The Myth of Traditional Music
Written by Robert Busiakiewicz,
Director of Music, St. James Cathedral, Toronto
The function of music in church is not clear. Liturgical singing and the playing of various instruments is historically ubiquitous (thankfully it remains so), but anyone who claims to understand precisely why these utterances are necessary should be held in high suspicion. The terminology usually associated with the age-old debate about music’s role is riddled with theological vagueries. There is talk of souls, transcendent praise, fitting worship, heavenly thoughts, lifting of prayers, sacrificing gifts, God-given talents, spiritual rituals, scriptural exhortations and denunciations. There are Papal bulls which nit-pick one genre over another and one instrument over another. The banning of particular composers is rife at Cathedrals, and many institutions have come to define themselves unofficially by the type of music they offer at their main service. Church music is fractured and friction-filled, as inspiring and pleasing as it is divisive. Why do we put up with all these side-effects, schisms, and syllogisms? Or are we missing a few steps on our stairway to heaven?
In a purely secular setting, say a punk-rock concert in the back room of a dive-bar, the questions of “am I having a good time?” or “am I being entertained?” are legitimate. They are legitimate for audiences, for performers, for those hosting the concert, those who pay for it, sponsor it, and criticise it. Pleasure of some form, be it catharsis, meditation, energy, rage-release, political-resonance, joy, sex-appeal, or simply a good beat, is the very purpose of it. Corporeal pleasure is the point. Some people may say that they had a spiritual encounter with God through a Jimmy Hendrix guitar solo, and we should not doubt their integrity or faith. People find God in all creation: it is normal for those of faith to do so. However, when the question turns to “am I having a good time?” or “am I being entertained?” by the music one hears in church, a crisis of aesthetics occurs – and has been occurring for thousands of years. The legitimacy of the question is no longer on solid ground, and the pleasure-principle is denuded.
“Why do people go to church?” is not the question here. Even an attempt at defining spiritual music is folly as we live in a world of kaleidoscopic customs and styles. 21st Century church musicians can no longer hide behind notions of appropriateness, but must dig deeper into the nature of their function.
One question we might come to acknowledge as valid is one regarding quality of execution. Is what is being attempted, being done well, are we striving to do it well, are we trying our best? This invokes the corollary; how do we know what the best is? Even Queen Elizabeth I at the time of the Reformation called upon musicians to “[sing] a song, to the praise of Almighty God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised, having respected that sentence of the hymn may be understood.” One can already hear those holding the ever-tightening purse-strings clearing their throats over the definition of “conveniently devised” when playing a CD over a PA is significantly more convenient than hiring professional musicians.
It is not my intention to inflame a bitter debate over “high art” versus “low art”, for this is also a fruitless endeavour. But I believe it is worth siding with the view of the composer, Peter Warlock, when he wrote that, “Music is neither old nor modern: it is either good or bad music, and the date at which it was written has no significance whatever.” I would expand this to incorporate the question of good or bad music for what? If it is music good for getting bums on seats, we can clearly see that the Beyoncé Mass recently offered at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco was successful, even if a member of their clergy welcomed the veritable throng of screen-ravaged millennials with the words “We’re here to have a good time.” If it is music good for creating a sense of congruity with gothic architecture and the King James Bible, let it be expertly delivered and noted. If it is music good for illuminating the essence of a difficult reading, let us celebrate that function as required. If it is music good for stirring and inspiring lusty full-throated singing which gives joy, let us look it in the face as joyful. If it is music good for grief-ridden weeping and consolation, let us strive for it with clarity. If it is music good for entertaining baby-boomers or sentimental pensioners, let the priests and those in charge of music programmes have the courage to say that this is the preferred function of our church music. Let the multiplicity of functions be explicit and not obfuscated by appeals to “tradition” or “youth” or (the ultimate slippy fallacy) “accessibility”.
It is no coincidence that the great forward leaps of Picasso, Schoenberg, Gaudí and Beethoven were accompanied by a comprehensive knowledge and respect of their inherited historical forms. Let excellence and musical literacy prevail in our churches for these are always agreeable in communities which can sometimes seem bent on disagreement. Traditional music has never existed, there has only ever been an ever-rolling stream of functions, opinions (compromised or otherwise), aesthetic middle-grounds, congruencies, and prolific practitioners who have done good work or bad work. We must admit, however much it might pain us, that some music is better than other music, it all depends on being open about what you’re trying to achieve, and realistic about your surroundings. But don’t just take my word for it:
The pleasures of the ear had a more tenacious hold on me and had subjugated me. I confess that I have some sense of restful contentment in sounds when they are sung by a pleasant and well-trained voice … they demand in my heart some position of honour, and I have difficulty in finding what is appropriate to offer them. I feel that when the sacred words are chanted well, our souls are moved more religiously and with a warmer devotion kindled to piety … Sometimes by taking excessive safeguards against being led astray I have gone so far as to wish to banish all melodies from my ears and from the Church as well. Nevertheless, when I remember the tears which I poured out at the time when I was first recovering my faith, I recognize the great utility of music in worship. Thus I fluctuate between the danger of pleasure and the experience.
