Christian faith is a holy narrative with
a beginning, middle, and end bound into a meaningful whole. Regardless
of whether someone stakes belief in it or not, no sensitive person
could doubt the sublime magnitude of its plot: God is He Who Is,
the Holy Trinity. He creates all that exists in the vast regions
of cosmic space by speaking the Word: "And God said, let
there be light and there was light" (Genesis 1:6). God loved
our fragile planet so much in spite of its fallen condition that
He gave Jesus His only begotten Son for our salvation. The Word
God speaks to create the cosmos came to the earth at his Incarnation
in Bethlehem: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among
us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten
of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). At
His Second Coming Christ will "judge the living and the dead,"
destroy death, and reign in a new order that brings the existing
narrative to a meaningful end because the plot that ties it to
the beginning and the middle is one simple theme: "My heart
ever faithful, sing praises, be joyful, thy Jesus is near."
The plot is musical.
Nature of Music
Music has three parts, as Plato
shows: rhythm, harmony and words. He argues that the first two
are sovereign over the words, because, "rhythm and harmony
most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul
and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them"
(Plato [c. 339 BC] 1968).
According to Allan Bloom, "Music
is the soul's primitive and primary speech or reason." Perhaps
the words are subordinate to the musical tune (rhythm and harmony)
because poetic language as such emerges from rhythm and harmony:
"Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate
to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses ...
Music, or poetry, which is what music becomes as reason emerges
... Out of the music emerge the gods that suite it, and they educate
men by their example and their commandments" (Bloom 1987).
This means that "the words of music seem to emerge from rhythm
and harmony" (Keyes 1996b). I argue that "we can reduce
them to the narrative rhythms and harmonies that are their meaning.
Audible rhythm and harmony have already sprung from the source
to which the words reduce" (Keyes 1999).
The unseen source of art as such, not
just poetry, might be musical, because "all the fine arts
narrate themselves through certain kinds of rhythm and harmony
proper to each. The graphic arts have rhythmic and harmonic architectural
characteristics." Philosophy is also musical because "rhythm
and harmony...structure a theory into an architectonic systematic
whole." Furthermore "Even the art living makes life
worth living through sequence and structure" (Keyes 1999).
Nature also orders the lives of other
species through instinctive rhythms and harmonies. The language
of birds is music without words. And a young man tells me the
tone of his girl friend's voice on the telephone always communicates
more than what she actually says.
According to some physicists, the core
of physical reality itself might be musical. Brian Greene writes
Music has long since provided the metaphors
of choice for those puzzling over questions of cosmic concern.
From the ancient Pythagorean "music of the spheres to the
"harmonies of nature" that have guided inquiry through
the ages, we have collectively sought the song of nature in
the gentle wanderings of celestial bodies and the riotous fulminations
of subatomic particles. With the discovery of superstring theory,
musical metaphors take on a startling reality, for the theory
suggests that the microscopic landscape is suffused with tiny
strings whose vibrational patterns orchestrate the evolution
of the cosmos. (Greene 1999)
Necessity of Music
The belief that music is a luxury
is ill-founded. Both nature and elemental experience show that
it is false. Music is as necessary for humankind as it is for
birds. It affirms life. Ovid narrates the journey of Orpheus to
hades playing his lyre and singing to rescue the soul of his wife
Eurydice. Even though he found her and she followed him, he failed
to bring her back. Despite the tragedy of his second loss of her,
his music caused punishments to cease as long as it could be heard
in the region of the damned:
As he spoke thus, accompanying his
words with the music of his lyre, the bloodless spirits wept;
Tantalus did not catch at the fleeting wave; Ixion's wheel stopped
in wonder; the vultures did not peck at the liver [of Tityus];
the Belides rested from their urns, and thou, O Sisyphus, didst
sit upon thy stone. Then ... conquered by the song, the cheeks
of the Eumenides were wet with tears; nor could the queen nor
he who rules the lower world refuse the supliant. They called
Eurydice. (Ovid [c. 8] 1976)
Modern sources attest equally to the
life-affirming power of aesthetics. Kierkegaard asks "What
is a poet?" His answer is remarkably similar: "An unhappy
man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are
so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are
transformed into ravishing music" (Kierkegaard  1959).
Nietzsche, reflecting on the tragedies of Aeschylus out of the
spirit of music, writes that "It is only as an aesthetic
phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified"
(Nietzsche  1967). How odd it is that "Nietzsche's
claim about the aesthetic justification of existence ironically
helps explain biblical redemption" (Keyes 1996).
Pagan Longinus detects the sublime in
Genesis: "'God said'--what? 'let there be light,' and there
was light. 'Let there be earth,' and there was earth" (Longinus
[c. 60 AD] 1965). Despite the amusing misquotation, Longinus has
perhaps inadvertently identified the nature of religion as such.
It is aesthetic experience recast entirely as the "weight,
grandeur, and energy" of "transcendent sublimity."
