A lot has been made of the way in which thinkers in the Augustinian tradition—perhaps most especially Calvin—are suspicious of the value of music in worship. Calvin acknowledges Augustine’s concerns in 3.XX.32. “Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words. Augustine also admits in another place that he was so disturbed by this danger that he sometimes wished to see established the custom observed by Athanasius, who ordered the reader to use so little inflection of the voice that he would sound more like a speaker than a singer. But when he recalled how much benefit singing had brought him, he inclined to the other side.” (McNeill, v. 2, 895-896) Thus the Augustinian tradition is, like most of the western tradition, pro-music but always pro-music with a caveat. Augustine’s own language would seem to locate the problem in the sensual nature of music (at least in his more neo-Platonic mindset in Confessions), which is likely to distract the listener from the whole purpose of worship music, which is the glorification of God (read: the text). And so Calvin is often seen to hold a position more or less interchangeable with Augustine’s: suspicious, on a theological level, of music’s worth.
But this is ignoring the better part of what Calvin has to say about music in 3.XX.31-33. It’s worth noting that Calvin does not locate (or mention, anyway) the problem of music in its sensuous qualities. He mentions Augustine as a tangent, clearly as a sort of refutatio, concluding that, unlike the more Athanasian among the Reformers, he thought music “is without any doubt a most holy and salutary practice,” provided that “moderation is maintained.” I’m not arguing that he doesn’t participate in any of Augustine’s dualist tendencies, but I think that an emphasis on that leads to ignoring the most important statement on music Calvin has.
And the statement is this: music is a way of preventing congregants from auto-piloting through the liturgy.
This positive principle for church music has its roots, of course, in a more noetic perspective on human sin. Calvin is inserting this tangent on church singing (3.XX.32 in the 1543 edition) in the middle of a chunk from the original 1536 Institutes where the broader context is prayer. Calvin begins with the typical concern that people don’t actually mean the prayers and the liturgies that they say, citing Isaiah 29:13 and similar verses. “Unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision.”And it is in this context that he immediately moves in the 1536 edition to a defense of prayers in the vernacular (“not in Greek among the Latins, nor in Latin among the French or English…”), a logical step since Latin in the service commits the same sin of insincerity. All this can only but resonate with anyone in any church ever—a liturgy, once adopted, tends to make its celebrators go onto auto-pilot in very short order. We sail through formations that we’ve done a thousand times and find it difficult to concentrate. Calvin takes this seriously. He doesn’t just treat it as a necessary side-effect of liturgy, nor does he chuck out the liturgy itself as the problem.
Instead, he characteristically identifies the problem in the nous. “Yet we do not here condemn speaking and singing [NB the problem is not external as in Athanasius or Augustine] but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart’s affection. For thus do they exercise the mind [emphasis mine] in thinking of God and keep it attentive—unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps.”
And that is Calvin’s positive principle of church music, that it be a supportive help for keeping the noetically-effected worshipper attentive and thinking of God. And this principle is no insult to music: clearly, in order to affect this vigilance and constant awakening, music must constantly keep slapping us in the face and throwing cold water on us. If we say the same prayers a thousand times, like the Lord’s Prayer that Calvin is about to analyze in the following chapters, we say them each time with music that edifies us and glorifies the text. Good church music makes every Sunday feel like we are encountering the liturgy as if it were new.
It’s obvious that certain Calvinist traditions were more affected by Calvin’s tangential warning against music than his capacious endorsement of it, the same sorts of Calvinist tradition that are likely to be down on instruments and florid music and so on. But as for Calvin’s positive comments and his vision for what music could be, what better way to understand the music of Sweelinck, a Calvinist, and his pupils Praetorius and Scheidemann? The predominately Italian Catholic practice of a church toccata or ricercare (whose names “to touch” and “to discover” encapsulate the idea of noodling innocently) turns, through a Calvinist filter in the Netherlands, into a Buxtehude Praeludium whose stylus fantasticus unflinchingly destroys the possibility of not paying attention. This church music principle is a grand thought, not absent in the best church music in the Lutheran, Anglican and, even in the 20th century, French Roman Catholic tradition (Dupre, Alain, and Messiaen). Of course, you don’t need to be a Calvinist to view church music this way, but you aren’t really a Calvinist if you don’t, it seems.