greater?

There is, perhaps, the danger of wearing out the basic melodic material. Still, with composers as resourceful as Bach and Handel, it would be interesting to see if they could rise to the challenge.

Of course, they’re dead and buried. But it suggests another lead for an enterprising contemporary composer.


Among 20C composers, the greatest sacred music was written by Poulenc and Vaughan-Williams. Both are very representative of their respective nationalities.

Poulenc was essential a gifted amateur--composing by ear. A natural melodist, with a dash of monastic austerity, the mood of his music is typically Catholic, straining to catch a glimpse of the Beatific Vision through the veil of tears here-below.

Vaughn-Williams brought more professional know-how to his writing. An agnostic, he was a son of the manse, and there is, in much of his music, the longing of a lost soul--like a return to the ruins of Eden.

His musical line meanders like a tree-lined river in mid-summer. This is not surprising since he was a student of Ravel, although his own idiom is unmistakably English. And it works well enough most of the time, but the style is a little too diffuse to rise to the challenge of Sancta Civitas, where he attempts to scale the Book of Revelation. It would take a Bach or Handel to do justice to that text.

John Rutter, who is in the tradition of Vaughan-Williams and the French school, has written some lovely church music--tasteful and tuneful, but not what you’d call a major music presence. You might call it an elevated form of mood music. It creates a wonderful ambience, but it doesn’t stay with the listener. The impact is immediate and momentary, in the existential present. But the tenuous form doesn’t leave the listener with much to hang on to: succession without duration. He has the lyricism of Vaughan-Williams, but not the dramatic counterweight.

The best pop idiom is jazz, which adds a rhythmic and harmonic dimension to Blue’s inspired melodies. An interesting synthesis of classical and popular music are the jazz adaptations of Bach by Jacques Loussier.


20C church music is not on the same plane as best of the Baroque. Why is that? Was Baroque a better style? Certainly an argument can be made to that effect. As decade succeeds decade, and century succeeds century, the incline rises steadily higher until the gradient is almost sheer.

But another reason is the steady brain-drain in the church. In the Middle Ages, all the intellectual cream went into the church. This wasn’t always to the good, since genius is no substitute for piety. Better a devout dullard than a gifted infidel.

Still, no one with the brainpower of a Bach or Handel is writing sacred music today. Nowadays, that brand of mental horsepower is harnessed to the fortunes of math, physics, medical science, computer science, chess, economics or investment banking. The brain-drain isn’t limited to church music, but to the arts in general.

At the same time, brilliance in the service of unbelief is no improvement. By all accounts, Pierre Boulez is a very bright guy, but what does he have to show for it?

For an illuminating analysis of the relation between modern morality and modern music, cf. E. Michael Jones: Dionysos Rising (Ignatius 1994).

XIII. Hymnody


Charles Hodge once said something to the effect that the hymnal is the layman’s textbook of systematic theology. Although hymns are an expression of worship, they also serve a pedagogical function--popularizing and catechizing the singer.

They reflect different controversies and movements--Nicene orthodoxy, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, the Oxford Movement, the Azusa Revival, &c.

One of the striking features about modern hymnals is their ecumenical character. This is true even for denominations with a very strict confessional identity.

In ancient hymnody, Ambrose and Prudentius are the leading Latin writers. Ambrose was a popularizer of the Greek Fathers. Patristic hymns are orthodox, but rather vague and underdeveloped in soteriology. Also, translations lack the literary distinction of the original.

Luther is the pioneering figure in modern hymnody. And he had a huge influence on the development of German music.

As to the English hymnal, Watts and Wesley are the two top names, with Toplady, Newton, and Cowper taking up the rear. Pantycelyn is their peer, but his energies were largely diverted to the cause of Welsh hymnody.

Calvinism of the Puritan stripe was committed to Exclusive Psalmnody. However, the tunes to the Geneva Psalter were portable.

I’m all for singing the Psalms. A limitation of hymns is their myopic focus on the devotional side of life. They tend to keep out of view the extremes and asperities of religious experience, and, instead, zero in on a spiritual comfort zone. But the Psalms, with their wild mood swings, and attention to the brutal side of life, are a truer expression of and preparation for the walk of faith than a steady diet of hymns.

On the basis of comparative literature (Josephus, LXX, Talmud, Mishnah), Roger Beckwith contends that the celebration of Temple Psalmnody consisted of one appointed Psalm per day in a 7-day cycle commemorating the creation week. Cf. R. Beckwith, Calendar & Chronology (Leiden: Brill 1996), 141-43.

Having said all that, I do not object to hymnody. I prefer a mix of Psalmnody and hymnody, promise and fulfillment. Hymns are an important teaching tool in systematizing the faith and applying it at the level of personal appropriation. They are prayers set to music. They tell the story of redemption, from creation to consummation.

They are, of course, fallible and sectarian, but so are sermons and creeds and catechisms. Someone who lacks the doctrinal discernment to detect error in a hymn will likewise lack the doctrinal discernment to detect error in a sermon, creed, or catechism.

As a rule 16-18C hymns are good, while 19-20C hymns are bad. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions to the degree that a 19-20C hymn follows the model of a 16-18C hymn.

Watts was a maverick, breaking with the tradition of Exclusive Psalmnody. His verses enjoy literary distinction, with fine wording and imagery. The theology is nominally orthodox, with a heavy emphasis on the object of worship (God/Christ) rather than the subject of worship (the singer).

There is a certain emotional distance in his writing. In particular, Christ is an object of affection, but God the Father is an object of awe verging on dread. Once wonders if this was not the seed of his subsequent slide into unitarian apostasy.

In Charles Wesley you have the opposite emphasis. Stress is put on the subject of worship, especially with respect to conversion and sanctification. The tone is fervent. The theology is, of course, militantly Arminian--although Scripture itself uses inclusive as well as exclusive expressions; the dispute between Arminian and Reformed is not over the use of a word like "all," but its intended range of reference.

Wesley subscribes to Nicene Orthodoxy, but combines that with an Evangelical stamp. The imagery is clear, often Scriptural, with a narrative or theological thread.

The theology of Toplady, Newton, and Cowper is sounder, but they haven’t quite the flair for hymnody as Wesley. Newton and Toplady were clergymen--representing the Reformed Anglican tradition--while Cowper was a layman.

Cowper is more talented than Newton, and Newton is more talented than Toplady. Toplady is too abstract, didactic, and polemical. He lacks the knack for turning doctrine into imagery, ideas into metaphors. Newton is warmer and more immediate.

Cowper was a major poet in his own right, and that comes through in the quality of his stanzas. However, they also betray signs of his melancholy madness.

Besides Wesley, the Anglican tradition has also hosted a number of other fine Christian poets, viz., Herbert, Vaughan, Rossetti--representing the high church perspective.


To pick up on an earlier point--in distinguishing between the subject and object of worship in general, we need to draw a further distinction between a teleological object and an intentional object. The referent of worship is the person and work of the Triune God, while the purpose of worship is the edification of the singer.

The best way of relating the two is for the hymnodist to describe what it is about the person and work of the Triune God which makes him worthy of worship. That, in turn, evokes a worshipful mood in the singer.

The best sort of hymn would therefore combine the objective orientation of Watts with the subjective effect of Wesley. The weakness with Watts is not his objective emphasis, but his deficient view of the economic Trinity, which--in turn--undermines his view of the immanental Trinity. To celebrate the goodness and greatness of God, we ought to celebrate the coequal contribution of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the economy of creation and redemption. Calvinism, with its coordinated division of labor--those chosen by the Father are redeemed by the Son and renewed by the Spirit--is especially well-suited to do so.

To worship God is not to sing about how God makes us feel, but to sing about God himself, which, in turn, induces a worshipful feeling.

This applies, as well, to imagery. A good poet doesn’t describe the effect of the imagery, but draws a clear picture for the reader. The image makes itself felt.


Turning to the nuts-and-bolts of hymnody, ragged rhythms can lend musical interest, but they ought to be avoided in hymn-writing. For one thing, they trip up the congregation. For another thing, they are not very vocal, even for a professional singer. This is best left to instrumental writing.

The use of double-dotted rhythm is a gimmick of Victorian hacks to spice up a lethargic hymn-tune.

When John Merbeck "noted" the Book of Common Prayer, he followed a one-word-to-one-note formula. I guess this was an overreaction to the sinuous line of the Gregorian chant.

However, the one-word/one-note formula produces a choppy, marcato cadence. It is also wearing on the voice, because the singer must shift gears everytime to place and support each new note. A little legato goes a long ways.

By and large, it’s is better not to reuse the same tune in setting more than one text. Rather, it is preferable when a Christian associates one text with one tune.

There is a long list of second-rate hymns which have a good message. Although I wouldn’t recommend a steady diet of mediocrity, these are worth singing from time to time. Good taste is not the most important thing in life. No one was every turned away from the Pearly Gates for lack of taste, but Gehenna is over-represented with art critics.

I have in mind such mediocre, but meaningful hymns as "Have thine own way"; "Stand up, stand up for Jesus"; "Take time to be holy"; "Because he lives"; "Great is thy faithfulness"; "I know whom I have believed"; "Is it well with my soul"; "Jesus, keep me near the cross"; "Leaning on the everlasting arms"; "My hope is built"; "Blessed assurance"; "Sweet hour of prayer"; "Standing on the promises"; "Take my life and let it be"; "Trust and obey"; "When we all get to heaven"; "What a friend we have in Jesus"; "Onward Christian soldiers."


