Spring 2012 Agape Meal
Lecture 1 – Music and the Order of Creation
by Ken Myers
In the second volume of his treatise Syntagma musicum, published in 1619, the composer and musician Michael Praetorius wrote the following: “. . . Almighty God alone can never be given sufficient thanks for having granted to man in His mercy and great goodness such gifts as have enabled him to achieve such a perfect, one might almost say the most perfect, creation and instrument of music as is the organ . . . in its arrangement and construction; and to play upon it with hands and feet in such a manner that God in Heaven may be praised, His worship adorned, and many moved and inspired to Christian devotion.”
It is worth noting that Praetorius does not commence his praise for this gift by saying how much he likes the sound of organ music. Rather, he first calls attention to its perfection of arrangement and construction. It is how the thing works that impresses him. Praetorius is one of a very long line of Christian thinkers who commented on the virtues of the organ as a symbol of cosmic harmony. Long before organs were permitted in churches (which was probably sometime in the tenth century) they were praised by Christian churchmen for the way in which their mechanism was a concrete, visible, and audible metaphor for spiritual realities. Tertullian, no friend of pagan culture and its forms, nevertheless praised the predecessor of the pipe organ in his treatise De Anima (On the Soul), written in the early third century. In commenting on the unity and diversity of the soul, Tertullian writes: “[A] single body is made up of various members, so that there is unity and not a division. Observe that marvelous creation of Archimedes—I speak of the hydraulic organ—with its many parts, sections, connections, passages—such a collection of sound, variety of tone, array of pipes—and yet it all constitutes a single entity. So too the air, expelled from below by the agitation of the water, is not thereby divided into parts because it is distributed into different places; rather it is one in substance though diverse in function.”
In the twelfth century, some time after organs had been admitted into churches, a Bishop Baldric, who served in the northwestern section of France that became the province of Normandy, wrote the following in a letter to the people of one of his parishes:
“For myself, I take no great pleasure in the sound of the organ; but it encourages me to reflect that, just as divers pipes, of differing weight and size, sound together in a single melody as a result of the air in them, so men should think the same thoughts, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, unite in a single purpose. . . . All this I have learned from the organs installed in this church. Are we not the organs of the Holy Spirit? And let any man who banishes them from the church likewise banish all vocal sound, and let him pray, with Moses, through motionless lips. For ourselves, we speak categorically—because organs are a good thing, if we regard them as mysteries and derive from them a spiritual harmony; it is this harmony that the Moderator of all things has instilled in us, by putting together elements entirely discordant in themselves and binding them together in a harmonious rhythm. . . . As we listen to the organs, let us be drawn together by a deeper harmony, and be cemented together by a two-fold charity.”
As musicologist Quentin Faulkner observes, “The early appearance of organs in churches . . . may well not have been so much for practical music-making as for symbolic and didactic ends: symbolic in that the instrument was the material embodiment of cosmic harmony.”
In addition to the symbolism of the organ’s mechanism, Faulkner also notes that there were aspects of the quality of sound that was theologically attractive. Early medieval organs were, remember, quite different from the pipe organs we have today. Originally they had only a single rank of pipes, and the sound they produced was rather austere and unexciting. But that was seen as a virtue: “The very quality of the sound produced by the medieval organ had an affinity to the Christian ideal of cosmic harmony and to the objective, non-affective music which that ideal produced.” In other words, music was not a means to excite emotion immediately, but to convey an aural impression of the objective structure of the universe. Faulkner continues: “The sound had practically no expressive qualities and only the slightest capacity for nuance (if indeed it had any at all), little variety in tone, very little rhythmic capabilities, and no potential for crescendo and diminuendo. It was remote in its playing mechanism, remote from its listeners (often in a balcony or ‘swallows-nest’ high up on the church wall), and in a remote, mystic and awe-inspiring acoustical environment. Its most unique musical characteristic, the ability to hold a tone at a static dynamic level, theoretically endlessly, was distinctly superhuman. If one assumes, as the Middle Ages did, that variation and fluctuation belong to the human sphere, while awe, remoteness, and constancy are characteristic of the divine, the mysterious, the holy, then the qualities enumerated above would seem to render the organ a peculiarly hieratic [that is, priestly] musical instrument.”
I’m sharing this material with you this evening in order to introduce the question of how earlier generations of Christians worked to think seriously about the nature of music, and the criteria for the Church’s embrace of specific cultural forms. At some time a thousand years into its history, the Church decided to change its tradition of exclusively a capella (unaccompanied) music and allow the introduction into its liturgical life of an instrument that had centuries of pagan associations. If Quentin Faulkner’s telling of this story is correct (and we have a lot of reasons to give it some credence), the rationale for this adjustment in the Church’s cultural life was not because the instrument was generally popular and therefore lots of people would like it. Your average medieval churchgoer had less experience with organ music than does your average American teenager does today. And it wasn’t because worship leaders regarded the instrument as a useful tool in generating enthusiasm and a sense of participation in the worship experience. In fact, from Bishop Baldric’s remarks, one gets the impression that unless the benefits of the organ had been explained to them, it would have held little implicit attraction.
