A Reformed Guide to Western Classical Music
In winding up his magnificent exposition of the sovereignty of grace in salvation, the apostle Paul writes: ‘For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things’ (Rom. 11:36). That is, from God as the Source, through God as the Means, to God as the End, all things exist and have their purpose.
This comprehensive statement includes Music. For at the dawn of time ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God (i.e. holy angels) shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7). This is the Song of Creation. At the end of time, the ransomed of the Lord will sing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain’ (Rev. 5:12). This is the Song of Redemption. Between times, throughout the entire length of human history, music is integral to man’s life everywhere, as an activity of both the wicked (Job 21:7, 11-12) and the righteous (Psa. 98:1-6). We must therefore give it serious consideration, and not dismiss it out of hand simply because it was first developed in the line of Cain (Gen. 4:21) or because it has no appeal to us.
Who teaches angels, the redeemed and the ungodly ‘the noble art or science of music’? asks Karlheinz Stockhausen. God, he replies, the ‘greatest of all composers.’ It is God who created the harmony of the spheres, who placed ‘the stuff of music’ within man’s reach, and who bestows on certain individuals the ability to compose, perform and appreciate music. We begin, then, with him.
The Music of Nature
We are born into a world of music. The rhythm of the seasons, the pulse of our heartbeats, the wind-blown whistling of lakeside reeds, singing sands, birdsong and such phenomena as Fingal’s Cave on Staffa (which the Celts called ‘Cave of Music’), all place within reach of our wonderfully constructed ears (Psa. 94:9) the materials from which music is made. Though it is a far cry from Jubal’s primitive harp and panpipes to Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, their origin is the same. God has placed musical resources in the world, and has mandated us to use them (Gen. 1:28). Being made in his image, we derive our creative, executive and appreciative ability from him. Music is one of the many means of expression he implanted in us when he made us. This is why men make music all over the world. Every nation and tribe has its own distinctive musical culture, which it has developed through imitating and cultivating nature.
The Power of Music
The power of music over us is recognized worldwide. It has power to organize and put fighting mettle into men, as in military marches; to induce ecstasy, as in dervish dancing and certain types of ‘pop’ music; to heighten speech, as in songs and Welsh preaching; to depress, as at Buddhist funerals; to uplift, as in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus; to soothe, as with King Saul on hearing David’s harp; to ‘ravish the soul,’ as Robert Burton says in his Anatomy of Melancholy; to terrify, as in Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible; in short, to ‘raise or quell’ every human emotion.
Among the 16th century Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther observed music’s power to move our feelings; as ‘mistress and queen of the emotions of the human heart,’ he says, music can even control us. ‘For if you want to revive the sad, startle the jovial, encourage the despairing, humble the conceited, pacify the raving, mollify the hate-filled . . . what can you find that is more effective than music?’John Calvin too acknowledged music’s ‘well-nigh incredible power to move us whenever it will.’
A millennium earlier, Augustine was so moved by the congregational singing of the Psalms in Milan Cathedral that he wept ‘copious tears.’
By the mysterious power of God invested in it, then, music is able to penetrate deep into the core of our consciousness and call forth the most varied emotions.
Should anyone doubt this power, let him only attend a wedding where the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner’s Lohengrin is played, or a public memorial service at which Chopin’s so-called Funeral March is performed by a military band, or a Scottish Highland Communion Service, when the Gaelic Psalms are sung from hearts that have been stirred to the depths, or a Welsh rugby match, when the old Welsh hymns and the Welsh National Anthem peal around the terraces from impromptu male voice choirs.
Three Ruling Principles
Holy Scripture lays down three ruling principles that should regulate all our musical activity, in composing, performing and listening. A study of these principles should lead us to certain conclusions. These in turn should enable us to select from the many options available to us what is pleasing to God. In this article, we will concentrate on the western ‘classical’ tradition, since this has developed in a professedly Christian context.