One issue with traditional hymns is whether we ought to update the quaint language. This raises a number of considerations. On the one hand, Christians should to be sufficiently literate that they can read something written before the beat generation. In addition, it can be difficult to revise the language without messing up the rhyme.

On the other hand, worship is not like going to see a period play. When the language of worship comes to be too far removed from the vernacular tongue, the act of worship becomes an exercise in play-acting, where a Christian is impersonating the role of a worshiper, intoning a script like a part in a play. This is a recipe for dead formalism.

In addition, when verse is set to music, one doesn’t take much notice of the rhyming couplets. Also, the difference between American and British pronunciation already throws some of the rhyming schemes out of whack. For that matter, the rhyming couplet was always a ball-and-chain around the ankle of poetic imagination--which is why our greatest bards sawed it off long ago.

In sum, there is no perfect solution. I think it’s acceptable to leave the hymns as is, but it would probably be better to update them.


Another practical as well as aesthetic question is the choice between a quality tune and a singable tune. For example, there are three traditional settings for "All hail the power." All three are fairly good hymn-tunes. The most singable is "Coronation." However, this tune is a bit square. Rather less singable, but better music is "Miles’ Lane." And the least singable, but best setting is "Diadem."

Likewise, "And can it be?" has a rather angular and wide-ranging line--more instrumental than vocal. Still, it’s a fine piece of music and captures the mood.

In exceptional cases such as these, I think the best compromise is to go with music that does justice to the text. Most of it lies within the range of the congregation, and if they miss a high note or a low note, they still get into the spirit of the occasion--and that, after all, is no small part of worship.


Owing, in no small part, to the allegorical interpretation of Canticles, there is a tradition in Christian hymnody of casting Jesus Christ in the role of a suitor or knightly figure, and the Christian in the role of his beloved.

But while, at an allegorical level, it may be appropriate for a female worshiper to assume this perspective, it is improper for a male worshiper to play the imaginary role of a woman, and cast his Lord in the part of the love interest.

There are proper models of same-sex affection, such as the father/son relation, or brotherly love.

At a higher level of abstraction, the bride/bridegroom metaphor is still suitable for men inasmuch as Jesus is the head of the man, just as the man is the head of the women. So there is a principle of submission common to both in relation to Christ. That, of course, is also captured in the father/son relation.


In discussing hymnody, we cannot avoid the vexed question of Christian choruses. It is easy to poke fun at banal examples like "Kumbaya," Come into his presence," "He has made me glad," "Oh how he loves you and me," or "His name is wonderful." But these are no worse that some very popular hymns like "The old rugged cross," or "How great thou art."

Some choruses lie quite well for the voice, viz., "Be Exalted," "Awesome God," "You are my hiding place," "Turn your eyes upon Jesus," "Oh Lord, you’re beautiful."

Others, however, are not seeker-sensitive in terms of their vocal demands. Among the fast songs, "How Majestic is your name," has a fairly good tune, but the melody is more angular and instrumental than vocal, which makes it a bit of a scramble to get all the words in. "Shine, Jesus, shine" has a pretty good tune, too, but it lies outside the range of an untrained voice.

Among the slow songs, "Glorify thy name," is either too high or too low. "I love you Lord" dips down to a low A, leaving most singers gasping for breath. In "Seek ye first the kingdom of God," there is a miss-match between the verbal and musical prosody.

Some Christian choruses suffer from pretensions to grandeur. "Majesty" is a pompous song without the melodic or poetic distinction to deliver the goods.

"The trees of the field" has a jagged cadence which makes it a bit tricky to keep up with. Yet it’s a rather interesting piece of music, and captures the mood of the text.

One of the ironies in this debate is that some Christian choruses are a throwback to Exclusive Psalmnody. In their direct setting of a Scripture text, they are more traditional, more "Puritan" if you will, than many traditional hymns. In addition, some Christian choruses even revert to the usage of quaint, King Jamesian language!

I’ve read that Christian choruses are already old hat, and the latest fad is the "Praise Team." Recently, as I was channel surfing, I ran across a "gospel" singer with a woman’s name--Carmen. He was duded up like a fading gigolo, crooned about as well as Sinatra at 80, and frequented the same tanning salon as George Hamilton. Behind him were junior gigolos prancing around on stage. The music, if you can call it that, was rendered in soft-rock idiom.

In what is politely called gospel music, the average delivery, in which a woman of roughly spherical proportions pushes the chest voice high up into the nasal cavities, is less bel canto than hellcatty--like a tabby with its tail caught in the door-jam. Sanctified caterwauling seems to be the feline counterpart to holy barking. In such a setting, a minor investment in a good pair of earplugs will repay rich dividends.

I suppose the purported justification for this sort of spectacle would be appeal to the Pauline hyperbole about being all things to all men. There is, however, an eternity of difference between the church in the world and the world in the church.

If there is one thing that worldlings have a keen eye for, it would be worldliness. They can spot it a mile away. They know it when they see it in church, because they know their own.

The effect of this is not to win the world, but to secularize the church. Paradoxical as it may seem, holiness is a drawing-card to sinners. Not all sinners, but sin-sick sinners. They despise sanctimonious airs, but authentic sanctity they sense and they respect.

The bridge between the church and the world is holiness. Again, that might seem to be counterintuitive. Isn’t it sin which separates us from a holy God? Yes, yet I’m not talking about the holiness of God, but the sanctity of the saints. For human holiness is synonymous with humility. It is the antonym of self-righteousness, for human holiness is the gift of grace. Because the Christian is simul justus et peccator, he can reach out to the lost with one hand, and point him heavenward with the other.

Music: sacred & profane-4

X. Period performance

In the last several years, a number of orchestras were founded in an effort to reproduce the original conditions under which a given piece of music was first heard. Up to a point, there is something to be said for this. It can obviously distort the Classical or Baroque composer’s intent if you use voices and instruments on scale or with a timbre adapted to the demands of Wagner or Rachmaninov.

At the same time, it’s possible to be less faithful to the composer’s intent by trying to restore the original working conditions. For composers were frequently frustrated and hampered by the circumstances under which they had to perform their music. In some cases they would write less ambitious music, in other cases they would write whatever they wanted, whether or not the forces at their disposal were up to the task. They would compose for the ideal ensemble.

Not only were composers apt to push the limits of traditional vocalism, they were also apt to push the limits of traditional instrumentalism. They often took an avid interest in technological advances. They wanted singers and musicians to stretch themselves.

Honestly, we just don’t know what Bach or Handel would have made of a modern orchestra, or concert grand, or Franco Corelli, or Kirsten Flagstad. Would they like to hear their music performed by modern singers and musicians? Or would they write a different kind of music altogether?

Another consideration is that a big ensemble has a greater dynamic range that a small ensemble. By this I don’t mean the obvious point that a big ensemble can make a bigger sound. Rather, I mean the reverse. A bigger ensemble (chorus and/or orchestra) can scale down more effectively. It can produce a soft, capacious tone--whereas a small ensemble lacks the full-bodied amplitude to begin with to reduce the decibel level while preserving a well-rounded sound. A small ensemble simply thins out.

It is also a problem for longer works, because the wiry timbre becomes wearing on the ear after prolonged exposure. In addition, the timbre of a period string-player bears a startling resemblance to hillbilly fiddler on a hacksaw!

Music is sound. Period purists act as though you listen to music for the same reason you go the dentist--something you do, not because it’s a pleasant experience, but because it’s good for you.

XI. Inspired paradigms


In the OT we find a divinely instituted order of worship. What bearing this has on Christian worship is a matter of some contention. The Puritan strain of the Reformed tradition draws a dispensational line between OT worship and NT worship--treating OT worship as purely typical. But there are problems with this position:

i) Calvin himself took a more flexible position. Cf. Douglas Kelly, "The Puritan Regulative Principle and Contemporary Worship," The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, L. Duncan, ed. (Mentor/CFP 2004), 2:63-98.

ii) According to the RPW, whatever is not prescribed is proscribed. The chief prooftext is the Second Commandment. However, the form of the Second Commandment is proscriptive rather than prescription. Hence, the RPW seems to be underdetermined by its primary prooftext. Rather, it’s a prooftext for the Anglo-Lutheran rule of worship--whatever is not forbidden is permitted.

Supporting verses (Num 16; 20; 1 Sam 13; 1 Chron 15:13) adduced to corroborate or illustrate the primary prooftext suffer from the same equivocation of terms, for in each case the infraction in view involves the transgression of an explicit prescription or proscription.

iii) There is, indeed, something inherently contradictory about invoking OT law (the Second Commandment) to forbid OT praxis (the Temple worship).

iv) There is also something self-contradictory about those who insist on exclusive a cappella Psalmnody. They sing what the Psalms say, but they don’t to do what the Psalms say. It is hard to see how this hairsplitting honors the imperative of Scripture. How, in good conscience, can you sing a psalm like Ps 150, which enjoins the singer to praise God with a wide variety of instruments, when you yourself refuse to worship God by any such means? The incongruity is palpable. Is this obedience, or disobedience, to the word of God?

v) Even if we uphold the RPW, this is just an abstract rule-of-thumb. To say "that" whatever is not prescribed is proscribed does not, in fact, say "what" is prescribed or proscribed. That is a question of covenant theology. There’s a risk of invoking the RPW as an exegetical short-cut.

vi) It takes a lot of straining to say that everything associated with the Temple worship was merely typical. How is a choir or orchestra exclusively, primarily, or even apparently typical?

vii) In terms of imagery, there’s a lot of carryover from the OT temple worship to the Book of Revelation. Admittedly, the Apocalypse is highly symbolic; nevertheless, it is symbolic of the New Covenant. Moreover, the apocalyptic scenes of heavenly worship are not a literary construct, like Heb 12, but genuine visions.

viii) John Frame has also said that even if we uphold the elemental/circumstantial distinction, it is misapplied to music, for music is not a constitutive element of worship, but an artistic medium or mode of worship. Hence, to classify it as an "element" commits a category mistake.

