I have some thoughts ensuing from my last post. The first is about music. This blog is primarily about classic Christianity as revealed through texts. A discussion of Haydn’s Creation and the doctrine of creation is not about any classic texts of the faith, and a significant portion of it was about a teaching or idea. However, a discussion of a piece of classical music such as that is consonant with the aims of Classic Christianity as seen in the sidebar on the main page.
The riches of the Great Tradition are not only locked away between the covers of books. Another of the places where Christians can find the richness of the past ages is the arts. Haydn’s Creation carries within it pieces of the tradition, truths that are timeless, enrobing them in the flesh of music. The beauty of Haydn’s composition sings forth the beauty of creation.
Haydn’s Creation is but one example of many, but is an entrance into one facet of how music can carry the tradition through the ages. Similar to Creation is Handel’s Messiah, also an oratorio, recounting the life and theology of the Messiah in beautiful music with words all taken from Scripture. Within that tradition of performance-oriented classical music we also have Bach’s cantatas based on the passion narratives of the Gospels, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Stravinksy’s Symphony of Psalms among others. All of this music captures in some way some aspect of the Great Tradition. All of this music is worth listening to as music, as art. And, I believe, all of this music is a vehicle of God’s grace and revelation.
Most Christian music, however, has been composed for use in worship. The earliest surviving music is the chant of the ancient churches, Gregorian, Byzantine, Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian. Related to these are Anglican plainsong and the chant of the Slavic churches. This music is filled with an austere beauty and able to create space for worship of a type that modern worship music does not. The Renaissance produced music so beautiful one imagines that the angels in heaven must use it as they gather around the Throne of the Almighty, especially Palestrina but also Tallis, Allegri, and others. All of this ancient, beautiful music for worship stands within the same musical tradition and is very valuable.
Composers of classical music have also written music for times of worship. Tchaikovsky wrote settings for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Monteverdi wrote Vespers. Verdi and Mozart both wrote Requiems. Vivaldi wrote a Mass. Their music has also been applied to hymns by different lyricists, such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” providing the tune to “Joyful, Joyful.”
Also important is the tradition of hymnody. I speak now of music with English lyrics. These old hymns are worthy to be sung in congregations all of the world. The best of them have resonant theology with captivating music. My favourite hymnographers are Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale. Some of my favourite hymns by other writers are “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” “I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship,” “As I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
In modern worship, these hymns sometimes fall through the cracks as we seek to be cool and contemporary and relevant, singing only the newest and hippest songs. Yet these songs, these tunes with these words, connect us to the tradition of Christians who have gone before us, passing along their thoughts and theology, their beauty and sense of holiness. I encourage leaders of worship to keep the hymns in the repertoire amongst the newer songs.
Exciting to my mind are some new hymns that have been produced (we’re talking hymn as a musical genre). The only things that come immediately to mind are “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Other musicians who have kept links to the old music, old poems, and old theology have produced new music for liturgical settings, as John Michael Talbot who has essentially produced the entire Mass and Steve Bell who has a version of the Sanctus, “Holy Lord.” Steve Bell has also recorded musically new yet truly old songs on his album Devotion, though these are not all his own compositions.
A study of the old music is important for those who wish to engage in the creation of new music. Some churches act as though only the old is worth singing; this is not true, for the old was once the new. Some churches act as though only the new is worth singing; this is also not true, for the new is untested and untried. A combination of the two is worth singing, in my opinion. However, a knowledge of this old music, of Haydn, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Wesley, and Neale, of what has gone before, will undoubtedly deepen the new music, as a knowledge of old poetry can deepen new poetry, that of old theology new theology, that of old paintings new paintings and so forth.
Since we’re talking about music, I do listen to some new Christian music besides John Michael Talbot and Steve Bell. I am a fan of Rich Mullins and dc Talk (both “old” new music by now), some Newsboys, Jars of Clay, and Third Day as well as a certain amount of new worship songs by the likes of Matt Redman and people whose names escape me (except — because I worship at Little T — Mike Janzen and — because I’m kind of oldskool — Graham Kendrick).
Music is an important part of the life of church, ancient and modern, old and new. We should tap the resources of this vast tradition that spreads out behind as well as all around us.