1. A Gift from God
God, writes Paul to Timothy, has ‘given us all things richly to enjoy’ (1 Tim. 6:17). Music is one of the most refined and beautiful of these gifts.
The devout music theorist Andreas Werckmeister (1686) acknowledged this when he wrote: ‘Music . . . has its origin from God and has been granted to mankind as a glorious gift from the Creator.’
From this truth we infer that:
a) Our thoughts and feelings should not be confined to the music itself, nor to its performers, nor to the pleasure we derive from it, but should pass beyond these to the Lord, its Giver.
b) We should thank him for his tender concern to alleviate through the sounds of music some of the many burdens brought on us by sin.
c) We should view music as a gift to all mankind, not to any specially privileged class. This is a safeguard against musical snobbery, of which there is a great deal in some musical circles.
2. For the Glory of God
Since God is the Giver of every good and perfect gift, all our musical activities should be engaged in for his glory. ‘Whatsoever ye do,’ writes Paul, ‘do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31). That is, have such thoughts of God and live such lives to God as will bring him honour.
The world’s greatest Christian composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, took this view. ‘The aim,’ he said, ‘of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God . . .’ Bach himself set us the example by inscribing his scores S. D. G. = Soli Deo Gloria = Solely to the Glory of God.
For us this means that:
a) We should never transfer to composers, conductors, performers or ‘budding child prodigies’ the glory that belongs to God alone. We must keep ourselves from every form of musical idolatry.
b) We should not allow ‘entertainment music’ to become a vehicle for the worship of God. It is an abomination to him to hear congregations applauding themselves and their ‘worship leaders’ after avowedly singing his praises.
c) We should firmly refuse to engage in any music that is unworthy of him, and in which we cannot enjoy his presence.
d) By the same token, we should choose to participate in only such music by which we may glorify and enjoy him.
3. For Our Enjoyment
Besides the proof text already cited (1 Tim. 6:17) we have numerous occasions in Bible history when music was employed to enhance celebrations, both civic and ecclesiastical (1 Sam. 18:6; 1 Chron. 15:16; Neh. 12:36; Eccles. 2:8; Luke 15:25). Indeed, heaven itself rings with the sound of harps and voices captivated by the praise of God (Rev. 14:2).
Both Werckmeister and Bach endorsed this view. Said the former: one of the aims of music is ‘the lawful refreshment of the spirit.’ Bach too added that music should be used for ‘the permissible delight of the spirit.’ Refreshment and delight – how greatly does our gracious God care for our well-being in this vale of tears!
Luther and Calvin both recommended the enjoyment of music. Said Luther: ‘Music is an outstanding gift of God, and next to theology . . . youth should be taught this art.’ Again: ‘Music is a very fine art. The notes can make the words come alive.’ Consequently, in ‘the common use of music . . . Christian musicians should let their singing and playing to the praise of the Father of all grace sound forth with joy from their organs and whatever other beloved musical instruments there are.’ Luther himself was a skilful lutenist, singer and composer.
Calvin’s remarks are just as appreciative, though fewer: ‘Among other things to recreate man and give him pleasure, music is either first or one of the principal, and we must value it as a gift from God.’ Though he was no practicing musician, Calvin accepted Paul’s remark to Timothy, saying that we are ‘to enjoy the vast bounty and variety of good things’ God has given us, for everything in the world is ‘intended to make men rejoice.’ The sole exception, he adds, is sin. ‘Away then with that inhuman philosophy’ that allows only ‘the necessary use of created things.’ Calvin was no kill-joy.
We cannot fail to note the Reformers’ emphasis on the sheer generosity of God, in giving us both music and the right lo derive pleasure from it.
In passing, we would remind pernickety consciences that Christians do not need to know the character or lifestyle of composers and performers of music any more than they need to know who bakes their daily bread or built the house they live in. Neither do they need to know whether or not musicians were or are born again. ‘Common gifts,’ said Matthew Henry, ‘are given to bad men.’ Music is the common heritage of mankind. The enjoyment of good music by bad men is lawful.