In order to deflect the force of OT precedent, Dabney must say that "the church is now not a nation, but a purely spiritual kingdom, which is not of this world," Discussions (Spinkle 1999) 5:325. That would make more sense from the lips of an Anabaptist, but when a covenant theologian must resort to such maneuver, he is allowing his hostility to pipe organs to trump Reformed hermeneutics. This is like poisoning the reservoir to disinfect the water supply. Yes, you kill the bacteria--along with every man, woman, and child.

The point is not that we are bound by inspired precedent to reproduce every detail of OT worship. Clearly a good deal of OT worship was typical. But what was right under the OT doesn’t automatically become wrong under the NT. Remember that the Apostles continued to frequent the Temple. What was once prescribed is at least permissible.


At this distance, our knowledge of OT music is naturally limited. But on the basis of Scriptural references (e.g., 1 Chron 15; 23; 25; 28; 2 Chron 5; Ezra 2-3; Neh 12; Ps 13; 20; 38; 118; 136; 149; 150) and comparative musicology (e.g. the Yemenite tradition/Gregorian chant), some things can be said about the character of sacred OT music:

i) Professional. It was composed and performed by a guild of trained musicians (e.g. 1 Chron 25). This implies a couple of things:
a) God values professional standards of excellence. Theology and axiology ought not be opposed.
b) Musical expertise is acquired rather than innate.

ii) Traditional. The guild was dynastic. For example, the "sons of Asaph" constituted a liturgical dynasty that stretches from the Davidic monarchy to the Restoration (1 Chron 25; 2 Chron 20:14; 35:15; Ezra 3:10; Neh 11:17,22; 12:25). This spans a period of about 500 years. In the nature of the case, that would invite the development of a musical tradition in which later composers built on the legacy of their forebears, much like the Bach clan.

iii) Vocal: The Psalter consists of lyric poetry.

iv) Instrumental. OT Temple music employed strings, winds and percussion instruments. This is significant in a couple of respects:
a) If the music was nonmetrical, then the function of the orchestra was not to synchronize the singing.
b) This is obvious from another angle, for the Psalms refer to a wide variety instruments (e.g., Ps 150). Yet you hardly need a number of different instruments to lead choral or congregational singing.

So it seems fairly obvious that the variety of instruments in OT worship served the same function as a modern orchestra. Each type of instrument has a distinctive timbre which, in turn, simulates a different mood or mimics a different natural phenomenon. Although the precise identification of some OT instruments is obscure, yet in general they correspond to strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments.

Hence, instrumental music must have enjoyed a certain independent value--in particular, an affective and aesthetic value.

Since traditional church music is metrical, there is certainly nothing wrong with using an organ to keep the choir or the congregation singing in time and tune. But its justification is not restricted to that utilitarian role.

v) Godward. It exalted the acts and attributes of God. This emphasis runs the length and breadth of the Psalter.

vi) Rational. In a couple of respects, OT music appealed to the mind:
a) OT music was, in part at least, a conscious craft. It wasn’t accidental music (a la Cage, Stockhausen), or strictly spontaneous music.
b) In addition, it set words to music. The words had propositional content.

v) Affective. In a couple of respects, OT music appealed to the emotions:
a) As indicated under (ii), the use of instruments must have been intended to evoke an emotive response in the listener.
b) The imagery and sentiments of the Psalms are often passionate in character.

vi) Edifying. Many of the Psalms take the form of prayers, and, by definition, prayer, both in act and answer, is intended to edify the worshiper. And even apart from vocal music, instrumental music was also valued for its mood-altering effects (1 Sam 16:14-23; 2 Kgs 3:15).

vii) Multimedia. Temple worship appealed to the eyes (vestments, architecture), ears (music), nose (incense), heart and mind (text).

For a fine introduction to the subject, see the article on "Music" in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 4:311-24.


Turning to NT music, we can say that following:

i) Traditional. The scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation are patterned on the OT Temple worship. Yet Revelation, however, symbolic, symbolizes the worship of the Church Triumphant. So there is continuity between OT and NT forms of worship inasmuch as the latter builds on the foundation of the former.

ii) Vocal. NT hymnody was vocal music (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Rev 5:9; 14:3; 15:3). The NT doesn’t mention instrument accompaniment in connection with sacred music. This omission isn’t prejudicial to its propriety. Unlike the OT theocracy, which was a religious state, the NT church consisted of informal little house-churches. And the legal status of the nascent faith was unsettled.

iii) Godward. NT hymnody is theocentric and Christocentric in subject-matter (Eph 5:19-20; Col 3:16).

iv) Rational. According to Paul, Christian music should have an intellectual appeal (1 Cor 14:15). So we should avoid musical modes of expression that bypass the mind. Raw repetition, whether in fast or slow music, has this numbing effect. So does very freeform music.

v) Edifying. In this same chapter, Paul accentuates the importance of personal edification. So it matters what affect music and other elements of worship are having on the worshiper.

It is easy for folks, especially in the Reformed tradition, to be suckered by a bogus theocentrism, to say that worship is about God, not about the worshiper. They make the act of worship seem merely effortful and dutiful act of the will.

This may sound pretty pious, but it amounts false piety, for from a truly Reformed perspective, God commands our worship, not because he needs it, but because we need it. To be a creature is to be needy, to be dependent on God for all things. Worship is a humble and thankful acknowledgement of our finitude and fallenness in relation to God’s greatness and goodness.

How worship makes the worshiper feel does matter, for it matters how we feel about God. To offer up a cold-hearted song of praise is not an act of gratitude, but hypocrisy--going through the motion, keeping up appearances. Nothing could be more alien to the Psalter, which is a passionate, God-intoxicated, soul-bearing book.

We need to distinguish the objective of worship, which is the edification of the worshiper, from the object of worship, which is the Trinity. It is important to do justice to both the horizontal and vertical axes of worship. In their reaction to "entertainment-oriented" worship-styles, some Christian critics slight the subjective impact of music as if that consideration were unscriptural or unspiritual.

XII. Traditional paradigms


The music of Bach exhibits the greatest architectonic finesse of any composer. At one level, Bach is a more linear composer than Handel inasmuch as Bach has one or more melodies which carry through an entire piece or movement, whereas Handel is more segmented, alternating between one melody and another. At another level, Bach is vertical as well as horizontal in his polyphonic stacking of the melodic materials.

His tunes are ordinarily more angular, and his rhythms more recurvacious, than the symmetrical style of Handel, with his elegant sense of balance.

If I were banished to a desert island, with only one composer to keep me company, it would be Bach. I would take the precaution of having a well-equipped desert island, with a solar-powered CD player and waterproof cassette case!

Bach made a famous pilgrimage to see Buxtehude. The older composer writes in shorter musical units--a more impromptu style, with sudden mood swings from one movement to another. Some of his organ chorale preludes capture a private, prayerful state of mind--like a chapel of the soul.

Pachelbel also wrote some fine organ music, but not on quite the same plane as the best of Buxtehude--much less of Bach. Telemann is another lovely melodist--which is one reason he could write so much so fast.

Vivaldi’s music is often rather birdlike. This onomatopoetic facility is on broader display in his over-performed Four Seasons. Vivaldi is best known for his fast movements, but his slow movements are just as fine.

The main difference between Handelian opera and oratorio is the greatly augmented role of the chorus in oratorio. Handel was equally the master of solo and ensemble writing. However, his operatic arias are, on balance, a cut above the arias written for his oratorios. The compensation comes with the unrivaled choral writing. And Handel, in his setting of the plagues of Egypt, as well as some of the Chandos anthems, also tries to create a musical analogue of meteorology.


These are the three leading composers of the Baroque era. They are all unmistakable Baroque, and yet are all unmistakably distinctive. This implies that the Baroque style was not exhausted when composers like C.P.E. Bach transitioned to the Classical era.

There is such a thing as a Baroque style, just as there is such a thing as a Classical style, whereas it’s harder to isolate a Romantic style. You have the loss of a musical lingua franca, with the result that the composers of genius each invent an idiosyncratic style, which is not reducible to a musical school with recognizable proteges. This fragmentation carries into the 20C as well.

A solid generic style can give a composer of limited means the guidance he needs to write decent music. There are a number of fine minor Baroque composers. They are eminently listenable because the style saves them from their natural limitations.

Likewise, Rachmaninov normally ground out fancy finger-exercises under the guise of real music, but when he turned to composing sacred music, the traditional idiom enabled and constrained him to write some really nice music for a change.

Composers are experimental. They like to try something new. That’s fine if it works. But scaffolding is no substitute for a Gothic cathedral.


