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Christianity and Music

Abstract and Keywords

On Sundays around Word and Table and at prayer during the week, Christians in their worship have created music for congregational assemblies and for choirs, spawning artistic “folk” music and “art” music by remarkably able composers, among them anonymous persons, as well as those whose names we know, such as J. S. Bach. Some Christians have objected to music, obliterating it altogether from worship or restricting it, but over the long haul it has blossomed artistically and freely in various styles and forms. This chapter describes positions that have been taken and gives a brief history of the church’s encounter with music, from generative psalms and canticles to the present.

Keywords: assembly, canticles, Choir, Christianity, folk music, worship, music, psalms

19.1 Streams

The Christian church at worship has expressed itself musically most clearly in two streams: one, what the assembly, mostly people who are not musicians, sings without practice, the other what a choir practices to help the assembly and to sing what it cannot. The first group is more aligned to the artistry of folk music, the second more to art music.

The normative Sunday gathering for Christians has been a Word and Table sequence, known by names like Eucharist, Mass, Liturgy, or Holy Communion. The other six days of the week have been characterized by brief prayer services at morning and evening for the church generally and up to eight services throughout the day for those who, like monks, live together in community. Both have “Ordinary” parts—ones that happen regularly (“ordinarily”), and “Proper” parts—ones that happen only on (are “proper” to) specific days of the church’s calendar. Generally the Ordinary is congregational and the Proper choral, though “Proper” hymns are congregational. Choirs sometimes sing both the Ordinary and the Proper, as in some Orthodox and Anglican traditions.

Music for worship presumes a participatory group of worshipers, or the presence of some people in the assembly who participate and help those who may not be familiar with the service. The church has also stimulated an oratorio tradition that does not presume participation. It relies on the worshiping tradition and may even use its parts, but it presumes music practiced by a group who performs for listeners. This stream is concert-like and can focus more obviously on artistry, though worship’s dynamics can drive artistry even more strongly.

19.2 Music

The church has spawned some of the most remarkably artistic music the world has known. This includes anonymous plainchant and compositions by many musicians, (p. 287) among them Hildegard (1098–1179), Perotin (fl. C. 1200), Machaut (1300–1377), Binchois (c. 1400–1460), Dufay (1400–1474), Ockeghem (c. 1410–1497), Josquin (c. 1440–1521), Palestrina (1525–1594), Victoria (1548–1611), Schütz (1585–1672), Lassus (1532–1594), Pachelbel (1653–1706), Purcell (1659–1695), J. S. Bach (1685–1750), who Robert Shaw said might be “the single greatest creative genius” of the Western world,1 Handel (1685–1759), Haydn (1732–1809), Mozart (1765–1791), Bortniansky (1751–1825), Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Franck (1822–1890), Brahms (1833–1897), Rachmaninov (1873–1943), Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), Stravinsky (1882–1971), Duruflé (1902–1986), Distler (1908–1942), Messiaen (1908–1992), and a myriad of other, sometimes lesser known but nonetheless very able, craftspersons.

With the exception of Vaughan Williams, the above list does not include composers of service music or hymn tunes. These smaller congregational folk-like idioms are sometimes remarkably artistic miniatures that have stimulated artistic traditions of congregational singing. They include unaccompanied unison forms of plainchant, chorales, metrical psalm tunes, black and white spirituals, as well as other tunes and sophisticated forms of lining out and part-singing. Organists have improvised and composed artistic introductions, hymn stanzas, and free-standing pieces; and the nineteenth century increased the use of the organ to accompany hymn singing in artistic ways.

19.3 Perspective

Some Christians have objected to music. Questions then surface about what “religious” and “artistic” mean. Nicholas Temperley isolates “three distinct attitudes to the place of music in worship…throughout the history of Christianity.”2 The first excludes music because of “mistrust” in music’s power, “in spite,” says Temperley, “of clear biblical injunctions to praise God with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, and with instruments of music (e.g., Psalm 150:3–5; Colossians 3:16).” The second harnesses music “for the good of men’s souls.” The third “denies the role of music as an actual vehicle of religious expression, but values it as an ornament in the offering to God, as part of the ‘beauty of holiness.’”