Good and Bad Music
But now the question arises: What is good music? Music-loving moralists and aestheticians (writers on beauty in music) have reasoned long and laboriously to answer this question.
Here we can only offer guidelines.
1. The poet Ezra Pound provided us with a general yardstick when he wrote: ‘bad art . . . makes false reports . . . If an artist falsifies his report as to the nature of . . . God . . . of good and evil . . . then that artist lies. By good art I mean art that bears true witness.’
Here is a commendable attempt to address a fundamental issue in music. Yet we need nice discernment to separate the precious from the vile.
Let us take an example. What is opera? Augustine sheds light on the issue when he confessed to God that in the theatre at Carthage he wept over Dido’s love for Aeneas, but could not weep for his lack of love for God. That is, he could enjoy vicarious pain through the spectacle of a theatrical, but found himself in no personal pain because he did not love his Maker and Redeemer.
Applying this principle, we ask: What is the subject of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck? Barrack life, a squalid remorseful woman, and a blood-curdling murder. Hauntingly beautiful as its music is, its ‘morality’ is no subject for entertainment.
With very few exceptions (e.g. Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg) operas are full of such things: sinful intrigues, marital unfaithfulness, unrequited love, dabblings in the occult, murders and suicides. They may represent life in the raw since the Fall of Man, but they falsify their witness by treating these things as ‘normal’ and proffering them for entertainment. That such things exist among us is food for grief, not vicarious pleasure or emotional release.
An observation by Wilfrid Mellers, former Professor of Music at York University, may be helpful at this point. All Wagner’s operas except The Mastersingers, he said, are perversions of the Christian Gospel. Man finds himself in a predicament, but he is redeemed not by the Lord Jesus Christ, but by a woman.
Ballets and ‘musicals’ too are full of staged artificialities that mimic real life, besides encouraging their performers to live in a ‘pretend’ world. [The word ‘hypocrite’ originated in the Greek theatre; that is, the actors spent their lives pretending to be someone else.] Not only that, it is almost impossible working in such surroundings for the performers to resist the temptation to sexual immorality and perversity, and to fall into a ceaseless round of ‘post-performance’ drinking parties. A Christian man of my acquaintance tried playing in a well-known symphony orchestra. After a while, he found rehearsals and performances pleasurable but the lifestyle impossible. Before long, he left.
Having said this, we believe it is lawful for Christians to listen to keyboard and orchestral arrangements of opera, ballet and theatricals, without knowing their plots or being sucked into their false worlds. The Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalieria Rusticana, the Suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty ballets, the ‘Four Sea Interlude’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka are fine compositions, and can be enjoyed to the honour of God. What began life as ‘programme music’ may be transmuted into ‘absolute music,’ and so become fit for Christian consumption, freed of its theatrical associations.
In contrast to good music with bad associations is good music with good associations.
The Church cantatas of J. S. Bach offer us the highest quality music that brings with it a true report of the character and ways of God, of good and evil, and of man’s salvation. It is the most spiritually motivated and deeply felt of all Christian art. Cantata 21 traces the journey of the Christian soul out of spiritual depression into spiritual joy, much in the manner of Psalm 42. Cantata 140 brings home the principal lesson of the Parable of the Ten Virgins with power and beauty. Cantata 197 sings the Saviour’s praises with serene delight. Every cantata has its own spiritual lesson.
Heinrich Schutz, too, one of Bach’s precursors in the Lutheran tradition, set nothing but Bible texts for the worship of the Kreuz-Kirche in Dresden. His dignified motet, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord (Rev. 14:13) not only offers comfort to the believing bereaved, it also set a precedent for such beautiful Protestant works as Bach’s Cantata 106 – God’s Time is Ever the Best Time – with its heartfelt resignation to the will of God, Peter Cornelius’s I will love Thee, my Crown and my God, and Brahms’s How Amiable are Thy Tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts, one of his loveliest choruses.