The top names in the Classical period are Mozart and Haydn. In my opinion, Mozart is somewhat overrated while Haydn is somewhat underrated. Mozart’s genius is obvious: instant melodic invention, achingly beautiful tunes, a natural feel for the voice, facile mastery of all musical forms, dramatic sympathy with his operatic characters, a virtuoso’s touch with keyboard music.

But all this facility comes at a cost. There’s a somewhat formulaic quality to his writing. You always know which note is coming next. The gossamer thin transparency of his musical texture is both a plus and a minus--like a Nordic ice-queen who is beautiful to behold, but cool to the touch.

Haydn, lacking quite the same effortless ease, had to work harder at his craft, and as a consequence his music is rather more daring and substantial.

The Classical era made some advances in the variety of musical forms, but the style is less flexible than the Baroque, and in that respect, signals step backward rather than forward.


Music of the Romantic era is highly eclectic and uneven. In my opinion, there is no first-rate Italian music from this period. Rossini had a lot of facility, but a lack of taste and earnestness. Verdi was a more serious composer, and his music is very singable, but you have only to compare it to the Italian Baroque to see the loss of good taste. Still, there’s some interesting music in his Requiem, as well as Otello. A Puccini aria is just an extension of Puccini recitative. Most of his vocal writing is recitatival--a throwback to plainsong.

French music from this period is very hit-and-miss, with a lot of hackwork. However, it is with Berlioz that French music begins to find its own voice. French Baroque and Classical music were dehydrated versions of German and Italian exemplars.

When Berlioz tries to write in big forms, the result is a lot of empty bombast. But in more intimate music, such as his great song cycle (Les Nuits d’été), he becomes the forefather of Impressionism.

An exquisite transitional figure is Faure, who unites neoclassical form with a romantic-cum-impressionist affect. Faure’s expressive range is fairly limited, given his lyrical disposition, but flawless within its narrow range--especially in small forms: art songs, chamber music, piano sonatas, and his incandescent Requiem.

German music from this period is also very hit-and-miss, with a lot of boilerplate. But in Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann on a good day, you again have the greatest music since the German Baroque.

Beethoven is the most fiery of the five, which makes it easy to forget that he is a composer of great intimacy and delicacy as well.

There is a certain pattern to many of his compositions. You have a stormy first movement, followed by a transitional second movement, which represents a reflective rite of passage, followed by a triumphant third movement.

The third movement is illustrative of his indomitable optimism, projecting the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. We have clearly shifted from the theocentric gravity of Bach to the androcentric gravity of the Romantic era in general--not merely in music, but in art and literature as well.

To turn Beethoven into the Apostle and prophet of humanism is, though, something of an overstatement. He considered the Missa Solemnis to be his finest work.

Mendelssohn is just the opposite. Few composers are more complete than Mendelssohn in his tool-kit of innate taste, melodic invention, and consummate craftsmanship. He has certain limitations. His melodies are not as consistently memorable as Schubert’s. And his temperament is more lyrical than dramatic.

Mendelssohn was a Messianic Jew, deeply indebted to Lutheran music, and some of his music is not merely Christian, but a pioneering exercise in musical apologetics.

You can see this in his oratorio trilogy: St. Paul, Elijah, and Christ. St. Paul was Judaism’s most influential convert to the Christian faith, while Elijah was the forerunner to Christ. In this way, Mendelssohn shows that Christ is the fulfillment of OT promise, and its fulfillment receives confirmation in the witness of St. Paul.

You can see that same strategy at work, not only between, but within, the oratorios. In his fragmentary Christus, unfinished at his death, his famous chorus "Es wird ein Stern aus Jacob," begins with a setting of classic Messianic prooftext from the OT (Num 24:7), then transitions to an arrangement of an old Lutheran hymn, based on the stellar iconography of Christ in the Apocalypse (Rev 22:16), thereby rounding out the stellar motif.

Mendelssohn died in his thirties, and there is, in much of his religious music, a rarefied serenity that I’ve not encountered in any composer--not even in Bach. This heavenly-minded mood sounds the note of a musical premonition.

A neglected composer who moves in much the same musical groove is Samuel Sebastian Wesley, grandson of the John Wesley. A Christian composer, his musical output, while limited, is high quality, and worthy of revival.

Schubert was the most gifted composer since Mozart. He lacks the self-conscious craftsmanship of some composers. For him, that hardly matters since Schubert basically picked it up by ear, being imbued in a musical tradition. Unlike Bach, he is not a composer’s composer. You can’t learn the craft from Schubert because his musical art is too unmediated.


Brahms, by contrast, was another master of the craft. Indeed, Brahms was an amateur musicologist. A creative artist, to be successful, must learn to strike a balance between subconscious inspiration and conscious craftsmanship.

The tendency of the young artist is to be more inspired, but less finished--of the older artist to be more finished, but less inspired. The danger with Brahms is having the conscious art overwhelm subliminal spontaneity. And that sometimes happens.

However, Brahms was a severe critic of his own work. He almost always writes high quality music, but there are times when it comes across as a bit pedantic or overwritten. Yet, at other times, the craftsmanship is sufficiently sublimated that the music seems to write itself. Everything falls into place--like leaves turning during an Indian summer’s day.

Rules restrict creative freedom, but without some such restriction, the freedom to do anything is the freedom to do nothing, for infinite possibilities in every direction offer the creative artist no particular place to begin, or guidance in where to take a creative idea.

When the rules are good rules, when the rules formalize the natural order, and when inspiration falls into the groove, then the creative process unfolds with an irresistible, inevitable and flawless inner logic.


Romantic music does more with timber than Baroque music--exploiting to a greater degree the distinctive timbre of each instrument, in solo or ensemble.

One of the glories of Bach is that you can transcribe his music from one instrument to another, and it will still sound terrific. Therein lies the power of abstract structure.

You could never do this with Brahms or Debussy. To that degree, Romantic music marks an advance of Baroque music inasmuch as it cultivates a potential which was not as fully realized in Baroque music.

This is a difference of degree rather than kind. Bach does wonderful things with flute, trumpet, and oboe. He, too, has an ear for timbre.

And this is not to say that one emphasis is better than the other. For here we are faced with a creative dialectical tension or trade-off between the abstract universal and the concrete particular.

Take Pelleas et Mellisande. This is a perfect work of its kind. Ironically, it takes immense concentration to compose in this apparently asymmetrical style. The story is set in a forest, and the style exactly matches the atmospheric mood of a forest. This is another example of music’s mimetic facility.

The score itself is lovely, yet there’s a sense in which you could drop the needle anywhere without knowing where you in the progress of the opera. One is tempted to say that you could perform the score in reverse and have the same effect.

And, in a way, this omnidirectional quality also fits in with the timeless setting of a fairy-tale. For a fairy-tale, unlike a historical novel, exists nowhere in particular, and can therefore exist anywhere the imagination takes it.

Music: sacred & profane-3

But this placement comes at a cost. To sing so comfortably above staff, you tend to bottom out below the staff. You can sing the higher roles, but not the heavier roles. And the middle voice may be rather less centered or settled.

Each ages about as well as the other. Which one prefers is a matter of taste. As a rule, I think that the top-down approach is rather more suitable to the range and coloration of a true soprano. It doesn’t sound like a mezzo on a mountain hike. But the choice depends in part on natural endowment. And we get something from each which we don’t get from the other. The bottom-up approach satisfies a certain sensuous craving, like a four-course meal.

Incidentally, it is often said that bigger voices are harder to record than smaller voices. That isn’t true. The problem is that recording engineers have a tin ear. They are not into tonality, but technology, electronics rather than acoustics. In addition, most conductors are musicians instead of singers, so they are just as tone deaf to the demands of vocal reproduction.

The way to record a big voice is put the singer in a fairly reverberant space, and position the microphone far enough away to catch the full resonance of the voice. This is why live recordings are often superior to studio recordings. In the usual studio recording, the voice is boxy, but the orchestra has a lot of depth because the conductor is less attuned to vocalism than instrumentalism. For him, the voice is just another instrument, to be woven into the whole.

A soprano with a pure head tone has a tinny, girlish or boyish sounding voice. German and English sopranos incline in this direction. Conversely, a woman with a raw chest voice makes a mannish, raucous sound.

What is true of female voices is true, to a lesser degree, of male voices. Pavarotti has a higher placement than Domingo. The production is sunny, resonant, and free, but not as rich as the baritonal lining on Domingo’s instrument, which can also take on heavier parts. Caruso, Domingo, and Melchior are all classic bottom-up voices.

This is also a matter of taste. For some listeners, the ideal tenor sound is a timbre which has no residual trace of baritonal coloring. It doesn’t range along the same continuum as the bass or the baritone. For this ear, a Gigli or Bjorling is optimal.

But for another pair of ears, too much head-tone makes the male voice take on a somewhat androgynous or effeminate quality. Lauri-Volpi used to say that Gigli sang like a girl! There is no doubt an element of professional rivalry in that barb. Nevertheless, which one would you rather have as your tail-gunner?

The Italian tenor is the star of the operatic constellation. He appeals to men and women alike, but for unlike reasons. Men see themselves in the role of the lover, while women see themselves in the role the belovéd. I also suspect that men are more likely to identify with a dramatic tenor, and women with a lyric tenor.