The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and of a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm and, while it is not actually pleasure, refined souls prefer it by far to all pleasure. Through this sense we discover that the laws of nature are not necessarily our own.
-Friedrich von Schiller
Music is the perfect type of art. Music can never reveal its ultimate secret. It can help us to leave the age in which we were born, and to pass into other ages, and find ourselves not exiled from their air. It can teach us to realise the experiences of those who are greater than we are.
The wise, who measure equally with level eyes what the world is, what gods, and what are men, and twixt too great a joy, too sharp a pain, strikes on a balance, so that tears are shot with laughter, laughter with tears, and these are not themselves, but greater than themselves, and each from other learns and doth to other teach. We are content with beauty thus, who that when all’s done – sculpture or song – behind what we have carved or sung, a greater thing startles the heart with movement of a wing we neither see nor dare see. For our thought is larger than we know, and what we sought passes and has forgotten; what we do, the truth we did not guess at pierces through, if what was done was well done.
The word art is derived from a Greek root, “ar,” which has the significance of ‘fitting’ and ‘joining.’ But from the material with which we clothe our persons to the printed matter which supplies our mental food and the forms of amusement that fill our idle hours, almost everything is ephemeral; produced in a hurry and used without reflection. So long as it serves its brief purpose, it is ‘good enough’. The result is a plethora of unmatured craftsmen, passing out their half-baked goods to a public of immature knowledge and taste. We put a premium on mediocrity of motive … the attitude of ‘good enough’ is essentially immoral.
There is something wrong when one gets no enjoyment from one’s work; and to play any game properly you have to work at it. People are exasperated by art which they do not understand, and contemptuous of art which they understand without effort … The permanent and the transitory have to be distinguished afresh by each generation … The antiquation of the old, and the eccentricity and even charlatanism of the new need to be ruthlessly dismantled … Spiritual perception must be extended into aesthetic sensibility and disciplined taste before we are qualified to pass judgement upon decadence or diabolism. The danger of freedom is deliquescence; the danger of strict order is petrifaction. What is wanted is not to restore a vanishing culture, but to grow a contemporary culture from the old roots.
To pass on a culture we must also inherit it, and inheritance is an active and arduous process, no longer granted automatically. We must listen to the voices of the dead. The renewal of the artistic tradition is also a re-affirmation of orthodoxy. For music, properly constructed, has a life of its own, and is always more interesting than the person who performs it.
Some works of art are undeservedly forgotten, but none are undeservedly remembered.
Good art’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I think that God has particular languages, and one of them is music.
-David Foster Wallace
Our explorer from the future will no longer be able to identify the aesthetic ideal diffused by the mass media of the twentieth century and beyond. He will have to surrender before the orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.
When time has begun to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste. Imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. Beauty is the one mask through which can be seen the unveiled eyes of eternity. It makes us partake at the banquet of the moods. The nobleness of the arts is in the mingling of contraries, and its red rose opens at the meeting of the two beams of the cross. All art is the disengaging of a soul from place and history, its suspension in a beautiful or terrible light.
-William Butler Yeats
Religions that make no appeal to the emotions have very few adherents. The purpose of spiritual exercises is primarily to prepare the intellect and emotions for those higher forms of prayer in which the soul is essentially passive in relation to the divine.
Sometimes in a country ripped apart by dogma, those who wish to keep their heads – in both senses – must learn to split themselves in two.
No government however intelligent or humane is capable of generating great artists, although a bad government certainly can pester, thwart, and suppress them. We must also remember that the only people who flourish under all types of government are the Philistines. Accept only one type of earthly power: the power of art over trash. Clichés breed remarkably fast and nothing dates quicker than radical youth.
We tend to think of an Age in terms of the one whom we take as representative of it, and forget that equally a part of the person’s significance may be their battle with the Age.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Wouldest thou consecrate a chalice to God that is broken? No-one would present a lame horse, a disordered clock, a torn book, to the King. Therefore, do not give God that which thou pretendest to give. As long as thou art able to make thy choice, thou art able to make a better choice than this.
Si volumus non redire, currendum est. (If we wish not to go backwards, we must run.)
Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express. We want what is timeless and contemporary. If something survives, place it for ever among the treasures of the universe. You cannot cross the narrow bridge of art carrying all its tools in your hands. Some you must leave behind, or you will drop them in midstream or, what is worse, overbalance and be drowned yourself. Let us always compare what we have with what the great have written. It is humiliating, but it is essential. If we are going to preserve and to create, that is the only way. And we are going to do both. We can begin now.