For their power to arouse our appreciation of God’s goodness and beauty in nature Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Berlioz’s Summer Nights, Glazunov’s The Seasons, Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea), and Copland’s Appalachian Spring (to name no others) are superb compositions.
The ‘sea change’ brought to music by the Protestant Reformation bore fruit in many masterpieces highlighting the value of the common man, as distinct from Roman Catholic ‘clergy.’ Rachmaninov’s The Bells, for example, takes us through four main features of human life – birth, marriage, terror and death presented through the sounds of four different bells – silver, gold, brass and iron – in a choral-orchestral tapestry of great beauty.
Sir Edward Elgar’s evocation of Edwardian London, Cockaigne, Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country), Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, Chabrier’s España, and Ives’s Third Symphony and Decoration Day all draw us into different aspects of human life that God has made significant.
Thousands of fine compositions in the western classical tradition were commissioned by kings and lords, while others came to light at celebrations such as royal weddings, coronations, princely birthdays, the signing of peace treaties and national commemorations. Handel’s Coronation anthems, Water Music and Fireworks Music, Mozart’s Coronation Piano Concerto, Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture belong to this genre. All these are lawful fare for the Reformed music lover.
Historical figures, too, have inspired many a musical masterpiece. Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov, Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (Napoleon) and Liszt’s Mazeppa are cases in point. Usually the composer’s sensitivity to the historical figure whose life he is setting to music introduce us to the deep feelings that constrained his actions but which historians cannot evoke.
Inevitably the themes of birth, life, love and death feature prominently in the musical repertoire. Finzi’s Dies Natalis, Schumann’s A Woman’s Life and Loves, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, Schubert’s Maid of the Mill, Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture and Berg’s Violin Concerto are each infused with their own particular human qualities – wonder, tenderness, longing, joy and grief – as their composers contemplate the living or their beloved dead.
2. A second solution to the problem of what music the Reformed Christian may participate in with a good conscience is Dr. Percy Scholes’s insistence on ‘good taste.’ To the need to adhere to truth this renowned musicologist (author of the original Oxford Companion to Music) adds the issue of moral values. ‘It is very difficult,’ he writes, ‘to argue with those who support the use of bad music to lead men into good ways.’ That is, those who love bad music can hardly be persuaded to exchange it for good music, because in most cases they cannot tell the difference between them, nor even realize ‘that “bad” exists.’ Bad music, he claims, cheapens, debilitates and debases the mind, whereas good music ennobles, stimulates and elevates it. When, therefore, two pieces of music have ‘equally strong attractive qualities, the ultimate end in view will be better attained by the use of the good.’
Dr. Scholes’s remarks indicate that the ability to recognize good music can be cultivated through training. When developed, this gift can discern between music that edifies and music that debases.
Significantly, while he championed the finest classical compositions, Dr. Scholes deplored the appallingly bad musical taste of the evangelistic leaders General William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) and Moody and Sankey. Itemizing such features as the ‘simple reiteration of some elementary religious thought set to a “catchy” rhythm,’ the ‘jigging rhythms, facile melodies and commonplace harmonies of the music of street and mission hall evangelism,’ and the ‘cheap sentimentalities’ of the more ‘respectable’ churches, he stated unequivocally that they should not be ‘allowed to masquerade as high devotional feeling.’ The whole question of good and bad taste, he concludes, is not really a matter of taste at all, but ‘is essentially a moral question.’
Using this criterion, the fastidious may safely include such masterpieces as Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor Overture, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture, Elgar’s Falstaff and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, all of which were inspired by fictional characters.
On the other hand, it should need no special pleading for us to exclude all music inspired by occult or Satanic associations, or by the worship of the Virgin Mary, the pope and ‘the saints.’ Schubert’s, Bruckner’s and Gounod’s Ave Maria, along with Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli and Britten’s, Handel’s and Purcell’s Odes to St. Cecilia (the pagan patron saint of music!) all fall within this category.