Moving further down the scale, Warren has a higher placement than Merrill. Indeed, some suspect that Warren was a lazy tenor, living in safety. This makes for wonderful clear and easy top notes, but the timbre is not as warm and round or well-centered when he comes down from the clouds.

Likewise, Ghiaurov has a higher placement than Talvela, Kipnis or Kurt Moll. This makes for spacious high notes with thin low notes, whereas the equation is rather the reverse in the case of Moll and Talvela. They have punchy high notes, but not the same amplitude. There’s a difference between a loud sound and a voluminous sound.


There are exceptions to the above. Nilsson had a high heavy voice. This also raises the vexed question of the relation between tongue, technique, and vocal range. Was it a matter of her vocal endowment, vocal technique, Finnish language, or some combination thereof? Hard to say since she’s the only Finnish singer of her kind.

On a related note, many singers use the same technique in every role. This is especially the case for German and Italian singers, for they can make a career of singing exclusively in their national repertory.

Some singers vary their technique. I classified Milanov as a bottom-up soprano. But she also had a way of singing soft, high-lying phrases by detaching the head register, thereby allowing the downward weight of the chest register to drop out of sight, leaving a sustained pianissimo which seemed to be suspended in thin air.

Caballe is another singer famous for her pianissimi. Sutherland has said that she can do the same thing, but when she tries, it’s hard for her to get her full voice back. So this, again, illustrates the tradeoff between one method and another.

Corelli used just enough laryngeal manipulation to produce a very big, full sound, but he kept the larynx sufficiently free that, unlike del Monaco, who always sang with a low larynx, Corelli also had easy high notes and a lot of dynamic variation--even a high pianissimo.


The two key components of vocal technique are placement and breathing. The right way to breathe is less a matter of what to do, than what not to do. Inhalation requires no muscular effort, for the vacuum left by exhalation is automatically replenished by the spontaneous equalization of the deflated lungs with external air pressure.

Certain postures and clothing styles which inhibit abdominal breathing as well as the natural expansion of the rib cage and chest cavity are to be avoided. On the other hand, a tense, rigid military posture should also be avoided. The classic hip-lock stance, with an easy upright posture, is conducive to deep breathing. Unless a man makes his living as a drag-queen, I would strongly advise him against wearing a corset!

Jerome Hines has made the unusual suggestion that a singer not take an extra breath before he begins to vocalize. According to Hines, we don’t take a breath before we speak, and singing emits less air than speaking. On his theory, you breathe deeply by not taking a deep breath. For when you spontaneously exhale, you automatically lower the diaphragm. Since Hines sang his last role at the tender age of 77, see if his technique works for you.

In some churches, you sit, rather than stand, to sing. But standing is better for support.

In some trendy, "seeker-sensitive" churches, there are no printed hymnals, the music being projected onto a screen. This forces the singer to cock his head, stretching the neck muscles and tensing the throat. Except for the occasional high note, you’ll never see an opera singer cock his head back.

Of course, the music as such a church is ordinarily so abysmal, consisting of lullabies and patter songs, that a real voice would embarrass and overwhelm the materials. In this situation, it is probably best to mimic the delivery of a superannuated pop star who talks his way through the number with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other.


Singers are often criticized for their mushy diction. This takes two forms: slurring consonants and distorting vowels. Now, some singers take this to an unnecessary extreme. There is, however, a reason for this, and music critics or choir conductors who obsess over elocution misconceive the medium. It would profit the average "music minister" to become a vocal coach as well as a musician.

Now, although singing is an extension of speech, it is not the same thing as speech. The phonetics of speech are not adapted to vocalism. Just as an athlete will modify the way he moves or breathes, a singer will modify his speech patterns to produce, project, and sustain a singing tone. What works for John Gielgud won’t work for Joan Sutherland!

In particular, singers tend to broaden narrow vowels on high notes. For example, men will sing a long "e" as a short "i," or even shade it towards an "ay" sound, while women will sing a long "e" as an "ah."

Likewise, many singers will sacrifice distinct consonants for the sake of legato. There is more to this than bel canto. It is less of a strain on the vocal chords to sing legato than marcato.

Lieder singers make a virtue of necessity. Because they lack the vocal endowment to make it in grand opera, they work on idiomatic pronunciation and other expressive refinements. For their part, aging singers exaggerate the consonants to conceal their inability to sustain the vowels.


Some singers age better than others. This is partly a question of solid technique as well as resisting the temptation to sing parts that are too high or heavy for the voice.

Singers tend to learn their vocal technique by ear. It is not uncommon for young singers to rely on their natural endowment and direct auditory feedback. This can lead to a vocal crisis later on. By the time they learn how to consciously or properly produce their instrument, the baby-fat is off the voice.

A singer’s instrument is also more vulnerable to a personal or emotional or medical crisis than a pianist or violinist. The singer is his own medium. This can also precipitate a vocal crisis.

In a way, there is no such thing as vocal technique, in the sense of a uniform set of rules that can be instilled to yield reliable results. Many great singers become voice teachers when they retire, but very few of their students become great singers. So it’s not something that can be passed on.

Like any athletic endeavor, two men may have the same basic physical equipment, but one in more intuitively in touch with his body than the other. He has a better sense of balance. He can process the signals his body is sending him. Likewise, some great singers are less technically self-aware than others, which may be one reason they make poor teachers.

For some reason, most great singers are, to put it politely, overweight. Indeed, that’s often an understatement. You might think this would create problems for breathing and support, but it doesn’t seem to have that effect--not, at least, until the drag-factor of age begins to exact its revenge.

Yet it can be a problem when the libretto calls on the tenor to pick up the soprano and bear her away in his loving arms as the curtain falls. One soprano was said to be so obese that it took two separate trips to carry her off the stage!

To some extent, vocal preservation may be an illusion. The standard repertory rarely takes a soprano above high C. Yet a number of sopranos, at least in their prime, can singer higher than that, which leaves them with a margin to spare as gravity begins to transpose the range. Although they may lose a high note or two, the repertory still lies within their remaining range. In fact, for a time they may sound even better, for they can still hit the high notes, but the voice is fuller in their forties than it was in their twenties.

There is a popular notion that high voices age less well than low voices. But the recording medium doesn’t bear that out. It is true that the aging process is apt to reduce the upper extension, but this applies to low voices as well as high voices. Each category has a natural range. For a bass, a top F is the equivalent of a top C for a tenor or soprano. And it is not uncommon for the aging process to nibble away at both ends.

Top-down voices hang onto their high notes, but lose the middle voice and lower register while bottom-up voices keep--or even augment--the low-to-mid-range, but lose the high notes. Likewise, bottom-up voices are likely to remain firmer for longer, while top-down voices become unsteady in the middle voice, keeping the head voice intact, but coming apart at the break.

At the same time, the tenor or soprano line is more exposed for a high voice than a low voice. So any diminution is more conspicuous.

IX. Vocal writing


Some composers are better at writing for voice, others at absolute music. The short list of great vocal composers must number Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and Schubert--among others. The short list of great instrumental composers must number Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms--among others.

In my opinion, Bach is the greatest instrumental composer, and greatest composer in general, while Handel is the greatest vocal composer, and Mozart is the greatest operatic composer.

This is a difference of degree. One mark of a great composer is that he will excel in vocal and instrumental music alike. And although it’s quite possible to write fine vocal music without instrumentation, and fine instrumental music without vocalization, I would say that a cappella choral music has more to lose from the absence of instrumentalism than instrumental music from the absence of vocalization.

There is, indeed, a certain creative tension between a vocal and an instrumental bias. As I said before, playing a piano scoring of vocal music is a good test of vocal music qua music. I think it not incidental that Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn were all keyboard virtuosi. Schubert is something of an exception to the rule, but if you have enough raw talent you can write your own ticket.

Beethoven has a reputation for cruel vocal writing. Actually, Beethoven can write well for the voice when he wants to, but for Beethoven, the musical idea is ordinarily in the ascendant.

The same is true with respect to Bach. For Bach, the abstract structure is paramount. If you listen to the average Bach aria, it’s very beautiful, but if you separate out the vocal line from the accompaniment, the vocal line is often rather jerky and nondescript. The real beauty and distinction lies in the matchless accompaniment. That is what fires his imagination. Indeed, it is something of a misnomer to call it the "accompaniment."

For Handel, it’s rather the reverse. He has a natural feel for the human voice. But his purely instrumental writing is often less distinguished--almost workaday fare. For example, his overtures, written in the Italian style, are tasteful and eminently listenable, but not on the same plane as Corelli or Albinoni. You get a sense that Handel is going through the motions.

Handel wrote some very fine organ concerti, but that’s because he was a keyboard virtuoso, so that particular form engages his musical imagination in a way that orchestral writing does not. His concerti grossi are impressive because they’re meant to impress. Composers like to write in every form, just to prove that they can do it--not because they’re equally good in every form.

What gets Handel really fired up is a good libretto. He needs that to get his creative juices flowing. In this he differs from Bach and Schubert alike. Schubert could set a shopping list to music. So could Bach. But for Handel, dramatic imagination inspires musical imagination.

It’s not that the words are unimportant to Bach. But it’s more a case of bringing his musical art to bear on the text, rather than the text inspiring his musical art.

In rating their vocal music, I’d say that Handel composes greater vocal music qua "vocal" music, but Bach writes greater vocal music qua vocal "music." Bach approaches the task of vocal writing with an instrumental ear, but the supremacy of his musical genius makes for a greater overall effect.


