Church Music

Many of us have probably experienced something of the “worship wars” which exist as an unfortunate accident in the history of the Church. Whether in Protestant or Catholic settings; whether it’s over an organ, piano, guitar or (God forbid) a drum-set; it seems the subject of church music always brings with it strong opinions and feelings, if not severe criticism and even rage. All of this might cause us to wonder whether we’ve lost our moorings somewhere along the way.

In many such cases I feel it is helpful to go back and read from the pages of our not-so-distant history, and learn what our medieval forbearers understood and practiced. In the case of church music I feel their clarity has much to offer us today.

The church men and women of the “dark ages” were still influenced by the classical heritage, where the importance of music was deeply felt and better understood than we often realize. As Plato himself famously put it,

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good and just and beautiful.

Of course, the ancients understood the power of music so well that they realized it could be used in a subversive and detrimental way by the culture’s enemies. For “music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul,” its misuse could have severe consequences. Plato admitted, “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”

Given this classical understanding of the psychological affect of musical tones, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Christians considering these ideas in the Church. Different kinds of music evoke different emotions, and thus their relative propriety, depending upon setting, were all commonly discussed. And at least one thing is very clear, good (and dare I say, beautiful) music was very important in the Church.

Kenelm Digby presents the situation:

Music is said by some holy men to have drawn the gentiles frequently into the Church through mere curiosity, which ended in conversion of heart and the desire of baptism.

Of course, this can be contrasted with “the generality of the parochial music [of] the moderns [which] is not likely to produce similar effects, it being such as would rather drive Christians with good ears out of the church than draw Pagans into it.” Many of us can probably relate to that sentiment, indeed.

But what is the purpose of church music anyway? How do we describe or explain it? And how should it affect us? These are all very involved questions to be sure.

Socrates held philosophy to be the highest music, and to our fathers it seemed that the music of the Church was full of religion. “It consoles those that are sad at heart,” says a monk of St. Gall, “it makes minds more gracious, it refreshes the studious, it invites sinners to contrition, it purifies the inward man and renders him more prompt to works of piety.” What Beveridge says of himself was doubtless true of those successive generation of men who took delight in the beauty of the Lord’s house and in the exercises of Catholic devotion: “Their souls became harmonious, being accustomed so much to harmony and so averse to all manner of discord that the least jarring sound either in notes or words seemed very harsh and unpleasant to them”

And Sir Thomas Brown even put it this way:

Whatsoever is harmonically composed delights in harmony; which makes me much distrust the symmetry of those heads which declaim against all church music.

So it is clear that harmony (and not just melody) was an important part of church music, at least by the end of the middle ages. And who can deny the powerful experience of serenity, and almost other-worldly transport, under the [in]cantation of psalms by a pristine chorus of chapel voices (ordinarily still called acapella)? With all the contemporary interest in “music therapy” as a psychological study, I’m surprised more academics haven’t made church or sacred music the subject of their inquire.

But another aspect is worthy of note, and that is the medieval antipathy toward affectation, or “performance” as it were. In this regard, the ancients could be somewhat severe, as Digby explains:

It would have been well if the modern composers of church music had philosophized more on the subject of their profession and had borne in mind the connection between the ancient style and the object to which all church music is directed. It would have been well if they had attend to the words of St. Augustine where he approves of the use of church music but observes: “Yet when it happens to me that the singing is to me more moving than the thing which is the subject matter of the song I confess that I commit a fault deserving of punishment; and then I had rather not listen to the person who is singing.”

One cannot help but think of the many soloists (“mezzo-sopranos”?) who may or may not have been guilty of this particular fault. Nevertheless,

in all essential parts of the service the music of the Church continued the same, as in her prefaces, prayers, chants for the Gospel, for the Credo, and for the different offices of night and day. Here the severity of the tones added solemnity to the majestic strain, which, when accompanied with the peculiar pronunciation of the Italians, must have attained its highest beauty.

Such a solemn, majestic, and even severe high beauty connected to church music might seem strange to modern folk who are accustomed to “guitar masses” or rock-band performances on a regular basis. But it does bid us reconsider the purpose of Church music, and why we do what we do. If we are called to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96:9) and to work this all out in “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), it makes sense why the medievals cherished sacred church music the way they did. And given the current confusion over “worship wars” I think we would do well to learn as much from them as we possibly can.

In the “Sursum Corda” we are called to “lift up our hearts” to the Lord who is in heaven (Lam. 3:41). Thus it stands to reason that church music should possess a feeling of holiness to it (being set apart) and heavenliness (angelic, etherial?) as well. Heaven is where we are headed (ad orientum) and so Church music should help us focus our energies and orient our entire selves (body, soul, and spirit) in a heavenward direction.

But maybe this is not what people want today. Perhaps in order for the music of heaven to make its way into our hearts we must first rid ourselves of certain antipathies against such harmonic “vibrations.” Indeed, for some people the very purity of sacred beauty is probably a “put-off.” As Digby concludes:

In some countries in this age, there is a contemptible, certainly a most base-born, passion for making everything appear ridiculous but what serves to satisfy the ordinary wants or to gratify the grossest appetites of men. Where this awful spirit is suffered to prevail it would be hopeless to think of justifying the ceremonies of the Church or of pointing out wherein their beauty consists. Assuredly we cannot advance one step in divine philosophy, we cannot attain to the most distant conception of the spirit of the ancient religion, until this fatal leaven, destructive of all wisdom, of innocence, of love, of gentleness, of sanctity, be rooted out utterly from our hearts and thought of with horror, not only as being unholy but as being the peculiar attribute of all ignoble and base persons.

Let these things not be true of us…


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