Thursday, August 24, 2006

Music in worship

Another Westcott post. This one doesn't need to change though :)

In 1931 Ludwig Wittgenstein went with his friend Con Drury to sit in the Chapel of Westcott House where Drury had begun training for the priesthood. Drury recalls:
‘We then went and sat for a while in the college chapel. There was no organ in the chapel but instead a piano in the loft. While we were sitting in silence, someone else came in and started to play the piano. Wittgenstein jumped up at once and hurried out. I followed. [He exclaimed] ‘Blasphemy! A piano and the cross. Only an organ should be allowed in a church!’
One hesitates to consider what Wittgenstein would have made of a present day Federation Eucharist. More seriously however, this vignette points up the difficulties that are involved in any attempt to bring together music and the sacred. It is an arena in which strong feelings can be aroused and consequently it is an arena in which strong theology is required.

It would seem as if music has always been associated with worship. We read in Psalm 71: ‘I will also praise thee with the harp for the faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to thee with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to thee’ and this brings out the close association between the act of making music and the act of giving praise to God. We know from Acts that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned at Philippi they ‘were praying and singing hymns to God’ which presumably acted to help them sustain their faith. Moving forward we can consider the development of plainchant, which came about in order to help the faithful hear the words of the liturgy which became acoustically confused in large spaces if they were not sung. We then of course have the stunning achievements of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Handel’s Messiah, which give exquisite expression to the perspective of faith. In our own time on any particular Sunday we could hear in different churches anything from Victorian hymns to Graham Kendrick choruses to the ambient beat associated with alternative worship. Clearly in our contemporary culture there is a plethora of musical forms from which to choose. The real concern is to establish the grounds which should guide our choice.

The first point to be made is that music is something that reaches very deeply within us as human beings. We can quite literally be moved to tears by a particular melody, or alternatively we can be motivated to achieve victory in battle – think of the use to which martial music has been put, and the development of particular instruments, such as the bagpipes, for this purpose. Of course, we have recently had the striking example of the music used in Diana’s funeral, both Elton John and John Tavener, which served to express some of the powerful feelings which had arisen following her death. Music has developed its own language which can be used to express a vast emotional vocabulary. It is difficult to offer a completely objective and detached analysis of the role of music in worship given this close link with our feeling nature, and this is a theme to which I will return.

As well as this level of emotional response to music there is clearly an intellectual dimension to consider. For example, Bach wrote his forty eight Preludes and Fugues for the Organ in order to ensure that all the musical keys were used, each one having a slightly different character (as a church organist himself doubtless there was also the practical consideration of having more interesting music to play). The overused phrase ‘the harmony of the spheres’ could perhaps be used with some effect here, because the intellectual appreciation of music can become an aesthetic appreciation which can give rise to contemplation of the divine harmony underlying the musical one.

A further level to consider in music is the meditative which has a very popular contemporary form in Taizé chanting. Silence can also be a form of music, and silence can take very different forms according to the musical and liturgical context within which it is placed. The rhythmic and repetitive forms of Gregorian plain chant or Taizé can inculcate a quiet and restful spirit, which has obvious spiritual benefit. As well as these more individual aspects of musical appreciation there is the crucial dimension of community. In singing together, or in making music together, a particular group fosters its corporate identity and songs can develop a sense of fellowship. What we have then is a medium which has profound links to our humanity, in all its aspects: emotional, intellectual, spiritual. It is unsurprising that music has always been part of worship in any community.

This leads to a consideration of ways in which music can be used within a community. This has a number of aspects:
  • Firstly, as mentioned above with regard to the development of plainsong, the use of music in worship can allow the ‘content’ of a service to be more effectively absorbed. Within a large church music can allow words to be heard clearly, and it can be used to give dramatic colouring to a service. For example, in a sung Eucharist the fact that there is a sung Alleluia to accompany a gospel procession can enhance the sense that this reading needs to be accepted in a different way to the previous ones, as it is in this context that one encounters the Word of God.
  • Following on from this there is the way in which music can encourage a greater retention of, for example, the poetry of a great hymn. I remember once reading about the comfort that a dying man gained from being able to recollect the hymns that were sung in his school when he was a child, and to be able to gain a measure of insight from the theology that was contained in them. Another example may be the use of Christmas carols which are in many instances the principal exposure to church music. It is not an accident that Christmas services are more well attended when one considers the facility and beauty of these hymns. Another aspect of this is that singing can be used to great effect in teaching. It is likely that many of the great books of the Bible were originally preserved in this way as the memory is enhanced by the use of a melodic rhythm.
  • A more important use of music, of course, is to enable the expression of the sense of worship within a community. Music provides a way of saying things that cannot be said in words. To refer to Wittgenstein once more, he once said that ‘It has been impossible in my book to say one word of all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’. Music is not simply a means of expressing verbal forms with a greater sense of drama and occasion. It allows for a wider expression of what is within us. There are certain occasions when an emotion can be too deeply held to be expressed in a normal fashion and in these circumstances only music can suffice, Diana’s funeral might be one example. In a very important way music can be seen as a way of enlarging the soul, for it allows the expression of something vital. Foremost amongst this is the desire to praise God, for hereit is perhaps easier to understand how after a time words fail and music must take over. Music should not be considered just for praise however, for as we can see in the Psalms, which represent our oldest hymn book, all of our emotional response needs to be included. In a requiem mass for example, whilst there is of course the need to place everything within the sacred context, there is an overwhelming need to articulate the grief associated with such an event. Similarly, at an infant baptism or a wedding, there would be a need to articulate a sense of joy. Music can allow this to happen. What is important is that the music allow the congregation to speak directly to God, and express what is within their hearts.
However, it is clear that there are dangers involved, and it is to those that I will now turn. There are at least three potential pitfalls that need to be avoided in any use of music in a liturgical context. Clearly a service of worship (or an occasional office) needs to be distinguished from a musical performance, where the focus is on the musical quality of what is done, rather than the liturgical efficacy. In our decadent Anglican culture the receding tide of faith has left the high peaks of our past musical achievement as cultural relics operating in splendid isolation from the faith which gave them sense. The performance of Evensong in King’s College Chapel, to an audience of tourists eager to gain an experience of something quintessentially English, is not necessarily an act of faith. The commercial development of such performances, which reduce this liturgy to a packaged product, is also not something which develops a sense of the sacred. In contrast to this there is the opposite failing of having poor quality music in a liturgical setting. Instead of having an isolated high achievement there is the clinging to the forms of a triumphal church in a context which requires a penitent church. For example to attempt a sung Eucharist where there is a congregation numbering in the low teens, most of whom have no musical training, is to place a blind obeisance to tradition above a pastorally and liturgically sensitive expression of faith. In such a context the echo of a dead faith drowns out the expression of a living one.