Is there an ideal vocal style? This question raises yet another question: does a composer adapt himself to the voice, or the voice to the composer?

Whatever the style, you can find some singers who are up to the demands of the music. Handel requires florid facility for all vocal ranges. Some modern-day singers have it, others not. In general, his music requires no great range or power--unless he’s writing for an exceptional singer like Montagnana.

Some Mozartian roles make great demands on the singer’s range. Again, some singers have the requisite range, others not. A few of his roles have demanding scale-work, but this is less common in Mozart than Handel or Vivaldi. And you don’t need a big voice to sing Mozart.

The vocal range of Wagner is somewhat beyond Handel, but not by much. Obviously, Wagner is not a fan of florid music. What his music requires is sheer vocal volume to compete with the orchestra. Melchior, Flagstad, and Nilsson are up to the demands of the lead roles. But that’s about it.

Russian choral music needs a bass that can drop down to low C or B flat, even the occasional F below low F.

Are composers writing for a preexisting voice, or can the human voice adapt to the demands of the new music? And does the native language condition the voice for a certain range or facility?

What would Handel have done with a Flagstad or Melchior? If Wagner didn’t exist, Flagstad would have to invent him!

In the past, a dramatic soprano would have sung mezzo or alto, and a Heldentenor the baritone roles.

Retired singers have a habit of treating the last generation--which is to say, their own generation, as the golden age, after which the vocal art went to pot. And there’s no doubt that in a post-Woodstock age, going to pot may aptly describe the lifestyle of some singers.

However, great singing seems to come and go in cycles. Melba’s scale-work was no better than Sutherland’s, while George Bernard Shaw says that Patti was better at legato than coloratura.

Sometimes a composer will write with a particular singer in mind--Handel for Montagnana, Mozart for Fischer and Constanze Weber. Billington could sing an A in alt, while Agujari could sing a C above high C.

Several things may account for this. Since baroque divas were competing with the castrati, it seems not unlikely that they may aspired to a more boyish, bell-like, flutelike timbre, rather than the big bosomy tone of a modern soprano. To judge by contemporary accounts, Catalani seems to have been the first dramatic soprano.

The castrato connection may be more specific. From Mustafa, one of the last of the castrati, Calvé picked up a vocal trick or "fourth voice," which was special sort of high voice, above the ordinary head voice.

Victorian divas were singing in a corset. You can’t sing from the diaphragm is that attire. It would be impossible to inhale and intone like Flagstad under such conditions. This may be one reason why the divas had a more girlish timbre back then.

Related to this, abdominal breathing expands the chest cavity. It isn’t merely that opera singers pile on the pounds over time. They also become broader across the beam.

In addition, women used to make their operatic debut in their teens, if not earlier. In this regard, Patti was especially precocious, making her debut at the tender age of seven! Nowadays, women make their debut in their twenties--and it often takes another ten years to achieve stardom. Obviously, the range and timbre of a teenager may be different from that of a grown woman, but if a woman began her career in the teens, she was apt to maintain the girlish timbre through--as you can hear in records of Melba and Patti.

Finally, improvements in diet have made modern men and women larger than their forebears. You can see this in old photographs.

George Bernard Shaw, under the spell of Wagner, bullied Jean De Reszke, the primo tenore of the day, into singing Siegfried and Tristan, soon after which De Reszke went into steep vocal decline. Ironically, Shaw later lost his infatuation with Wagner. But a music critic can outlive his critical misjudgments, whereas a vocalist cannot outlive his vocal misjudgments.

Yet all the blame cannot be laid at Wagner’s feet. If you compare the sound of a modern opera singer with old recordings of Victorian singers, it is clear that the 20C audience has developed an appetite for a bigger, fuller sound than was once the case, even in Wagner’s time, and there are singers willing and able to accommodate their taste.

Nowadays, a tenor lives and dies by his high C. But until the time of Duprez (1806-96), tenors resorted to the head register when taking their high notes. In Bellini’s I Puritani, the tenor line rises to F above high C. Duprez, an otherwise undistinguished tenor, changed all that when he make a career of taking the high C from the chest.

But the tenor voice paid a toll when it crossed that bridge. Verdi and Puccini write lower tenor parts than Rossini and Bellini. There are ever some early Verdi arias in the old tradition. In spite of that, precious few tenors have a good high C. There are men with a naturally high range, but they usually lack chest resonance; then there are men with the resonance, but they lack the reach. They are really high baritones. It is rare to find a man who can place the voice high, with real chest resonance, and still sound at ease. Among postwar tenors, Corelli and Pavarotti are the most successful. Domingo is very fine, but there are times when you suspect that he’s a pushed-up baritone (same with Caruso and Melchior), while Leonard Warren sounds like a Heldentenor on a holiday.

This is also a question of technique. Caruso and Melchior sang with a low larynx, which makes it possible to carry the chest register quite high. But the effect is somewhat effortful.

Frankly, there’s no way to make the modern tenor sound entirely natural. It is the most artificial vocal category. For the opera buff, some of its appeal lies in this high-wire act. Will the tenor crack on the high C or burst a blood vessel in the process? For my taste, the tenor voice is a bit too overbred to be quite manly. When you take the wolf out of the dog, you end up with one of those nippy yippy lap-dogs.

The Verdi baritone must have a solid high G, as well as the odd A flat and A natural. But it retains a drop of wolf blood in its veins, which is why I prefer the growling sound of a high baritone to the yippity-yap-yap of the tenor.


What are we to make of all this? In terms of ideal vocal writing, it is probably best to compose music which a good voice with good technique can sing, rather than write music which only a freak of nature can sing.

And even when you can find a freak-mutant to fill the role, the overall effect may still be less than entirely pleasing. Extremely high voices tend to sound rather adolescent, while extremely big voices are so godlike that they lose the human touch. This is why many connoisseurs prefer Frida Leider to Flagstad, or Crespin to Nilsson, in the big Wagnerian roles.

One reason Joan Sutherland was so popular and so exceptional is that she could combine the acuti with a very warm and womanly middle voice. Indeed, that was part of her technique--a plump middle voice which she carried all the way up to a high B natural, before flipping into the head register for the acuti.

At the same time, we can take a cue from the ad libitum character of Baroque music. If a singer happens to have an exceptional high range or low range or trill or whatever, let the singer embellish or interpolate where appropriate.

It would be best if a tenor not sing any higher than he can comfortably sing in the chest register. For purposes of choral music, say, the composer shouldn’t say the tenor line above the range of a Verdi baritone.

For purposes of hymn writing, the average untrained voice has little more that an octave of usable range--say, between a lower C and an upper D. Occasional excursions above and below this are okay, but the tessitura should stay within this general range.

It would free things up if more congregations could do part-singing. Learning to sight-sing would benefit untrained voices, since unison singing means that everyone must tackle the treble line.

Many hymnals are pitched too high. But in the age of the digital organ, it hymn can be transposed at the flip of a switch.

Choral singing can be rather more ambitious, but less so than operatic writing. The average choir is always underrepresented in the tenor section. Most amateur sopranos can’t ascend above the staff with ease, although you often have a natural high soprano or two. It’s probably best to have an alternate line or optional descant for high sopranos. The bass part tends to run a tad high for a true bass and a tad low for a true baritone. It also depends on whether we’re talking about a church choir or professional choir.

It’s an oddity of traditional choral writing that that the range of the alto part is so narrow while the range of the bass part is so wide. As a rule, an alto has a naturally longer voice than a bass, because she can sing in both registers. Choral writing ought to reflect that.

The reason it doesn’t is, I suppose, because a number of the great composers took the keyboard (organ, piano, harpsichord) as their primary instrument. They compose a chorus the way they’d write for the keyboard, where the outer voices frame the music. The soprano line reprises the right-hand, supplying the melody--while the bass line reprises the left-hand, supplying the harmony. The inner voices (alto, tenor) are the musical scavengers, gobbling up the leftover notes.

Certainly keyboard technique has a lingering impact on compositional style. The orchestral "repeat" is a throwback to the two-manual (loud/soft) harpsichord.

To some extent, this also has a prehistory in antiphonal singing, with opposing double-choruses--such as you see at San Marco. And that format goes all the way back to the Psalter.

Music: sacred & profane-2


For the most part, music is an aristocracy, but there are some exceptions to the rule: Anything with a German name carries a certain prestige. This is true is many fields besides music. An American name lacks the same caché.

By the same token, chauvinism promotes certain composers out of due proportion to their intrinsic worth--merely as a matter of national pride. A mediocre composer on the international stage may enjoy a national following because he has no domestic competitors, or because the indigenous standard is so uniformly low that what’s bad is good.

Ironically, some mediocre composers make it into the standard repertory as an act of diplomatic deference--in the musical equivalent of the UN--where every native son, however ne'er-do-well, has a seat at the table.

Some mediocre composers figure in the standard repertory because their music is a war-horse or virtuoso vehicle for a diva or big-ticket pianist or violinist.

Likewise, some mediocre composers make the cut in a musical subdivision like opera. It may not be great music, but all it needs is the sponsorship of a particular constituency or special-interest group.

Similarly, mediocre composers figure in the standard repertory of a particular instrument, because the solo repertory is so limited for that particular instrument.

Finally, some mediocre music gets performed because it's oh-so avant-. No one may play it a generation from now when it takes is place beside yesterday’s newspaper, but for the time being it’s the toast of the town.