The organ had little in the way of immediate or widespread popular, subjective appeal. The use of the organ was deemed fitting, because its way of working, the way it produced sound and the kinds of sounds it produced, had a likeness to cosmic and spiritual realities. By participating in the harmonies made possible by organs, one in some way participated in cosmic harmony, and so participated in the life of God. Fittingness, not popularity or effectiveness, was the criterion. It was meet and right so to do; church leaders concluded that nature and use of the organ properly presented and represented reality in some way.
Not only was the instrument itself fitting, but the kind of music it played well was appropriate for divine worship. The theologians and church leaders of this period assumed that there was an order in Creation which could be apprehended and known in music. This is why music, along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, was one of the four disciplines included in the quadrivium, the “four ways” which completed the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and which together comprised the seven liberal arts. If you wanted to prepare to study theology and philosophy in the medieval universities, you had to study music first. Music was the experience of the numeric realities of the cosmos, in time, through the senses. Even today, people describe music as a way of ordering time, or a way of perceiving the order that is time.
One of the manuscripts in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach was a treatise on counterpoint written in 1725 in which the author, Johann Joseph Fux, referred to “art which imitates and perfects nature, but never destroys it.” This idea, which is first articulated in Aristotle, was one that the very Lutheran Bach also embraced. As Bach scholar Christoff Wolff argues, “For Bach, art lay between the reality of the world—nature—and God, who ordered this reality.” In Bach’s thinking and in his compositional efforts, musical structure—harmonia, in the Latin terminology of the day—ultimately refers to the order of nature and to its divine cause. Or, as one of Bach’s students wrote, “Music is a mixed mathematical science that concerns the origins, attributes, and distinctions of sound, out of which a cultivated and lovely melody and harmony are made, so that God is honored and praised but mankind is moved to devotion, virtue, joy, and sorrow.”
In his recent biography of Bach, subtitled The Learned Musician, Christoff Wolff presents Bach as a musical Newton, as a man consciously committed to discovery of and delight in the ways of God in creation, specifically as those ways could be known in musical form.
Bach believed that an order in the universe can be perceived and should properly serve as a model for human making and doing, for art, as well as for science, for our relationships, for law, for agriculture, for politics, and, perhaps most importantly, for the life of the Church. In other words, in this older way of perceiving reality, cultural institutions and forms were not to be arbitrarily or capriciously or willfully engineered and selected, but developed and approved in faithful resonance with the order God has established in the cosmos. Culture is the cultivation of created nature. Healthy cultural forms were faithful to creation, and unhealthy cultural forms were the product of human desire suppressing or denying the created order.
But even by Bach’s day, the apparent glimpses of the transcendent in music and in other art were coming to be regarded by many as wishful thinking. Not so much because their view of music was more modest, but because their view of the cosmos was changing. In our time, that transition has long been complete. “Nowadays,” writes Jamie James, “most scientists would accept the thesis that the cosmos has no underlying logic in the classical sense, but is rather a confluence of accidents, which are governed by laws. However, the laws themselves are irrational and do not arise from any fundamental orderliness. The concept of the universe as a random, meaningless place was expressed on the earthly level by the theory of evolution: the mutations that determine the course of life on earth, and indeed the very creation of humankind, were revealed to be largely fortuitous events.”
But even today, one often encounter this older view of music and the cosmos in the work of artists, poets and novelists, who seem to question the scientific reductionism that has eclipsed that older view of music.
Consider this passage from a 1999 novel by Neil Stephenson. The book is called Cryptonomicon, and it features prominently a character named Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematical genius and one of the world’s foremost experts in cryptography and cryptanalysis, the making and breaking of codes.
Lawrence’s father, Stephenson writes, was a Congregational preacher who taught Greek and Latin at Bolger Christian College in West Point, Virginia, near the James River and a big paper mill. “The boy,” writes Stephenson, “had a peculiar relationship with sound. When a fire engine passed, he was not troubled by the siren’s howl or the bell’s clang. But when a hornet got into the house and swung across the ceiling in a broad Lissajous, droning almost inaudibly, he cried in pain at the noise. And if he saw or smelled something that scared him, he would clap his hands over his ears.”
