Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How Not to Argue about Church Music

There are a lot of common avenues of arguing about Church music that I think are seriously flawed and particularly destructive because they may be arguing for the right music for the wrong reasons. Here I'm simply outlining the ways I think are particularly unwise—perhaps in another place I can begin to outline the ways I think one ought to do it. (The bold affirms what I do not.)

1. Church music must be old. I've addressed this a bit already, but let me restate here. All music is, in a fundamental sense, traditional. It simply depends on what tradition you're plugging yourself into. Any contemporary Christian artists or praise choruses are doing just that—plugging themselves into musical traditions. Similarly, it did not take a thick layer of dust on Bach's manuscripts for his music to become traditional. His music was traditional from the moment he wrote it. It was in the tradition of Praetorius, Schütz, Pachelbel et al.

This is also a theological point. Most famously, but certainly not the only instance of it, Psalm 98 enjoins us to sing a new song to the Lord. More than simply citing chapter and verse is involved here, though. The Biblical principle is that of the Davidic liturgical revolution, where David took the dust-gathering Levitical traditions and started improvising. Peter Leithart in From Silence to Song points out that David seemed to herald in a special liturgical period, where he and the musicians could worship with the Ark of the Covenant face to face. If the Davidic liturgical revolution took place under these circumstances, how much more should music be jubilant, noisy, and, above all, new now that the veil has been torn?

2. Church music must be complex. The voice of the Church past speaks out strongly against this one. That's not an infallible argument, but nonetheless one difficult to reckon with. There is nothing complex about Gregorian chant or a Lutheran or Calvinist hymn or Anglican chant. If you're calling yourself a traditionalist, this is probably not the argument you want to employ. It's also important to remember that contemporary music is difficult for many people to sing along with for a reason—the rhythm tends to be devilishly hard. None of this is to say that Church music can't be complex. The really complex thing here is the issue, not the music.

3. Church music must be Classical. Sed contra. This is one I particularly take issue with. I would say the opposite—Church music needs to be not Classical. Remember what Classical means. Classical doesn't just connote "older", like classic rock connotes Led Zepplin (old, ha, ha, ha), but it also connotes the real Classical era, the era of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It's no coincidence that these men are one of the first recorded instances of art for art's sake and the use of the stage rather than the altar or the hearth as the background for music. Nor is it a coincidence that the movement that molded the direction Classical music would go was a group of Renaissance men who thought music needed to be less sacred and more like, of all things, the era of Classical drama. More about that here.

Think about it this way. If you have a problem with taking the devil-worship words out of a metal song and putting in great theology, then you should also consider there's a similar (maybe not so drastic) problem with Mozart's Requiem. Think about it—the same compositional techniques Mozart used for his definitively secular symphony he is now using for his ostensibly sacred requiem. If you think that simply slipping in good theology (well, even that's debatable) on top of secular music is in general a bad principle, then Classical music is precisely what you don't want your Church music to be.

This also gets into how you define Classical music, of course, but I think it's vital to understand it as a secular project, not a sacred one. So, this ends up going both ways—music that is truly sacred can't be considered Classical music. This isn't just an arbitrarily subversive category. Church music does need to be culture defining, not culture defined. It necessitates careful distinctions, and the clearest one is between High music that is sacred and High music that is secular. If this involves declaring that BWV 244 is not Classical music in the normal sense, oh well. It's a distinction that still needs to be made.

I'd also like to address, at some point, the concept of music as a mood enhancer. This should be enough for now.


E.E. said...

I mostly agree with everything you said.

Nevertheless, your last comment left me curious. Do you think Music should be a mood enhancer?
what use is music, in the church, anyway?

I think that there are several different uses, and kinds of music appropriate in church worship, and that classical music lends itself to the mood of seriousness more aptly than any other music. Then again, I'm not arguing that classical music is innately good. I'm arguing that it fulfills the mood's demands.

Which returns to what I asked up there. Do you think music is for the mood of the people, or is there something innate in it?

you obviously need another post. ^_^

Magister Perotinus said...

Well, that's an issue I'll have to take up at some length later on. But, since talking abstractly about music is difficult, let's work case by case.

Would you say Prokofiev lends itself to church? Wagner's Tristan and Isoulde? Beethoven's 5th symphony? Prince Igor by Borodin? I'm having trouble imagining any of those.

If, on the other hand, you say, "Well, maybe Bach or Pergolesi," then, I'd say, precisely. But that isn't really Classical music, since it's not secular. If you said Mozart's Requiem, then you may have a point. I think the mood fits, but I still think that it's seriously bordering on secular in its musical composition. I know this seems really weird, but, then again, I think it makes even less sense to clump ALL these various kinds of music that are composed for TOTALLY different functions are conglomerated under the title "Classical music".

E.E. said...

One thing my dad always says is - don't play a classical work so famous that when people hear it, they think of the symphony.

So I would reject the fifth symphony.I would argue some of the softer parts of Prince Igor (and I have a part in mind) lend themselves to certain types of Church music.

See, I think that church music should be divided into 3 categories (from Colossians, I believe) Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs. I think a healthy church service has all three. Psalms are (duh) Psalms. Hymns being serious hymns, usually set to more "classical" type music, those being reverent and serious, and seriously joyful. Think Seraphim and Cherubim

Finally, I think Spiritual Songs are more praise song -esque. The words needn't be _as_ serious, and their purpose is to praise God in joy - akin to the Old Testament people dancing and singing.

So for each different one, you have different types of music. In all cases, you should _not_ have music that will remind your listeners of secular stuff. I would reject a praise song to the tune of "we will rock you". (God will, God will, judge us! ...? I think not.)

second, the music needs to fit the words.

From those two points, you select from classical, pop, and whatever else, music that will direct your attention to God, rather than distract you, and music that fits the word (or it'll distract you)

As with the case of any music, I think it doesn't matter if it was composed secularly, _as long as_ it's not popular for that reason, or whatever. I mean, seriously. only a few music nerds know that the requiem is pretty secular - your average church goer (no matter no strong a believer he is) probably won't, in which case I would argue it's ok to use.

I still think it comes down to what you find the point of music in church to be. At this point, we're arguing negatively, which is always a little bit counter productive.