My final point relates to a sensitivity to modern cultural forms. In our contemporary state of media saturation most people are highly musically aware, even if that awareness is not an explicit one. By this I mean that the exposure to music of both high quality and diversity has enlarged the musical vocabulary of most people. If we accept that music allows the expression of emotion then I would assert that in their daily life people are offered a very highly developed ability to express themselves. In terms of articulating grief joy, anger or any of a myriad other emotions our present culture allows a very effective and democratic participation. If a person is feeling in a particular way then they can play a particular form of music which will allow them to engage and express those emotions. This development of a broad popular culture has meant that the expectations of a congregation are now significantly different to what they have been in the past, and the mode of musical expression, the musical vocabulary, is now much larger. In such a context it is appropriate to use that vocabulary in a liturgically effective way and not simply attempt to ape such forms in a fatally misguided attempt to become ‘relevant’. The key point here, of course, is what is meant by ‘liturgically effective’ because it is not clear that the ability to express a sense of reverence is equally available.

So far my discussion has been conducted at a very general level, indeed it could be characterised as simply an articulation of theological common sense. I believe, however, that there is a more significant issue with regard to music that needs to be taken account of by our Church, and that relates to the prophetic task of the Church within our present culture. As Walter Brueggemann put it in his text ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ :

‘When the new king rules it is new song time. It has always been new song time when the new king comes and there is no more calling of the skilled mourners who know how to cry on call. The funeral is ended for now it is festival time. It is time for the children and for all who can sing new songs and discern new situations. The old songs had to be sung in the presence of mockers and they were an embarrassment because they spoke about all that had failed. But new song time is a way to sing a new social reality as the freedom songs stood behind every freedom act. The energy comes from the song that will sing Yahweh to his throne and Babylon to her grave. As Abraham Heschel has seen, only people in covenant can sing. New song time is when a new covenant that becomes the beginning for another way of reality is made.’

I believe that in our present context, the church in its prophetic ministry is not simply called to use music in particular ways to express the sense of a worshipping community. It is called to affirm the importance of music as being itself a sign of the Kingdom, which subverts the secular mentality by its very existence. This point will need a little further explanation (!).

We live in a society and culture that is conditioned by a deep division between what is rational (and therefore affirmed by our culture) and what is emotional (and therefore denied by our culture). It would not be appropriate in this essay to explore the way in which this division has wounded our culture and effected a deeply dehumanising and irreligious economic and social reality upon us . My point is this: the role of music in worship needs to be one that affirms and upholds the emotional elements within us, and not just the rational. This leads to the following considerations:
  • In worship we affirm our relatedness to God. This is something that is inescapably emotional (and as such this is a subversive act within our present culture). The music that we employ in order to do this more effectively is such that can (done properly) deepen and integrate this emotional reality into our wider life. This can strengthen the faithful to resist the blandishments of what Brueggemann calls the ‘royal consciousness’;
  • The key to this royal consciousness, which Brueggemann picks out, is that it denies the reality of suffering, of pathos. The role of any prophetic community is therefore to cut through the numbness that is consequent on the rational/emotional division and to allow an articulation of the grief felt by the excluded. This is something that can best be done in a musical form. The use of music allows a more fully developed expression of the emotional circumstances of the community.
  • Consequently, the form of music that is needed by this prophetic community is not one that is primarily amenable to an intellectual or aesthetic appreciation. It is one that will connect with the vitality and feeling nature of the dispossessed, and can articulate their emotional response. The important thing is not necessarily to have music that will satisfy aesthetically so much as to have a musical form that will allow the emotional side an outlet. In this context a Dionysian rite may be more Christian than a choral Evensong.
A consideration of the role of music in worship, therefore, must not only consider the aesthetics and liturgical appropriateness of musical forms. With respect to that the way forward is fairly clear and uncontroversial. What is more important is that the role of music as a prophetic weapon against secular worldliness needs to be acknowledged and embraced. The Devil must not be allowed to have all the best tunes.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.