Temperley’s analysis suggests that the third attitude is not religious. Karl Barth’s view fits Temperley’s second attitude. Barth regarded singing as “the highest form of human expression. It is to such supreme expression,” he says, “that the vox humana is dedicated in the ministry of the Christian community.”3 However, he also regarded “the revelation of God as the abolition of religion”4 and “Religion as Unbelief.”5 Barth’s theological definition of religion suggests that Temperley’s first and third attitudes may be the “religious” ones. If religion is not defined theologically, but phenomenologically as human expression of a set of beliefs and their practice concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, “religious” may be construed to relate to all three of the attitudes Temperley isolates. Whether they are all “artistic” is another question.

(p. 288) David P. McKay and Richard Crawford see the church’s “long, often fruitful relationship with music” as an “uneasy truce”6 or “a classic dichotomy between musician and theologian.”7 This view suggests that music is artistic and theology is not. There is a “long history of the Church’s ambivalent relationship with its singers.”8 Christopher Page locates it already in the first four centuries. But theology may yield the highest regard for music at its most artistic reach. Theologian Robert Jenson says that the “prayer and proclamation of the church regularly bursts into beauty” and seems “to insist on music.” He sees this “not as an adventitious hankering to decorate,”9 as Temperley’s analysis may suggest. Music comes from God, says Jenson, and the Trinity from eternity is always singing. “God is a great fugue. There is nothing so capacious as a fugue.”10 God chooses to share this roominess. “The opening of that room is the act of creation.”11 This means God shares truth, goodness, and beauty with the creation,12 which in turn means “a congregation singing a hymn of praise to the Father is doubling the Son’s praise, and the surge of rhythm and melody is the surge of the Spirit’s glorification of the Father and the Son.”13

Jenson’s view is religious and artistic, though coming from God’s side turns them both upside down and gets at Barth’s point. What Jenson and the history of the church demonstrate, however one interprets them, is that Christianity’s prayer and proclamation have regularly burst into artistic musical beauty. In spite of disputes that often have taken top billing, the superficial uses to which music has been put, and the attempts to restrict or erase it, Christians over the long haul have laid aside the superficial and have gravitated to the musical artistry of their congregational and choral streams. Poets and composers, even ones whose beliefs may vary from theirs, have given them words and music they have found to be just what they wanted to say and sing but could not find on their own. They have hummed Sunday’s music all week long, have found that it “artistically” organized their lives (though they may not have used that word), and through it have known deep peace. This reality, though least often acknowledged, is nonetheless the most significant. More visible disputes have dealt with important points that need attention. They should not, however, obscure the less visible but more significant underlying reality. The history, in any case, goes something like this.

19.4 History

The Jewish community created psalms, 150 of which were gathered into the Psalter of the Old Testament. They encompass the whole round of humanity’s praise, prayer, sorrow, anger, beauty, and horror; and they bring it all before God in song. This outpouring leads in the Psalter to the whole creation singing and playing instruments before God. The texts that express this were sung by Old Testament communities with instruments in the Temple, where highly trained Levites led them, and in the synagogues by lay persons without instruments. The communities that sang them would not have called what they were doing “artistic,” but we are likely to see their religious impulse as being worked out (p. 289) in musically artistic ways—more aligned to art music in the Temple and more aligned to folk music in the synagogues.

