Saturday, January 22, 2005

Music: sacred & profane-1

I. The state of the question

For about a generation or so there has been a controversy over the style of music to be used in Christian worship. This is usually cast as a choice between traditional music and contemporary music. Although that is one way of framing the debate, it is too superficial to be very discriminating.

Controversies over church music are nothing new. Augustine disapproved of women singing in church for fear it would be distracting male members of the congregation. There may be some truth to that, although it doesn’t seem to have entered his mind that men singing in church might be equally distracting to the women in attendance!

Palestrina’s all-male, a cappella music became the official touchstone of Catholic music. In England, an all-male choir means boy sopranos and countertenors, In Bavaria--boy sopranos and boy altos, in Italy--boy sopranos and castrati (well, once upon a time!)!

The Westminster Directory of Worship prescribes exclusive a cappella Psalmnody, and some Calvinists have never forgiven Watts for defiling the worship service with "uninspired" hymns.

Revivals usher in new musical styles, such as Wesley, Pantycelyn, and Sankey. The Jesus Freaks brought their steel drums, electric guitars and rock rhythms into the sanctuary, while black gospel brought dance music into choir loft--something you also find in Messianic congregations.

This illustrates a weakness with the distinction between traditional and contemporary. For some folks, "traditional" music means classical music. For others, traditional means exclusive a cappella Psalmnody. For still others, traditional means whatever music they grew up with. It’s a generational thing.

For the most part I’ve been rather dissatisfied by the piecemeal quality of the debate. For purposes of this present essay, I’ll try to broach the question in a more wide-ranging fashion.

II. Cosmology

The proverbial "music of the spheres" is not a mere figure of speech, but alludes to a full-blown musical cosmology. On the pagan side, this goes back to Pythagoras, with his ontological numerology as well as his discovery of musical ratios. Plato, in the Timaeus (35-6; 41-2; 47c-e), turned this idea into a creation-myth. The idea received a more "scientific" underpinning with Ptolemy’s work on Harmonics, as well as Nichomachus (Handbook of Harmonics [Encheiridion harmonikes]).

Greek speculation was popularized by such Roman writers as Cicero ("Somnium Scipionis," De republica 6:18), Capella, Apuleius, and Macrobius (Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis).

On the Christian side, this outlook was baptized, popularized, and systematized by Augustine (De Musica), Ammonius, Boethius (De Institutione Musica; De Nuptiis Philogiae et Mercurii), and Cassiodorus (Variae; Expositio in psalterium).

This tradition feeds directly into Dante’s cosmology and numerology. It received its penultimate scientific defense and demise at the hands of Kepler, the great Lutheran astronomer and geometer (Harmonice Mundi). And this was, in turn, the subject of a major opera by Hindemith, Die Harmonie der Welt.

In some ways, contemporary string theory is a throwback to Greek musical cosmology. So the journey has come full circle.

There is even a dash of this cosmology in Job 38:7: "When the morning stars sang in unison, and all the sons of God shouted for joy."

Given the degree of cultural diffusion in the ANE and the Levant, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Plato and Pythagoras were channeling some ideas which went back to the time and place of Scripture, but became garbled in the process of transmission and creative recension.

This was the thesis of Theophilus Galen in his Court of the Gentiles, and while the particulars of his argument appear pretty fanciful to modern eyes, yet the comparative historiography of Cyrus Gordon has done much to document the general phenomenon and direction of cultural diffusion.

III. Axiology


The OT temple service, by putting a premium on artistic excellence, was an expression of high culture rather than pop culture. Obviously, what represents high culture is culture-bound in terms of its concrete mode of expression. OT music was no doubt primitive compared to Classical music. But it aimed high.

In addition to the Temple, you had, at some point during the Intertestamental period, the rise of the synagogue--the inspiration for which John Frame traces to OT injunctions regarding the convocation of holy assembles (Exod 12:16; Lev 23; Num 28; 29). If the Temple reflects high culture, the synagogue reflects pop culture. It was akin a local parish church, whereas the Temple was akin to a Cathedral.

The function of the synagogue was to spread the message and cement the fellowship of the covenant community with weekly services at accessible locations.

My general point is that if we take OT precedent as a guide, then there is a place in the church for both high culture and pop culture, although we need to be critical consumers of each, and not rubber-stamp everything which either tradition or the general culture has to offer.


This, in turn, raises the contentious issue a seeker-sensitive church. And, in Calvinism, that is an old debate, going back to the Great Awakening.

In my opinion, a worship service is for worshipers, for the believers, not unbelievers; for the edification of the faithful. So it would be a mistake to center the service on seekers.

