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.

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