The New Testament community took over the Psalms and their vocal performance practice without instruments from the synagogues. They added Christocentric canticles like the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), the Benedictus (Luke 1:67–79), and the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29–32), plus “hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16) that probably were general rather than specific designations. Some early Christians seem to have changed the perspective they inherited and used instruments to induce frenzy, like the priests of Cybele,14 but from the end of the second century there was a strong reaction against this. A direct argument against instruments was added to the received vocal practice of the synagogues,15 driven by instrumental associations with idolatry and immorality.16 Calvin Stapert points out that “the early Christian writers aimed no polemic at the nobler art music or folk music of their day.”17 Art and folk music turned out to be what the church developed in its choral and congregational streams. “The denunciations of music,” says Stapert, “were not general,” but “were aimed at” the music associated with public spectacles, voluptuous banqueting, pagan weddings, and pagan religious rites and festivities.18

This polemic had a strong ethical focus on behalf of the common good, directed against the lascivious and lavish expenditures that only the wealthy could afford, and should be understood in context. “The Christian Church was born in song”19 and did not think of its music as ethical or artistic. With no clear distinction between speech and song,20 lessons were cantillated, prayers were intoned, and virtually everything was sung. Edward Foley describes music in the early church as the “aural aspect” of worship.21 Joseph Gelineau says there was “an intense lyrical quality in the life of the apostolic church, particularly in its liturgical assemblies.”22

This “lyrical quality” introduced an artistic reality, as sounds were shaped and organized in time, forms were created, and artistic delight became palpable. Ambrose, Augustine, and Pambo represent three ways the church reacted.23 Ambrose (c. 340–297) affirmed the sound of music, happy that the congregational hymns (texts) he wrote were sung. Augustine (354–430) was nervous about music and wanted to be sure it did not obscure the texts and their meaning. Pambo (c. 317–367?)—to whom secondary sources attribute such thoughts, though they probably come from the sixth century24 —felt singing turned away from the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. He compared it to the lowing of cattle.

Pambo gave a minority report. The church continued to sing, developing its repertoire of congregational and choral chant. Around the end of the first millennium in the West—not in the East, which continued to follow the early church—the organ was added to the voices, became the primary instrument of the church in the West, and developed a huge artistic repertoire. Before and after the introduction of the organ, a gradually stronger artistic choral repertoire also developed. By the time of the Renaissance it had minimized the singing of the assembly.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) reacted in different ways.25 Luther renewed both the congregational and the choral (p. 290) practice of the church, joining together the utmost artistry of folk art and high art by the historic practice of alternation. He welcomed the received vocal unaccompanied unison of the congregation, the polyphony of choirs, and sounds of the organ and other instruments, provided these were all well-crafted and fitting. Calvin, on the other hand, erased choirs, polyphony, and instruments from worship, restricting music in the gathered church to the unison singing of metrical psalms, which he thought alone had the requisite weight and majesty for worship. “Lighter” polyphonic settings could be used at home, but not when the church gathered in public for worship. Zwingli, the best musician of these reformers, erased music from public worship altogether. Unlike Luther, who tied music to the Word of God, or Calvin, who tied it to prayer, Zwingli related it to play outside of worship.

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545–1563) supported choral art in the polyphonic music of Palestrina but paid scant attention to the congregational stream. Anglicans continued the artistic choral tradition in the music of composers like Christopher Tye (c. 1500–c.1573) and Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585), adding Calvin’s congregational psalm-singing, which Presbyterians and Congregationalists also practiced. Persecuted Anabaptists developed martyr ballads.26

Seventeenth-century English Baptists took a stance similar to Zwingli’s, but for different reasons. Zwingli thought music at worship was showing off. He wanted people to have an ear for the Word of God alone, without musical distractions. The Baptists thought singing pre-composed texts “quenched the spirit.”27 Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) first agreed with this view, but changed his mind. His introduction of hymn-singing changed the Baptist’s position. Quakers avoided music at worship, regarding internal centering down to the inner light as most important and devaluing all external forms; they did not change their view on this.