In passing, we owe a great debt of gratitude to God for Dr. Scholes’s exposure of the slander that ‘Puritanism was inimical to every sort of musical activity’ (Johannes Wolf) and that ‘it was a sin’ under Puritan rule ‘to touch the virginals’ [a keyboard instrument played by Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’] (Lord Macaulay). After amassing abundant evidence to the contrary he concludes: ‘it is false from beginning to end.’
Should the believer suffer qualms of conscience over ‘programme music,’ he or she may draw on a vast repertoire of ‘absolute music’ for enjoyment. The superb brass compositions of the two Gabrielis and their Venetian contemporaries; the Baroque concertos of Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach and Albinoni; the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bizet, Bruckner, Mahler, Nielson, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Martinu, Rachmaninov, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Walton; the Classical and Romantic concertos of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Bartok; the piano and chamber music of all the Classic and Romantic composers; the delightful orchestral works of Ravel, Debussy, Elgar, Delius, Hoist, Kodaly and Bartok; and the anthems of the 20th century English school (Parry, Stanford, Finzi, Howells, Rutter, to name no others) should, with few exceptions, be acceptable to all Christians.
Music and the Christian Faith
The relation of music to the Christian Faith calls for brief separate treatment. For a comprehensive overview of the subject, readers may consult Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s The Story of Christian Music (Lion Publications).
Christians have always expressed their faith through music, simply because it is able, in conjunction with Christian words, to bear their thoughts and desires by faith out of this present world into the heavenly places, where they are purified and presented to God through our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. As Dr. Scholes says:
In music lies the one effective means of communal expression. The largest bodies of worshippers may join in expressing their faith, their hope, or their charity [love] in song whose necessary simplicity seems to detract nothing from its emotional strength when it is sung with unanimity and fervour.
The 16th and 17th centuries in Europe witnessed the blossoming of a ‘marvelous wealth of sacred music’ (John Rutter). Emerging from the ferment of the Reformation, it embraced not only the northern nations that became Lutheran or Reformed, but also the Roman Catholic south. The cantatas, motets and organ works of such masters as Pachelbel, Bohm, Buxtehude and early members of the Bach family are only some of the fruits of the German Reformation.
This proliferation of excellent ‘church’ music may pose a problem for the Reformed. Should they dismiss all Roman Catholic music, or filter out what conforms to biblical principles? Let each man decide for himself. But if the setting (such as the pre-Reformation Josquin Desprez’s Ave Maria) includes the five Marian lies about her conception, birth, annunciation, purification and assumption, we are to reject it out of hand. But some settings of orthodox biblical texts by Roman Catholic composers are extremely beautiful, and convey something of the mystery of spiritual things. Vittoria’s O Quam Gloriosum and Bruckner’s Te Deum are among the finest examples. We must discern, discriminate, then select.
The Reformation itself presents us with a problem of musical choice. It produced a bifurcation into Lutheran and Calvinistic factions, which in turn gave us two views of the Regulative Principle. Luther would admit into Christian worship ‘nothing anti-biblical,’ whereas Calvin drew the line at ‘nothing unbiblical.’ Luther was willing to adapt any suitable music for the worship of God. The tune Innsbruck, for example, was at first a Tyrolean love song. For Calvin, on the other hand, exclusive psalmody was the norm (though even he wrote a hymn, and allowed Bible ‘canticles’ to be sung in public worship).
Luther’s understanding was more general than Calvin’s. ‘Of old the use of music was sacred and was adapted to divine matters.’ He cites the Song of Moses (Exod. 15) and the Psalms, adding from Colossians 3.16: ‘It is good and pleasing to God to sing spiritual songs.’ The Early Church did so to keep ‘God’s Word and Christian doctrine’ fresh in men’s minds.