Having said that, there is a larger sense in which the Christian faith is the most-seeker sensitive faith in the world. Ours is an outward-looking and forward-leaning faith.

And this is not merely for the benefit of the prospective convert. Without a transfusion of fresh blood, the church begins to suffer from hardening of the arteries. We fight more and more over less and less. The new birth is exchanged for either a birth-rite (baptism) or a birthright (covenant childhood).

Moreover, a service that is geared only to insiders may take too much for granted even where the insiders are concerned. They recite the same creeds and prayers year after year, sing the same hymns, yet if you were to quiz them on what the words mean, or how to defend them from Scripture, I daresay that the level of incomprehension and ignorance would be startling.

It is necessary for a pastor to explain what he’s saying and doing from time to time. This is a profitable exercise, not only for the outsiders, but the insiders as well.

That applies to music as well. Take a Charles Wesley hymn like "Hark! The herald angels, sing," "Come, o thou traveler unknown," or "And can it be that I should gain?" These are often deceptively simple. There is probably a lot that goes right over the head of the average singer. Well, the answer to ignorance is education. Before the congregation sings it, the pastor or music director should do a little exposition of the hymn.

In addition, a so-called seeker-sensitive church can be just as clubby as a high church. Printed music is dispensed with. Through sheer routine, members commit a handful of choruses to memory, so that a visitor is at a loss for either the words or the music.

The same thing with an anthem. There are times when it would be worthwhile for the choir director to explain to the congregation how the anthem is put together musically, what to listen for, how to listen for a recurrent theme, to notice how the composer employs various musical techniques to capture the mood and meaning of the text. Of course, you have to start with a quality piece of music. Frankly, if a piece of music isn’t worth explaining, it isn’t worth performing.

Much too much of modern worship, whether traditional or contemporary, is like fast food. We wolf it down and never give it a second thought.

Spiritual snobbery isn’t limited to high church circles. A snake-handlin’, King-James totin’ fundamentalist or "Spirit-filled" charismatic can look down his nose at the starched-collar crowd down the street.

Congregations, whether large or small, decompose into natural families. How open a given church is to a new comer has much less to do with a particular worship style than this invisible alliance of bloodlines.

The whole notion of "seeker-sensitive" is simplistic if the idea is to dumb down the worship to the lowest common denominator, for seekers vary in age, race, wealth, education, and taste. Some seekers are classical music buffs. For them, soft rock or country-western is not a drawing card.

If we really want to be seeker-sensitive, the answer would not be to impose some homogeneous, pop cultural style of worship, but have different churches which target different demographic groups. There is no one-size-fits-all style of worship.

Every year there are many Americans who spend thousands of dollars on a trip to Europe for the opportunity to see Renaissance art and Gothic architecture. One reason some Evangelicals convert to Orthodoxy is due to the aesthetic appeal of Orthodox worship. We need to guard against the temptation to indulge in patronizing stereotypes about the younger generation or shortchange one demographic niche as we reach out to another.

Truth be told, most folks don’t have any innate taste in art and music. They just like whatever they grew up with. They prize it for its social and emotional associations. It reminds them of the high school prom or a Billy Graham crusade.

Classical music is not all of a piece. Opera lovers are often a breed apart from chamber music connoisseurs. Only a classical music buff would enjoy Brahms or Debussy or the B Minor Mass, but everyone likes fast music--the zippy choruses of Handel and Vivaldi.

Spurgeon once said that the number of folks saved by fine music and stained-glass windows amounted to the tenth part of nothing. The allusion was, of course, to the Church of England--that magnificent museum-piece of dead formalism.

However, I also can’t help recalling that during the Downgrade controversy, Spurgeon was just as isolated as Bishop Ryle. When the chips were down, both men stood alone for the word of life.

I also recall that Jonathan Edwards was railroaded out of town by veterans of the Great Awakening, who had been converted under his own ministry.

On the other hand, Edwards’ Old Light opponent, Charles Chauncy went from nominal Presbyterian to damnable unitarian.

The Old Lights were half-right. The idea of every-member evangelism is a bit airy-fairy. Between work and kids, most parents don’t have much time left over. Christian nurture is the backbone of the church. Raising kids in the faith is their chief contribution to world evangelism.

Having said that, they can witness to their friends, relatives, and coworkers. And their children, if godly, can witness to their friends and neighbors as well. So it’s a concentric form of evangelism.

But the Old Lights were half-wrong as well. The reason they were so stung by the charge of an unconverted ministry preaching an unfelt Christ is that it cut too close to the bone. To oppose the work of Edwards and Whitfield, to oppose revival because it overturns the apple cart, is to miss the day of the Lord’s visitation.