Each of these positions may be construed as “artistic,” but the nature of the artistry is different. For Luther, the religious impulse led to the highest possible artistry at worship for congregations, choirs, and instrumentalists. For Roman Catholics and Anglicans, it led to choral artistry, the latter in addition to the Calvinist folk tradition of psalm singing. For Calvinists with Separatist proclivities who were without choral or other liturgical music, it led to artistic restrictions at worship, a partial lifting of those restrictions outside of it, and a development not governed “consistently and systematically.”28 For Zwingli, the religious impulse shut down musical artistry at worship altogether, but at least theoretically allowed it outside of worship. For Quakers, silence may be deemed artistic, but ironically they produced Shaking Quakers who, led by Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784), danced in artistically complex configurations with perhaps as many as 8,000 spirituals, such as “’Tis the Gift to Be Simple.”29

John Wesley (1703–1791) favored the ancient power of monophony, but was drawn to Handel’s opera. He presents an inconsistent move toward the coming Romantic understanding of music’s emotional power.30 His rules for hymn-singing (lusty, modestly, in time, not too slow, and spiritual) exude a certain artistic concern without a corresponding choral development. The hymn texts of John Wesley’s brother Charles Wesley (1707–1788) were more artistic than those of Isaac Watts (1674–1748), whose texts were (p. 291) set to the psalm tunes he inherited. Charles’ texts stimulated tunes that often had to be chastened for congregational use. Charles Wesley’s sons were musical prodigies,31 and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1766–1837), Charles’s grandson, became an outstanding Anglican cathedral organist who wrote close to forty anthems and is still known for his hymn tune AURELIA. Pietists restricted the liturgy and its music, which they regarded as too artistic, though Moravians developed a highly musical culture in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and in Salem, North Carolina.32 The harmonic development of the Baroque, however, made longer artistic choral forms possible. J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass and Passions (though the latter were intended for liturgical use), Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Verdi’s Requiem, Brahms’s German Requiem, and oratorios like Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah formed an oratorio stream that stretches from the eighteenth century to the present. Smaller forms—hymn tunes, motets, and Bach’s quite artistic cantatas—continued for worship, but in the nineteenth century the larger forms of the oratorio tradition took center stage.

After the French Revolution revivalism tapped the nineteenth century’s use of music as an emotional tool of persuasion without much artistic concern, while liturgical and confessional movements—Oxford-Cambridge for Anglicans, Solesmes and Caecilian for Roman Catholics—looked with more artistry to chant as an ideal, but with the church’s integrity a chief concern. White spirituals developed with shape notes, black spirituals with a unique artistry that some would say was stimulated in surprising ways by white oppression.33 The Fisk Jubilee Singers turned black spirituals into artistic concert pieces that have become ubiquitous.34

In the twentieth century, the German Confessing Church faced Hitler with prophetic artistic service music that looked to earlier periods as stimuli. Later, parts of the American church used music in the fight for justice, but then other parts used it as a sales technique for versions of Christianity more allied to the state. The church also continued its more historic proportions, with the culture’s needs and global music from various ethnic sources included.

All in all, Christians have taken a variety of positions about music—objecting to it, restricting it, misusing it, and letting it blossom artistically and freely. Over the long haul, they have welcomed the artistic splendor their prayer and proclamation have produced.


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                                            (1) . Blocker, p. 71.

                                            (2) . Temperley, The Music of the English Parish Church, vol. 1, p. 4.

                                            (3) . Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, p. 866.

                                            (4) . Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume I, p. 280.

                                            (5) . Ibid., p. 297.

                                            (7) . Ibid., p. 3.

                                            (10) . Ibid., p. 236.

                                            (11) . Ibid., p. 226.

                                            (12) . See Ibid., p. 225.

                                            (13) . Ibid., p. 235

                                            (14) . Page, p. 32.

                                            (16) . Ibid., pp. 2–3.

                                            (18) . Ibid.

                                            (21) . Ibid., p. 57.

                                            (23) . For more detail see Westermeyer, Te Deum, pp. 82–89.

                                            (25) . For more detail, see Westermeyer, pp. 141–158.

                                            (26) . Ibid., pp. 173–178.

                                            (27) . Ibid., p. 184.

                                            (28) . McKay and Crawford, p. 9.

                                            (30) . See Westermeyer, p. 214f.

                                            (32) . See Westermeyer, pp. 222–225ff.

                                            (33) . Ibid., pp. 280–286, 293–294.