Facing the Music

Martin Jean

I suppose we might take consolation from the fact that there have always been worship wars.

As long as humans have recorded the history of sacred music, they have recorded the battles around it. In the Middle Ages, disagreements flared around which language to use in liturgical music, and which melodies. Should it be the ones we grew up with, or those that Rome is trying to force on us? By the Renaissance, some of these melodies became subsumed by counterpoint that was abstruse to some ears.

Fast forward 200 years: Should not the pure, unhindered human voice be the sole instrument of Christian worship? What of these radicals who would include the pipe, the viol, the trumpet in church? To some, this would be akin to a Dionysian ritual!

And we all know of Bach’s critics. Too many notes! Too complex! Too unnatural! It’s the simple sweet melodic line we yearn for, not more of this dense counterpoint. Music that reflects nature is what’s wanted now (ca. 1730).

So many strong opinions over the centuries – it is hardly surprising the trend continues today.

People’s need for music is powerful and varied, and so are the wars waged over what kind of music should shape the liturgy and be valued by the faithful. Depending on historical circumstances, on who was in charge and held the pen at the time, and on whose political voice mattered, very different musical theologies held sway.

Our hyper-connected global world and pseudoegalitarian ethic make access to music infinitely easier than in days gone by. By walking from one club to the next, by tuning in our radios or MP3 players, we have ways to hear more music in an evening than poor Mozart might have heard in his entire short life.

Shall it be Bach or Brahms, hymns or hip-hop? Palestrina or pop? We human beings “mean” through the music we make. We give voice to our deepest visions of the world through sounds born deep inside us, as though part of our DNA.

I can recall at an early age being drawn, even mesmerized, by certain sounds – whether a piece from an old music primer, or Bach for beginners, or a carol sung by heart in my school Christmas pageant. I can remember the time of day and season when I made some of this music. Who knows what physiological or psychological predilections set my ears toward it? I can only remember my pulse racing as I listened and my chest swelling with excitement.

Theology, desire, art, meaning: These are surely all bound up with one another. Even conflicted Augustine knew that our restless hearts sometimes find rest in the praises we sing. But different hearts rest differently with different sounds, or so Daniel Levitin tells us (in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain On Music), proffering that musical tastes begin to form already in the womb. No wonder that people who sit in the same pew at church on Sunday clash over what hymn or song gets sung.

If we’re to live peacefully together, if we’re to learn about each other’s whole selves, then we need to develop a rhetoric of meaning around music. Not simply “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” We need to notice the associations that music holds for us, the ways in which sounds play on our imagination, the ways music forms demographic groups or community identities, and the ways we feel when we hear it.

Perhaps when we hear a Palestrina motet, we can imagine ourselves part of a perfect communion of singers interlinked in some massive, beautiful structure. Perhaps that jazz riff from the blues saxophonist gives voice to the ecstatic experience of encountering God. Perhaps we sense desolation in James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words From the Cross. Or the folk ballad with its easily repeated refrain is just the genial nudge we need to enter a song that requires no rehearsal and to which all are invited.

Our churches need spaces to hear and reflect on each other’s music, and no better boundary-breaker exists than singing each other’s song. Sometimes, the liturgy can be this space, but in some communities, worship is just too delicate. This, at least, we know: Music is not merely notes on the page, it is something that we do, and the doing must be done hospitably.

If we could note more alertly our own perspectives when we are confronted by sounds, and explain them, critique them, and celebrate them, then perhaps we could do the same when we encounter someone who sings quite a different song than ours. Perhaps then, we will truly hear the choir of angels singing the inexpressible beauty of a God who is worthy of all praise by the whole creation.

Martin Jean is director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Professor in the Practice of Sacred Music, and Professor of Organ. He has performed widely throughout the United States and Europe.