There are churches which used to preach to believers in the morning and unbelievers in the evening. This is, of course, a mite formulaic. Solid, expository preaching is Gospel-preaching, too. And we can’t neatly divide the present company into believers and unbelievers.

Still, there’s a place for a straight evangelistic sermon every now and then. Never take anything for granted. And by that same token, it isn’t bad, now and again, for a pastor to act as though his whole flock were seekers.

There’s a danger, when you hear the same thing over and over again, of ceasing to feel that it applies to you. You know it all, you’ve heard it all before. The message must be for the guy beside you or behind you. So there’s a certain value in having the pastor occasionally treat believers as unbelievers, in not presuming their state of grace, in having them revisit the Exodus.

New lights are better at starting a fire, old lights at stoking a fire. But, eventually, the fire dies down, at which point it needs to be rekindled. Old lights and new lights need each other at different times. New lights are the spark, old lights the log. Without a match, there is no fire to conserve; without firewood, the fire flames out. Without the accelerant of revival and the fuel of evangelism, the old lights become firemen, trying to hose down and snuff out any ember of spiritual vitality and new life.


Assuming, then, that there is a place, if not for bad music, but for better and best, are there any objective standards for winnowing the wheat from the chaff, or is merely a matter of personal taste? There are a number of factors which figure in an answer.

In terms of absolute music, some styles are more sophisticated than others. Now, good music can be simple--say, a Celtic folk tune--and bad music can be complex--atonalism, serialism.

But I would say that sophistication is a necessary, if insufficient, condition of great music. Not all good music is great music, but all great music is good music.

By "sophistication," I mean a certain level of craftsmanship, of technical know-how. In this respect, Bach is the gold standard.

In addition, some melodies have more developmental potential than others. They can be scaled up or scaled down.

There is also a difference between good music and beautiful music. This is especially evident in vocal music.

Take a sacred favorite like "Panis Angelicus." Most music-lovers would regard this as a beautiful piece of music. However, it’s not good music. It starts out on a promising note. Indeed, that’s what lingers in the mind--the first few bars. But it quickly falls apart.

Why is that? Because the inspiration of the song is verbal rather than musical. Franck plays off the natural lilt of the Latin text. The fine-sprung rhythm of the words nearly writes its own tune--nearly, but not quite. That’s not enough to sustain the piece. After the few bars it quickly degenerates into random repetition and filler. It lacks a core melody, so there’s nothing to develop.

Another reason that a song like "Panis Angelicus" sounds better than it really is that if you put a plush voice behind it, the sensuous appeal of the voice conceals the poverty of melodic invention.

This holds true of a lot of Italian opera. There’s a reason so much music is set to an Italian libretto--not just for Italian composers, but Germans like Mozart and Handel. The language itself is so cantabile and bel canto to begin with. Add to that a warm Mediterranean voice, as well as the lush string section, and the effect is very pleasing to the ear. Indeed, it seduces the ear and disarms the critical faculty--just like a man may fall for a bad woman if she’s good looking!

But one of the cruelest things you can do to expose bad opera music is to play a piano score. It is much harder to cheat on a keyboard. The keyboard is quite unforgiving of weak underlying material.

Bellini is a good example. A Bellini aria sounds beautiful if sung by a Sutherland or Caballe or Ponselle or Pavarotti or Milanov. If, however, you were to leave out the voice and play the whole thing on piano, the melody would seem rather trite; hardly a melody at all--more akin to Sprechstimme, like Gregorian chant. The same thing is true with Puccini. The vocal line is mostly recitative, while the aria is an extension of the recitative. Although we associate Sprechgesang with 20C German works, you can hear it in the Italians as well.

And if you play a Bellini chorus on piano, his lack of craftsmanship is even more evident, for a decent chorus demands harmony as well as melody--harmony as melody squared. Bellini’s problem is twofold--he doesn’t have enough raw material to scale up in the first place, and he lacks the technical competence to do good part-writing.

If you try this experiment with a piano scoring of Mozart or Handel, they fare much better. One reason, I expect, is that German is less singable than Latin or Italian. The placement is better for low voices than high voices. And it lacks rhythmic impetus of Italian or Latin. As a consequence, German music is more architectonic. This is true whether you’re talking about Bach or Brahms, Mendelssohn or Hindemith.

And this is, in my opinion, one reason that Germany continued to produce some first-rate music in the Romantic era whereas there is nothing of the same stature on the Italian side of the equation. There were some bad German composers as well as some great German composers, but Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini are not on the same plane as Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. Even a hit-and-miss composer like Schumann has some really fine pieces.