One noise that troubled him not at all was the pipe organ in the chapel at Bolger Christian College. The chapel itself was nothing worth mentioning, but the organ had been endowed by the paper mill family and would have sufficed for a church four times the size. It nicely complemented the organist, a retired high school math teacher who felt that certain attributes of the Lord (violence and capriciousness in the Old Testament, majesty and triumph in the New) could be directly conveyed into the souls of the enpewed sinners through a kind of frontal sonic impregnation. That he ran the risk of blowing out the stained-glass windows was of no consequence because no-one liked them anyway, and the paper mill fumes were gnawing at the interstitial lead. But after one little old lady too many staggered down the aisle after a service, reeling form tinnitus, and made a barbed comment to the minister about the exceedingly dramatic music, the organist was replaced.
Nevertheless he continued to give lessons on the instrument.
Stephenson writes that young Lawrence, who was only five years old, taught himself to play a Bach fugue on the piano so he could be admitted for organ lessons, which he then continued for years. One day in his twelfth year, the organ broke down and the math teacher popped the hood to fix it, asking Lawrence for his help.
For the first time in all those years, the boy saw what had been happening when he had been pressing those keys.
For each stop—each timbre, or type of sound, that the organ could make (viz., blockflöte, trumpet, piccolo)—there was a separate row of pipes, arranged in a line from long to short. Long pipes made low notes, short high. The tops of the pipes defined a graph: not a straight line but an upward-tending curve. The organist/math teacher sat down with a few loose pipes, a pencil, and paper, and helped Lawrence figure out why. When Lawrence understood, it was as if the math teacher had suddenly played the good part of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor on a pipe organ the size of the Spiral Nebula in Andromeda—the part where Uncle Johann dissects the architecture of the Universe in one merciless descending ever-mutating chord, as if his foot is thrusting through skidding layers of garbage until it finally strikes bedrock. In particular, the final steps of the organist’s explanation were like a falcon’s dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity.
This visionary experience is a clue to readers that Lawrence will turn out to have an intuitive grasp of mathematics, a deep and ingenious sense of pattern, rhythm, and structure, which makes him indispensable when, during World War II, he works for the Allies at Bletchley Park solving Nazi codes.
In Stephenson’s description, Lawrence discovers something, not just about the way organs work, but about the nature of reality itself. The shape of that curve in the rank of pipes was not an arbitrary convention, but something in the nature of things.
Whether or not novelist Neal Stephenson actually believes that music reveals some cosmic, transcendent reality I’m not certain, but one gets the sense that he would like to believe this.
But this is surely a minority view among most of our contemporaries, who regard music as a purely subjective mode of expression, and who think that musical taste is private and unchallengeable.
I know a young man who used to live here in Charlottesville who, in his mid-20s, spent a year or two learning about and coming to like jazz. He had an uncle who was very knowledgeable and passionate about jazz, but for my friend, it was a foreign country. He believed, however, that there was something objectively present in jazz to merit his time and energy, so he started a regimen of deliberate, thoughtful, attentive listening.
And in time, as he came to understand what was going on, as he became familiar with the vernacular, he came to really like jazz.
Now he was telling a friend of his, a young woman about his age, about this journey in artistic discovery, and she was at first shocked by his account, and then apparently rather disturbed. She had nothing against jazz, but she thought that learning to like a new form of music was a sort of unnatural act, not the sort of thing respectable people did. He was flabbergasted by her response, and as she explained it, he realized that she believed music and musical tastes were so subjective, and so arbitrary, that an effort to change one’s tastes was almost immoral; it was to violate yourself in some way. One’s subjective tastes were the most intimate, almost sacred part of one’s being, so to try to transcend or alter them would be akin to self-mutilation.
This young woman, like most of our contemporaries, could not imagine that musical forms presented an opportunity to know something about the nature of things, making the cultivation of new layers of musical literacy a worthwhile project.
Music critic Julian Johnson has observed that in our day, “in matters of musical judgment, the individual can be the only authority.”
This is in sharp contrast to the relatively minor status of individual ‘taste’ in Western musical practice and aesthetics from the ancient Greeks until the late eighteenth century. To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about music than about science. Music was no more ‘a matter of taste’ than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form. Its success was no more a matter of subjective judgment than the laws themselves.
Our belief about making judgments about quality in any art form is now captive to what art critics Jed Perl has called “laissez-faire aesthetics,” which, he writes, “has left us with is a weakening of all conviction, an unwillingness to take stands, a reluctance to champion, or surrender to, any first principle.” This relativism in aesthetic judgment is simply a part of a larger suspicion about all value judgments, a suspicion that has ben described by Alasdair MacIntyre and others as “emotivism,” “the doctrine,” as MacIntyre explains, “that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.”
It would appear that many conservative Christians, who would seem to be unlikely allies for relativism concerning truth and goodness, have been all too ready to embrace relativism with regard to beauty, especially in music.