There is a perennial battle--especially in opera--between the Dionysians and the Apollonians. The Apollonians are the voice-lovers, while the Dionysians champion the singing-actor. Dionysians attack singers golden-throated singers who are fat, can’t act, and sacrifice diction for euphony.

It’s funny to read music reviewers who solemnly inform the reader that the younger generation will no longer put up with overweight singers. Raised on TV and film, young operagoers are going to demand opera singers with a credible physique.

Of course, this rather elitist prediction makes the assumption that fat people can’t fall in love--or that fat operagoers can’t identify with fat opera singers. And year after year, voice-lovers continue to patronize the opera singers with the best set of vocal cords. What is more, this comes in a roly-poly package. There is the rare singer who is pleasing to eye and ear alike. But that’s a bonus point. As long as you’ve got the vocal equipment, you can look like you’re auditioning for the circus and still have a very lucrative career on the opera stage.

The Dionysian complaint suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium. It is the job of the composer, not the singer, to capture the mood and the meaning of the text. When setting words to music, a composer’s duty is to translate dramatic values into musical values. And, by that same token, the singer’s duty is to sing well. If the composer has done his job, then the singer will be true to the text by being true to the vocal line, respecting the dynamic markings, and so forth. The drama lies in the music and musicianship.

This is not to deny that a naturally expressive or verbally alert singer can enhance the dramatic effect. No doubt divas like Sutherland, Caballe, and Milanov are fairly faceless--like musical mannequins. To turn from one of them to a recording of Regine Crespin in her prime is like going from a disembodied voice to a woman in the flesh. And if you can get all this in one juicy package, which is very rare, then so much the better. But it is unfair to the singer and uncomprehending of the art form to constantly berate singers who do full justice to the music while always praising singers whose acting, however compelling, is in spite of and at the expense of musical values.


Some Christians disapprove of choirs and soloists because they think it’s prideful and egotistical to stick out. The focus has shifted from God to man.

There is, of course, a grain of truth to this. Some folks are wittier and prettier. They have star-power.

This is unavoidable. It is never truer than in the pulpit. But you might as well say that a beautiful woman should go around with a sack over her head. Come to think if it, there’s a religious tradition--Islam--which says that very thing.

But in Paul’s master metaphor, the church is a body with many members. The solution is not to level everyone down to the same lowly member, but to honor every member for its distinct contribution to the whole, and to deploy each member according to its particular gift.

IV. Semiotics

Although music is an abstract artistic medium, it has a marvelous mimetic and synesthetic potential in simulating and stimulating moods, hues, and visual cues. This operates at many levels.

Rhythmic intervals reflect time while pitch intervals simulate space. Sound is folded space.

A major key naturally conveys an upbeat mood, and a minor key a downbeat mood. Notice how "upbeat" and "downbeat" are, of themselves, musical metaphors.

A rising cadence conveys as comic mood--in the classical sense of comedy--whereas a falling cadence conveys a triste or tragic mood.

The very fact that we think of music as high and low, rising and falling, represents a synesthetic carryover of a naturally visual cue. The musical analogue is a case of second-order synesthesia.

Fast music conveys agitation or exhilaration, while slow music conveys a sad or meditative mood.

The contrast between staccato and legato can have the same effect.

We lavish a variety of visual and tactile metaphors on timbre, describing a certain sound as bright and dark, warm and cold, creamy, silvery, velvety, abrasive, and so on. For some striking comparisons, cf. N. Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian aesthetic (Eerdmans, 1980), 96ff.

What accounts for this cross-categorial affinity? And why we invest certain sensory properties and spatial relations with such moral and emotional significance?

This is because the material order is a moral order. God has made the sensible world to be a simile of the spiritual world. God has encoded these associations in the human mind--associations which are triggered when the mind comes into contact with a suitable stimulus. Herein line the power of painting and poetry as well as music.

V. Genre


Is there such a thing as a sacred style of music? To some ears, certain types of sacred music sound profane. Voltaire described Haydn and Mozart church music as opera for the masses. One can only imagine what epithets he would have reserved for the sacred music of Rossini, Berlioz and Bizet.

Conversely, certain types of profane music sound sacred, viz., "Ombra mai fu," Gluck’s dance of the blessed spirits, &c.).

In terms of musical style, there is no sacred genre, per se. And to some extent, what strikes a listener as reverent or irreverent has a lot to do with the music’s cultural associations. Contemporary music has the strongest cultural associations because it is something we directly experience in conjunction with the current state of the general culture. As music drops outside the lifetime of the listener, it tends to lose whatever odious associations it may otherwise have.

One reviewer criticized a hymnal because one of the hymn tunes was taken from Brahms’ first symphony. I find this objection decidedly odd.

It is one thing to disapprove of a hymn-tune because it triggers unsuitable textual associations. There was, for example, a time when you could hear a "sacred" setting of the Drinking Song from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia when you went to Mass.

But most orchestral (or chamber) music has no textual referent. So what if we associate a hymn-tune with a symphony? If we don’t find the symphony offensive, why do we find the hymn-tune offensive?

To me, the more important distinction is between good music and bad music. If a hymnodist can plunder the Egyptians, in Augustine’s apt phrase, so much the better.

Finally, if a singer is astute enough to associate a hymn-tune with a Brahms' symphony, he is astute enough to discount this adventitious association. Sophistication is a two-way street. It can disallow or make allowance--whichever is better.


The distinction between old music and new music is deeply misleading. Music has a date, but music isn’t dated in the same sense that Jane Austen or Thomas Gainsborough is dated. That is because music is an abstract medium in a way that portrait painting or a novel of manners, with its concrete setting, is not. Music is a product of a particular period and place, but it is not a period piece in the same sense as many other art forms.

Its time of composition doesn’t come stamped upon it, and if you didn’t know the history of music, you couldn’t tell to what century a given piece of music belongs. To someone whose musical ideal is the George Beverly Shea repertory, an Ira Sankey hymn sounds up-to-date while a carol by John Rutter sounds old-fashioned--even though Sankey is long dead while Rutter is very much alive.

A partial exception to the law of diminishing invidious returns is opera music. If a listener is an opera buff, he is likely to recognize an opera tune, and, what is more, it will conjure up all the dramatic associations as well. This is especially the case with 19C opera, which still forms the backbone of the repertory.


There is, however, a more intrinsic sense in which some music is more reverent than other music. And that lies in music’s mimetic capacity to simulate and evoke certain moods. Indeed, the emotional appeal of music is what makes music such an appealing art form to so many men and women.

And some moods are more appropriate to worship than others. Of course, a good worship service varies the mood. So the intuitive view of a sacred style, however, inchoate, has more than a grain of truth.

VI. Gender


Nothing is more stereotypical than opera. Sopranos and tenors play young lovers, baritones play the stalwart friend of the hero, mezzos play bad girls, while bassos and altos play mom and pop or other authority figures, whether benevolent or malevolent.

More often than not, the stereotype precipitates a comic clash between sight as sound as a chunky-built, overripe soprano plays an ingénue while a chunky-built, overripe tenor plays the fresh-faced suitor.

Is this just a convention, or does the stereotype run deeper than that? That’s is an important question because it goes, in part, to why we find beauty so elusive of definition, of why we find certain sights and sounds agreeable, and others disagreeable.

On the face of it, there’s no logical reason why opera should even exist. Why are there folks who find the vocal medium so compelling? Why can they get into heated debates over the relative merits of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland? Why do they put up with these ridiculously overwrought plots in which everyone is dead by the last act?

No doubt there’s a heavy element of decadence in all this. But it has a basis in natural revelation and common grace.

The world is at once a natural order and a moral order. At one level, the natural order is a metaphor for the moral order. The reason we associate certain vocal ranges with certain role-relations, the reason we, or--at least, some of us--find a particular timbre pleasing, is that God has encoded natural law into certain sights and sounds. We are preprogrammed to register, at a subliminal level, a moral norm or abstract universal in a concrete particular.

Various vocal categories symbolize and simulate various social roles and relations--a masculine ideal, a feminine ideal, the friend, the lover, the father, the mother, the hero, the heroine, the priest, prophet, king, or villain.

At a literal level, the only difference between Joan Sutherland and Florence Foster Jenkins is a different set of overtones. At that level, there’s no reason why we attach so much emotional significance to one sound wave over another.

From a biological perspective, the primary purpose of the larynx in not to generate a high C, but to regulate food and oxygen intake. Nothing especially romantic about that. On the face of it, singing is a rather freakish secondary adaptation of muscle designed to do something else.

And yet, from a theological standpoint, that explanation is unduly reductionistic. For one thing, the idea of dual-use technology in the engineering of the human body is not an alien concept. An obvious example is the way in which the same organs perform sexual and excretory functions.

We know that man was graced with the gift of speech (Gen 2), so that application of the larynx is a primary, and not a secondary application.

Singing is an extension of speech, and song is a Biblical means and mandate of worship. That does not, of itself, prescribe a particular technique, but it does suggest that the capacity of the larynx to sing as well as speak is written into the original design of the organ. Among other things, the larynx is meant to be used as a musical instrument.

To approach this from another angle, the many references to the turtledove in Canticles (1:15; 2:12,14; 4:1; 5:2,12; 6:9) is such a romantic cliché that we may not give it a second thought. We associate songbirds with spring, and spring with the season of love. Nothing is more trite than calling a smitten couple a pair of lovebirds--wooing and cooing in each other’s company. Yes, that’s the stuff of love poetry the world round.