As I write elsewhere,
Longinus inspired a tradition of sensitivity
to the sublime that extends through Kant to Rudolf Otto, who
describes the "holy" as "inherently 'wholly other'"
than ordinary experience. Faith exists only if it has the "awefulness"
of the "mysterium tremendum" at its center. Its narrative
has to be "uncanny" and overpowering in the massiveness
of its plot. This gravity uplifts and does not press down. The
sublime "elevates" and is "joyous," according
to Longinus, just as Otto claims the mystery of the holy "captivates
and transports" and can fill us with a "strange ravishment."
Otto cites a number of biblical
texts to illustrate the wholly otherness and strange ravishment
of the numinous quality Holy, including Isaiah 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I
saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,
and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims;
each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and
with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And
one cried to one another and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the
Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his Glory.
Music expresses this sense of the
Holy in an extraordinarily powerful way, according to Otto: "Music
stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering
efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able
to give an account. Religious worship cannot therefore do without
music. It is one of the foremost means to work upon men with an
effect of marvel" (Otto  1969).
Eastern Orthodox philosopher and
theologian Nicolas Berdyaev thinks the gospel brings aesthetic
justification. He writes that "Beauty will save the world,
i.e., beauty is the salvation of the world. The transfiguration
of the world is the attainment of beauty. The kingdom of God is
beauty" (Berdyaev  1960). This is what I mean when
I write that "religious symbols gain their validity from
their aesthetic power to transfigure suffering" (Casserley
Hans Urs Von Balthasar (
1989), one of the twentieth century's most important Roman Catholic
theologians, also attributes extraordinary importance to the aesthetics
of the Christian faith.
A model of the beauty of holiness
runs through the last 1,400 years of western Christian musical
history. In spite of the fact that it has been diluted, "blended,"
and compromised in a variety of other ways, this model identified
below has remained indestructible. It is based on the plot of
the biblical revelation that begins with Creation and ends with
the Second Coming of Christ.
Plots are a type of rhythm, and
they have to be harmonious to be beautiful. Aristotle observes
that works of art and organisms "must not only be orderly
arranged but must also have a certain magnitude of their own;
for beauty consists in magnitude and ordered arrangement"
(Aristotle [c. 340 BC] 1965). Audible sacred music requires the
same order and unity.
Primal sacred music, whether pagan
or biblical, does not turn inward towards the believer's subjectivity.
It elevates feelings by trying to imitate the core events that
faith holds. The rhythm and harmony of hope that keeps those events
do not cloy with sentimentality. The audible musical core of any
religion must reflect the sublimity and unity of its narrative
Primal Christian music intensifies
the believer's feelings because it points away from subjectivity
towards robust events. Audible beauty of holiness has a two-fold
model. On the one hand, it is sublime because it symbolizes God's
transcendence. The tune is not just there. It has solemnity because
it, not just the words, imitate God's mighty acts, not ordinary
things. The rhythm and harmony are audibly sacred just as Gaulli's
painting is visibly sacred. On the other hand, the tune has uncanny
simplicity and epic brightness. Its plot is unified. Rhythm and
harmony are not at odds with one another. The rhythm time signature
has a certain predicability. Cadence leaps and sentimental uses
of non-harmonic tones are absent. There is no arbitrariness. Beginning,
middle, and end are internally connected. This is also true of
the words and their relation to the tune. The music that springs
from the beauty of holiness cuts across conventional distinctions.
It can be either plain or elaborate, unlearned or learned, familiar
or unfamiliar because it thrives on both sides of all those supposed
of the Model in Western Christian Music
The following selections are from the
relatively small number of sound files already in (or now being
produced for) this web site by the parishes and congregations
it lists. Other selections will be added as the number of listings
and sound files increases.
Mass IX, “Cum Jubilo”
Missa Super Dixit Maria, Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)
Missa Gregoriana, Hermann Schroeder (1904-84)
Me Domine, Jean Conseil [Consilium] (1498-1535)
Maria, Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) Psalmody
Pastores Laudavere, M. Praetorius (1571-1621)
Five Centuries of Congregational Hymns
Burg – Martin Luther (1483-1546),
harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Words: “A
mighty fortress is our God.”
St. Anne – William
Croft (1678-1727), altered and harmonized by William Henry Monk
(1823-1889). Words: “O God, our help in ages past.”
Wachet auf – Hans Sachs (1494-1575), adapted by Philip Nicolai (1556-1608), arranged and harmonized by by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Words: “‘Sleepers, wake!’ A voice astounds us.”
Hyfrydol – Rowland
Hugh Pritchard (1811-1887). Words: “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!”
Sine Nomine – Ralph
Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Words: “For all the saints.”
St. Columba – Irish
melody. Words: “The King of love my shepherd is.”
St. Cecilia as patron saint of music (Click the image for a larger
Sacred Music America does not guarantee
that all the music of every service at the parishes and congregations
listed is consistent with its standards. If you plan to visit
any of them, call ahead of time to ask details about the program
for the specific liturgy you expect to attend.
A great many parishes and congregations
maintain high standards across the country. The Roman Catholic,
Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed sections offer a few examples
worthy of attention at this time. Others will be added to the
listings, which we plan to expand and enlarge.