To this end he composed several chorales, or German hymn tunes, with the words, and called Johann Walther, a trained musician, to Wittenberg to help him solve the problem of replacing unreformed worship (Latin masses and motets sung only by choirs) with reformed (sung by the whole congregation). He also sought out Christian poets who could ‘compose evangelical and spiritual songs.’ The result was the first Lutheran hymnbook (1524). Among these communal expressions of sturdy German piety are the well-known Dear Christians, let us now rejoice; Our God He is a Castle Strong and Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.
Once these ‘songs’ were available to all, they ‘helped Luther’s Reformation spread like wildfire, not only through the scholarly and literate, but through all levels of German society’ (Rebecca Oettinger). It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say with Ulrich S. Leupold: ‘the [Lutheran] reform of the mass became the shibboleth of the Reformation.’ The Lutheran blossoming bore its ripest fruit two centuries later in the church cantatas of J. S. Bach, with their rich combination of soloists, choir, congregation and orchestra. Reformed believers would not be happy with these in public worship, though they could enjoy them in private.
Calvin’s contribution was to confine the singing in St. Peter’s, Geneva, mainly to the Psalms, without musical instruments. Psalm singing, he claimed, ‘lends dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and eagerness to pray.’ It also heightens the congregation’s sense of community in the Universal Body of Christ. He disapproved of instruments in church services (though not in domestic music making) on the ground that they belonged to the Church’s infancy in Old Testament times.
In 1550 Beza completed his translation of the entire Psalter, and the professional musician Louis Bourgeois set them to music. His ‘grave sweet melodies’ greatly enhance the Geneva Psalter (1562). Bourgeois’ principle – to set only one note to each syllable (in contrast to the Roman many-note flourishes) – made his simple, direct and solemn melodies memorable and popular throughout the Reformed world. Claude Goudimel eventually harmonized them so that they could be sung at family worship and in social gatherings. The Venetian ambassador to Geneva observed with amazement how on a certain weekday the townsfolk would shut up their shops and wend their way through the narrow streets to the cathedral, with their little black psalm books in their hands ready for psalm practice!
While Calvin urges every part of us, body and soul, to magnify the Lord, his main concern is for our hearts to ‘break out impulsively and impetuously with a burning affection’ in worship, for God ‘omits no sweet melody, no sad and grave strain, to draw us to himself, though we lie like stones’ before him. What is needed above all else is ‘a pure and sincere disposition of the heart.’
Let us conclude our scanty treatment of this important subject by reminding ourselves that the sounds that constitute music are amoral. They are neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad, but are mere vibrations in the air. Music becomes good or bad through association. Let us look at its words, the lifestyle of the musicians who perform it, the venues where it is performed, its emotional content and the effects it has on us and others. Then let us decide what our involvement with music will be. The few principles we have sought to elucidate may provide guidelines for our choices.
Finally, let us ask ourselves:
1. Can I honour God in the music I make or love?
2. Am I soothed or invigorated, jaded or depressed by it?
3. Does it appeal to my noblest and deepest feelings, or does it merely titillate my senses?
4. Does it lead me to clean, wholesome thoughts, or does it stimulate crude, immoral or ugly thoughts and desires in me?
5. Do I idolize it, its composers and performers, or, as Paul counsels (1 Cor. 7:31) do I use it to glorify God and refresh my spirit?
6. Does it remind me of God and his bountiful loving-kindness, and move me to thank him for it?
7. Can I produce a biblical warrant for the kind of music I enjoy and practice?
8. Can I ask God’s blessing on the music I enjoy?
Should our conscience be clear on these points, we will concur with Johann Matheson, an 18th century musical theoretician, that ‘music is a noble art,’ and though we shall need no lawyers in heaven, ‘for there will be no trials,’ nor doctors giving prescriptions and purgatives, yet ‘the things theologians and musicians learned on earth they will also practice in heaven, that is, to praise God.’
John Brentnall is the editor of Peace and Truth from the 2011:1 edition of which the above was taken with permission.