But this is more than a cliché, this is a Biblical cliché. It is important to know which cultural clichés enjoy divine warrant.


The question of gender also raises the question of gender-specific music. For some, the sexless style of Palestrina and Tudor music, with their prepubescent boys and foppish countertenors, sheered of any orchestral accompaniment or rhythmic vitality, represents the ideal. Anything else is irreverent.

This sort of music exemplifies the popular preconception of angelic song. Indeed, the voice of a boy soprano is typically described as "angelic."

Now, I have no problem with boy choirs or girl choirs. A lot of parents also thing it’s cute when kids sing out of tune. But there’s no reason why boys and girls can’t be taught to sing properly.

There is, however, no good reason why we should be writing music for the angels. We may have an immortal, incorporeal soul, but we are also creatures of flesh-and-blood, differentiated by sex and sexual maturation.

The Bible condemns any gender-bending ethic. But pop vocalism has an insidious way of reversing the roles. Women belt out their numbers in a raw, mannish chest voice while men croon like drag queens. Gender-blending isn’t limited to pop vocalism. Countertenors are literally effeminate.

Conversely, the Italian tradition fosters a compartmentalized piety, in which we have sexless church music and oversexed opera music. Some opera buffs even find their religious inspiration on the operatic stage. Rudolf Bing attributed Renata Tebaldi’s cult-like fandome to the confluence of Marian iconography with Tebaldi’s stage persona.

We need to strike a balance. There ought to be no sacred/profane dichotomy, but rather, a style suitable to both. There is nothing wrong with a degree of muted sensuality in church--a sensuality that doesn’t flaunt itself, but is simply a God-given and God-honoring expression of our natural manhood or womanhood. We ought to foster a closer connection between Christian anthropology and Christian axiology. Men should sound like men, and women like women. It’s a judgment on the church when the opera house often does a better job of modeling manhood and womanhood than the sanctuary.


Opera presents a corrupt version of the chivalric code. One reason for the development of opera is that it deals with subject-matter disallowed in traditional church music. Indeed, we have here something of a vicious cycle. Opera music is so profane because it is not an outgrowth of a Christian outlook on life. Opera is essentially a product of Catholic culture. And in Catholicism you have a dichotomy between the religious orders and the laity. The subject-matter of Catholic church music is the Mass and the cult of the saints.

What this leaves entirely out of view is normal family life--of men and women who come of age, fall in love, marry, and raise of family--who work inside or outside the home to support a family--as well as many other aspects of ordinary life, such as friendship, sports, war, adventure, exploration, the natural world, the life-cycle, &c.

These are things which the rank-and-file are going to think about, write about, sing about, and act on with or without religious guidance. By failing to integrate that larger slice of life into Christian music, it cannot be consecrated and sanctified to the glory of God.

One of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation was the notion that every Christian has a divine vocation, that the layman has a Christian calling to serve God.

This, however, did not work its way into Christian music because Lutheran music is cross-centered, while Reformed music is Psalm-centered. Bach set the Mass to music. He replaced the cult of the saints with the Passion of Christ. And he wrote a few secular cantatas, as well as many sacred cantatas. For his part, Handel set OT narrative to music--along with many Italian operas, as well as a few in English--while Mendelssohn set NT narrative to music.

Much of this marks an advance over the subject-matter of Catholic church music. There is an important place for this. But, for the most part, it still leaves the laity on the outside, looking in.

You can see the same divided piety at work in "gospel" music and the crossover artist. A gospel-singer who "crosses over" is stigmatized for cashing in on a lucrative market. And there is usually an element of moral and spiritual compromise at work here. In that respect, a crossover artist deserves to be ostracized.

Yet the standard fare of gospel music, which is all about getting saved and getting to heaven, but not much in-between, presents a severely truncated view of the Christian lifestyle. There’s more to the walk of faith than a conversion experience followed by a funeral.

It ought to be possible for a believer to sing about falling in love and staying in love without having to check his faith at the doorstep.

VII. Vox et verbum.


Every language or dialect has a distinctive timbre which tends, in turn, to cultivate a certain vocal placement.

Spoken French is beautiful, but sung French is very tricky, for sustaining the nasals produces a nasal twang, which is not at all bel canto--reminding one of Rudolf Bing’s quip that if the Met had a bad night, the Paris Opera had a bad century.

German is better for low voices than high voices. Among the great Wagnerians, Melchior was Danish, Nilsson Finnish, and Flagstad Norwegian. But Germany has produced some fine altos, baritones, and bassos.

Russian is also better for low voices than high voices--especially the basso, although Russian opera doesn’t make the same demands on the low range as the choral repertory. The women, by contrast, are often squally in the high range.

English depends on the dialect. The Oxbridge accent, however elegant for the spoken word, is fatal for the sung word.

However, other English accents seem to fare better: Forrester and Vickers are Canadians, Melba and Sutherland Aussies, Te Kanawa a New Zealander.

French, German, and English women normally have a fairly clear division between the head and chest registers. Is this an effect of language, or a result of their ecclesiastical choral tradition, with men and boys co-opting the soprano/alto line? It doesn’t have that effect on Italians, who share the same ecclesiastical tradition.

Speaking of boy sopranos, the sound which we’re accustomed to hearing today--involving a cool, pure, and straight-edged head-tone is not necessarily how the treble used to sound in times past. If you listen to Earnest Lough’s recordings from the 20s, he has a mixed tone with a natural vibrato. Although the timbre is unmistakably male, the production is more characteristic of grown woman. This may be because boys' voices broke at a later age back then--around the upper teens.

The Welsh language also turns out some fine singers (Burrows, Howell, Terfel, Price).

Black-Americans often have deep, resonant speaking voices, although they incline to a nasal or chesty production, with a rough transition over the break. You can hear this in Norman and Price when they sing around the break. Blacks have yet to produce a great operatic bass, although some black men clearly have the raw equipment. But their musical tradition selects for pop vocalism instead of classical vocalism.

The typical white American accent tends to be somewhat pinched and nasal. This works well enough for country-western, but not for classical vocalism. It has the same aesthetic appeal as Japanese opera--where you sing through the nose instead of the mouth.

Latin and Italian are best, although the placement can be a bit too forward or bottom-heavy. Spanish singers can easily pass in the Italian repertory, although Caballe, for one, has to guard against a nasal attack.


There are partial exceptions to the rule. Crespin sang French that was both beautiful and idiomatic, but that’s because she was Italian on her mother’s side, which had a moderating influence on the placement--with its pure, open vowels and bounded phrasing.

Frida Leider was an outstanding German soprano. As a dramatic soprano, she can to cultivate the chest register, which, in turn, filled out the head-tone. She also mastered the Italian repertory, which had a further softening effect on the Teutonic vocal production--melting the Alpine frost with a shaft of southern sunshine.

VIII. Vocal technique.


The human voice naturally divides into two registers, head and chest. This is equally true of men and women, children and adults.

In men, the chest register is dominant--in women, the head. Low female voices tend to be chestier, and high men’s voices tend to be headier.

In classical vocal technique, a man sings entirely from the chest--unless he’s a dandified countertenor, whereas a woman tries to bridge the two registers by cultivating a middle voice, which is a mixed tone. If you want to hear a seamless female voice, listen to Flagstad

Because women sing in both registers, they naturally have a longer voice (wider range) than men. A male vocalist has about two usable octaves--two-and-a-half if he’s exceptional, whereas a female vocalist has about two-and-a-half usable octaves--three if she’s exceptional.

The vocal apparatus must make certain muscular adjustments in going from low to high or vice versa. In terms of vocal technique, you can build a voice from the bottom up or the top down. To some extent this corresponds with the natural range of the voice. It is more natural for a lower, heavier voice to build from the bottom-up, and a higher, lighter voice to build from the top-down.

Each technique carries a trade-off. As Jerome Hines put it, every solution has its problems. You trade high notes for low notes, a higher center of gravity for a lower center of gravity.

Take some sopranos. Flagstad, Tebaldi, Milanov, and Ponselle represent the bottom-up approach. This makes for a fulsome low and middle range, with a columnar tone and even emission of sound. These were all dramatic sopranos, with the same basic range as mezzo-sopranos.

Put another way, their voices have more chest resonance mixed into the middle voice. To some ears, this is the most beautiful type of timbre.

But there’s a price to be paid. It generally works better in slow music than fast music. And the effect is to tug the voice down, making high notes an audible effort. Also, big deep voices have a matronly, even matriarchal, tone which limits their sex appeal when they aspire to sing the virginal heroine.

By contrast, Sutherland, Caballe, and Leontyne Price represent the top-down approach. This makes for a vibrant, floating tone, with easy, ringing high notes and a round, ebullient middle range. They are basically corn-fed lyric sopranos.

Put another way, their voices have more head resonance mixed into the middle voice. To some ears, this pitches the voice at a more natural altitude, resulting in a more youthful tone and authentic soprano sound. True songbirds, they can live up there in a way a heavier voice cannot. They make their home in the branches, while their earthbound sisters live closer to the ground. A word like "warbler" comes naturally to Sutherland in a way it doesn’t to Flagstad. Flagstad is swan gliding on a pond, but La Stupenda is a nightingale in the treetops.