Now, if you go back to the Baroque era, the Italian is just as satisfying as the German Baroque. What happened?

Well, what do you think of when you think of the Italian Baroque? The first thing which comes to mind is the lush string sound. That, however, is all about timbre, not about structure.

Another thing we think of are those grand and glorious crescendi. If, however, you compare Vivaldi with Bach or Handel, he composes is shorter units. And this, again, goes back to the fact that he doesn’t have as much structural depth as his German contemporaries. He has tremendous energy, but he cannot build or sustain a climax to the same degree. The melodies are shorter, and the movements briefer.


Yet another criterion is the relation between music and nature. Too much modern music is nine parts theory to one part music. Yet just as the function of formal logic is not to take the place of informal logic, but to systematize informal reasoning so that we can test the validity of an inference and fill in the missing steps--the traditional function of music theory was not to displace spontaneous invention, but to systematize inspiration so that a composer could elaborate a tune in a wide variety of ways.

There is, in the arts, a creative tension between form and freedom. Unfettered freedom poses a mental block, because it presents the creative artist with too many choices. He has nowhere to begin, nowhere to go, no goal. But excessive formality, or an arbitrary form, presents the creative artist with too few choices to channel his imagination.

In the popular imagination, dissonance is the one thing most associated with modern music. The absence of melody, the absence of euphony.

The culprit in this is, of course, the atonal school--a la Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern. It’s not so much that atonal composers aim for dissonance. Rather, this is the consequence of what they avoid--classical scales and harmonic sonorities. The effect, however, is a solid wall of cacophony--albeit a highly methodical rather than random cacophony, generated by a dodecaphonic algorithm.

Connoisseurs listen to atonalism or serialism as a kind of civil duty. Like imbibing medicine, the sour taste and acrid aftertaste makes the duty all the more virtuous.

Since, however, I don’t subscribe to supererogatory merit, whether in theology or musicology, I don’t see why I should submit to this penance!

A great composer doesn’t generally set out to compose great music. He writes whatever he likes. He writes to express, rather than impress. He may be inspired by a melody or libretto. He may be solving a musical problem he poses for himself. If the result is great music, that is not because the composer was self-consciously writing a great piece of music, but because he was a great composer.

But a lot of modern music takes itself far too seriously. It is weighed down by its lead-footed self-importance. The aim is impress rather than express.

In this it differs, and differs deliberately, from the great religious music of the past. What we are witnessing is the contraction and collapse of the semiotic dimension--the musical analogue of abstraction in the fine arts and deconstruction in literature--where there is nothing outside the text. This steady progression, or should I say, regression, is accessory to secularism.

Christian composers took God seriously. He was the object of art. Even what God was not the textual referent, as in the case of chamber music, Protestant theology regarded the lay lifestyle as a sacred calling no less than the clerical vocation. All was done to the greater glory of God. Music was important as a consecrated offering "to" God, as much as it was "about" God.

But in the transition to mundanity, there was a shift from God to the world, as exemplified in opera music, which is androcentric, and then in landscape music like Debussy’s La Mer or Ibéria--which alluded to the subanimate order. Notice that the more secular the art, the more impersonal it becomes. Like a suicide-cult, humanism promises ambrosia, but dispenses arsenic. This was a concern of Husserl's in The Crisis of European Sciences.

Finally, you get atonalism and serialism--where technique becomes an end it itself, rather than a means to an end: syntax without semantics, like a formal system. This is a self-referential game in which God, man, and the world are banished. Music loses its allusive, allegorical power. Music is now at war with its own medium, as music theory comes to impose its iron will on acoustics rather than exploiting the science of sound. Destruction ex nihilo takes the place of creation ex nihilo.

Serialism represents a limiting-case of atonalism. Atonalism eschewed the consonant intervals, but was more conventional with respect to other attributes of music, viz., rhythm, timbre, meter, duration, dynamics. Serialism attempted to round out the atonal revolution.

But when everything is a free variable, absent harmony, melody or periodicity, the result is chaotic. In an effort to supply a principle of stability, serial music is algorithmic and automatic. The ironic effect, however, is that serial music might as well be white noise. It never sounds more disorderly than when the outcome is rigidly ordered: nihilism by numbers. To the ear, even a trained ear, the formulaic flux of Pierre Boulez sounds about as random as the accidental "music" of John Cage.

This is the music of apostate man, at war with God and the world. To be a religious rebel, to be in rebellion against your Maker, is to be in rebellion against his handiwork. If you take God to be your enemy, then this hostility will bleed into the creaturely realm, for it bears the divine imprint.

