Saturday, January 22, 2005

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.


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