Calvin’s Positive Principle for Music

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.


A provisional definition of “tonality”

Tonality, n. In Western music, a historiographical application of chronological snobbery, arising from the decision by a few men to deify three composers from Vienna, after their deaths, around the turn of the 19th century, whose music they believed to be structurally defined by two ideals living somewhere in the upper west side of Plato’s heaven called “tonic” and “dominant,” and, in so deifying, to define all music with respect to these three dead composers.

All music before this time, then, came to have something of a preludial function—an improvised, sometimes ill-thought, formless groping for tonicization, with one particular German composer of the early 18th century as a final, grand dominant chord that at last resolved in these three Viennese composers. All music after this time, however, had a slightly more ambiguous historical nature. While tonality was implicitly adopted by everyone, it gave rise to two distinct approaches, one which defined itself by manifesting the ideals similarly to the original three, the Classical, and the other, the Romantic, by deviating from the manifestations but still maintaining those ideals. And the dialectic between the Classical and the Romantic shall continue forever and ever, amen.

Pachelbel Being Goofy

I’ve often heard (and hoped it to be true) that Reformation-era and post-Reformation-era music saw no distinction between the solemn and the exuberant. The music laughed when it talked about death and bubbled and joked when it talked about repentance. Occasionally I’ve had a glimpse of that in recordings (particular examples are McCreesh’s recording of Praetorius’ Kyrie from Polyhymnia Caducaetrix or Bach’s Gottes Zeit with Gardiner). This seems particularly prevalent in the Lutheran tradition, the one that famously took a German love song and out of it gave us the hymn tune that we know sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” to.

But sometimes I question that as a sort of Chestertonian exaggeration. It’s just too good to be true. After all, you listen to recordings of a great deal of this Renaissance or early Baroque music, and it just doesn’t strike one as all that fun, or funny, or exuberant, or jolly. I look at the music itself and see the potential for a radically different interpretation, one that stresses the comic and maybe even comical, but it certainly isn’t commercially recorded that way very often. (The market couldn’t handle picturing the Reformers as smiling singer dudes.)

And then sometimes I’ll stumble upon music whose downright goofiness is just too overwhelming to ignore. This time, interestingly, the music I found is almost impossible to find recorded, even though it is by Johann Pachelbel, the same who composed the famous Canon in D. He wrote for organ a set of partitas on various hymn tunes, including hymn tunes we still sing (“O Sacred Head,” “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing,” “What E’er My God Ordains Is Right,” and even Psalm 42, “As the Hart, About to Falter”).

First, this music is pretty easily sight-readable and is clearly designed to fit the hand in such a way as to make going fast really easy. But, more than that, it’s just impossible not to laugh at some of this music, and not just because it sounds funny to our ears. To any ears, I’d say, taking a tune you know well and doing this and that with it is just funny. But some of the decisions Pachelbel makes are just horrid: he takes a quite cheerful major-key tune and tries creating a chromatic lament out of it. The result is disaster. Never have I run across a pre-19th century composer using chromaticism in this major-key sort of way (not that chromaticism doesn’t appear in the major key, but he’s clearly employing the chromaticism of pathetic lament, which to my knowledge is quite peculiar in this context). But Pachelbel was a smart guy. He must have known that the disparate genres came into conflict and produced some sort of humorous effect. You don’t just throw in a slow chromatic counterpoint underneath a fast-paced tune and expect the whole thing to come off with a straight face.

All these partitas run along similar lines. Exactly when they start donning their most serious garb, they become goofiest. And perhaps this is exactly why this music hasn’t been recorded (widely, at least): the market insists old music must be either garish and crude (like the Newberry Consort) or as solemn as a coffin (Tallis Scholars, Oxford Camerata, basically all Baroque organists). But the two can’t coexist. The market is, you might say, functionally Roman Catholic when it comes to Protestant music: life is divided between the profane and hyper-sexualized on one side and the sacred and hyper-spiritualized on the other.

I have no doubt that, had I lived at the turn of the 16th to the 17th century, I would have been a prude. I would have been scandalized by all the composers I now idolized. But I hope I would have had the good sense to recognize that they were not, so to speak, marrying foreign wives and converting to Baal (Ezra 9), but were in fact asking their wives to convert and then marrying them (Deut. 21:10-14). And I hope I’m being objective and not prudish when I say that I can be in no way so generous in describing Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Hillsong, and the rest.