Literature and the fine arts have charted the same downward curve. Of course, any technique can still be pressed into service if a composer wants to set words to music. But the center of gravity lies elsewhere.

There is a certain parallel here between Berg or Boulez and James Joyce: a great deal of surface complexity at the expense of linear form. And the effect is to alienate the artist from the audience. If you make art too much of a chore, most folks, even art, music, and book-lovers will simply not bother with it. Joyce forgot the first rule of story-telling: to tell a good story. Berg forgot the first rule of music, to compose a tune you can whistle.

When art ceases to please, and begins to bark orders at us, it loses our allegiance. We are not indentured servants to the high altar of art. Therein lies the secret of Verdi and Rossini: in the shower stall, every man can sing like Robert Merrill or Luciano Pavarotti!

Yet common grace will frequently conserve a subliminal reverence for natural revelation. Hindemith’s Craft of Musical Composition, Deniélou’s Sémantique Musicale, Salzer’s Structural Hearing and Tonal Coherence, as well as Ansermet’s Les Fondements de la Musique all represent earnest efforts at adapting music theory to the natural order rather than adapting the natural order to music theory.

My purpose is not to offer a blanket endorsement of any particular approach, but to commend the general approach. It is of passing interest that Hindemith, though German, was an enemy of atonalism while Boulez, while French, was an apprentice of atonalism.

In my opinion, the purpose of dissonance is rhythmic and dramatic. We associate rhythm with the beat, but rhythm in this narrow sense is tactile rather than auditory. Deaf men and women can dance because they can feel the beat.

But dissonance, when it inheres is a consonant/dissonant pattern of tension-and-release, is the musical analogue of rhythm. It is a purely auditory, and in that respect, a purely musical phenomenon.

It is also the musical equivalent of conflict/resolution in drama. Thus, the judicious use of dissonance subserves dramatic and musical values alike by simulating rhythmic propulsion and emotional compulsion.


And this is, in turn, bound up with the narrative character of classical music--of music with a dramatic arc, of music which tells a story, with or without words.

Poulenc was once asked why he had never composed any oratorios. He answer was that Roman Catholics set prayer to music, whereas Evangelicals set drama to music.

This is insightful in part because it may to explain the convergent development of vocal music and absolute music, as well as the divergent development of Catholic and Evangelical music.

To compose what is essentially incidental music for a few liturgical set-pieces does not demand the same syntactical resources as setting historical drama to music. And a musical syntax engineered to cope with dramatic demands of an oratorio or Passion can then be transferred and further elaborated in relation to absolute music. This may be one reason why the musical texture of Catholic composers is thinner than that of their Protestant counterparts.

In setting prayer to music, you want to conjure up a meditative mood--with subtle inflections in tone and timbre. The composer’s focus is on centering one’s thought--even stilling one’s thought. I’m speaking, now, of prayer in the Catholic contemplative tradition. The Protestant theology of prayer is quite different.

But historical drama demands a more dynamic style and chiaroscuro technique to capture the mood-swings and propel the action. Composing on a large scale calls for a wide tonal variety to alleviate tedium, as well as enough architectonic hardware to keep the thing in once piece.

1 comment:

  1. In the case of Hindemith, particularly, he'd often offset a highly dissonant passage with predictable, even martial rhythmic patterns. He had been self-consciously harkening back to Baroque forms since the late 1920s.

    There's something of an irony in the comment about Berg not writing a tune you can whistle because part of Wozzeck employs a solo performed by whistling.

    I'd say there's a substantial difference in how modernist techniques get employed. Some composers employ them, like Schoenberg, to make an ideological point. Other composers, like the Catholic Penderecki, have shown over the last forty years that they finally prefer to subordinate serialism and atonality to particular musical points. When Penderecki uses every musical modernism at his disposal to depict the suffering of Christ in his Passion According to St Luke it works because he has found the perfect use for the musical devices of modernism. In Messiaen's case he uses musical concepts from around the world in the service of Catholic music which attempts to depict Christ as the head of the universal church and so all musical ideas across all cultural and historical moments are fair game.

    It's not entirely surprising that in the long run some of the avant gardists most admired from the 20th century (Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Penderecki) were those who eventually subordinated their musical modernism to their various forms of Christian belief. This is something the fans of arch-modernism avoid because they don't like the faith and it's also something opponents of 20th century music try to avoid because they would rather not believe that some of the leaders of the musical avant garde did not completely abandon some form of the Christian faith. As a Protestant I'm not sure I'd necessarily endorse the beliefs held by Stravinsky, Messiaen, or Penderecki but I could hardly say they were atheists.