This is not a new problem among American evangelicals. Years ago, I ran across an essay written in 1876 by the great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Louis Dabney. The subject of the essay was Dabney’s sense of the danger of what we would today call parachurch organizations: Christian ministries that are not under any church authority. Dabney, no friend of entrepreneurial religion, focused on what he saw as a great irregularity of the work of independent evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Dabney believed that the absence of ecclesiastical authority meant that all sorts of heresies could be present in public proclamation by Christian teachers without any regulatory discipline. In the last two pages of his essay, almost as an epilogue, Dabney comments on the remarkable work of Ira Sankey, the man who, after quitting his job with the IRS, became the musical power behind Moody’s public meetings, the George Beverly Shea of the nineteenth century. Sankey, who in the late 1970s was admitted to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, is said to have written over 1200 gospel songs, including “Blessed Redeemer,” “Faith Is the Victory,” “How Can I Keep from Singing?” “A Shelter in the Time of Storm,” “The Ninety and Nine,” and “Under His Wings.” Ira Sankey is the great grand-daddy of Contemporary Christian Music and of the worship and praise choruses.
Dabney was less than impressed: “The most that can be said of Mr. Sankey’s [songs] . . . is, that they do not appear to have introduced positive error yet, and that they exhibit no worse traits than a marked inferiority of matter and style to the established hymnals of the leading churches. The most danger thus far apparent is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, in portions suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented with a jingle of ‘vain repetitions.’ What shall we gain by giving our people these ephemeral rhymes in place of the immortal lyrics of Moses, David, Isaiah, Watts, and Cowper, so grand in their rhythm and melody, so pure in taste, and above all, so freighted with compact and luminous truth? ‘The old wine is better.’”
What interests me about Dabney’s assessment of Ira Sankey is the fluidity with which he combines theological and aesthetic judgments, specifically his assumption that poetic and musical maturity was as desirable as (and inseparable from) spiritual faithfulness. In 1876, Dabney could assume that there was a hierarchy of aesthetic judgments publicly recognizable by those who had the ears to hear, and that habitual exposure to puerile aesthetic forms, especially in the name of religion, was not healthy.
A quarter of a century later, several years before Sankey’s death, Lutheran music historian Edward Dickinson, who taught at Oberlin College’s music conservatory, confidently expressed his sense that the musical tastes of educated Americans were steadily improving, even as many churches seemed more in synch with the products of Tin Pan Alley. Writing in a 1902 book-length survey of Church music in the West, Dickinson insisted that aesthetic weakness in church music ought not be neglected in the name of true inner piety. “The most devout intention will not make the church music effective for its ideal end if the aesthetic element is disregarded. There seems to be in many quarters a strange distrust of beauty and skill in musical performance, as if artistic qualities were in some way hostile to devotion. . . .”
Later Dickinson asserts that “It is a fallacy to assert that the masses of the people are responsive only to that which is trivial and sensational. In any case, what shall be said of a church that is satisfied to leave its votaries upon the same intellectual and spiritual level upon which it finds them?”
What is most interesting about Dickinson’s comments is his unapologetic insistence that churches can properly encourage their members to grow in musical understanding, which until 20 or 30 years ago, many churches were willing to do. The musical program in many churches was decidedly educational, setting a standard for congregations and so informing their musical taste. But populism, laissez-faire aesthetics, has largely triumphed in the Church as in the wider culture. St. Paul’s advice to the Church in Philippi once guided the custodians of the culture as well as the custodians of spirit: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
But we have come a long way in the past few decades. Today, many Christians rely on the PANSV translation, the Personally Authentic Non-judgmental Standard Version. In that version of the text, Paul’s exhortation has been simplified and abbreviated: “Whatever.” Here endeth the lesson.
I regard the Church’s effective abandonment of its musical legacy as a huge tragedy. It has changed its musical habits to be more in tune with the habits in the broader culture without asking why the broader culture has turned its back on the Western musical tradition. The displacement of much of our society’s artistic standards and expectations by the enchantments of entertainment is an indication of cultural decline with a complicated set of causes. Among them is an ever-more radical celebration of the autonomy of the individual self and a hostility toward authority; an increasing suspicion that the past has anything useful or instructive to offer us; a growing impatience with cultural pursuits that are demanding on our time or intellectual effort; an aversion to the idea of cultivation and a celebration of forms of expression that are untutored, instinctual, and allegedly “authentic”; and a fascination with anything “transgressive” coupled with cynicism toward the maintenance of a tradition.
All of these attitudes are destructive of Christian faithfulness, as well as detrimental to cultural health. It is the flourishing of these mentalities that has led to “laissez-faire aesthetics,” and to the indifference within our society to the greatest achievements of the Western cultural tradition. In his 2007 commencement address at Stanford, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia commented on this forfeiting of artistic opportunities: “I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life.”
And it is happening in our churches as well. The Church once assumed a role of cultural leadership, assuming that it should set a good example for her neighbors, not just in morality and theology, but in forms of aesthetic expression: in architecture, in poetry, in art, and in music. Today, it is a rare congregation in America that assumes that responsibility.