Homage to Capon: Jazz as Ferial Cooking


The news of Father Robert Capon’s death this week reminded me of a suspicion I have long harbored about one particular part of his thought: the distinction between festal and ferial in cooking was a particularly useful way of understanding music. So in this post I want to try to explain how these concepts could map onto music in more than just a superficial analogy.

In this Julian Johnson-Ken Meyers age, we are getting a lot better at understanding the differences between High music and popular music and appreciating those differences. But there are distinctions inside those distinctions that are important too, and I want to suggest that festal and ferial are useful ways of describing High music in the early 20th century, festal being Classical and ferial being jazz. As Capon would stress, both can use the same ingredients, both can be gourmet, but they require different preparation.

Ferial, he says, is the school “that involves the wholesale and deliberate manufacture of leftovers, the creation of all of one’s dishes from carefully precarved and precooked meats.” On the other hand, “to the extraordinary or festal cuisine are relegated all roasts, joints, chops and stakes, and, in general, any meats that are cooked in large pieces and carved at the table,” which differs from ferial because ferial cooks “cut it up small, and make it go a long way.”

This distinction, he says, comes down to economy. Crassly put, festal is a rich man’s cooking and ferial is a poor man’s. Festal cooks are content to use only the prime cuts of an animal and throw away fat and bones and less palatable parts of the animal; ferial cooking insists on using it all, for broth, for sauce, and will serve up a single animal in five meals. That is why sauce is a specifically ferial thought: “A generosity of sauce,” he says, “kept pace with [the cook’s] stinginess of meat. The glory of ordinary cooking began to dawn.” One of ferial cooking’s basic principles is re-use: “If you can possibly do so, contrive to make even a part of anything come to the table twice.”

Over on the other side, festal cooking is all about your budget. “Should your family, however, begrudge you your victory—should they rail against you, calling you Soup-waterer or Chicken-stretcher, several rejoinders are possible. For the first, remind them that if it’s festal cooking they want, they had better provide you with a more festal food allowance.”

Finally, Capon emphasizes that festal and ferial don’t imply any relative worth, in aesthetic terms, of either dish. “[T]he excellence and exquisiteness of the dishes is in no way involved. It is not that festal cooking is best and ferial second-best. Some of the most discerning palates in history have pronounced a good boeuf Bourguignon or tripe Niçoise the full equal of any steak in the world.” Your budget does not determine your status as gourmet, but instead, as Capon elsewhere says, “the presence or absence of the loving eye,” which is to say, in cooking as in theology, love bestows loveliness, and a cook’s love of food will inevitably result in lovely food.

And so with music of the early 20th century. Classical music of the 19th century had been a class affair: you needed money and status in order to get admission to a concert, and very likely both in order to get on stage or even get a place at a conservatory. This began to change in the early years of the 20th century when recordings emerged, radios broadcasted performances, sheet music and four-hand piano transcriptions became increasingly popular, and pianos got cheaper. In eastern Canada and the U. S., this produced an intriguing musical fermentation. Two minority groups—blacks and Jews—were simultaneously provided access to the works of 19th century classical music through technology but sometimes barred access to the usual training that was required to get into the musical scene. And this surplus of musical education, paired with a lack of the infrastructure of Classical music, produced jazz.

And jazz cooks with the same ingredients Classical music is. There are basic things it has in common with Classical music—it uses chords, it uses ABA formal structures, it relies heavily on ii-V-I. But those things can be said of a great deal of popular music of the time and today as well, and jazz and Classical bear a closer affinity even than that. At a time when Classical music insisted on becoming modal, jazz became comfortable with the dominant sonority used as a tonic (i.e. ending a piece on a C7); at a time when Classical insisted on the inclusion of augmented chords in the palate, jazz took an interest in raised 11 and flatted 5 degrees; when parts of Classical began returning to the voicing of chords used by the Viennese school of the 18th century, jazz employed a system of walking bass and comping.

Blues scale

The ethnic side of this is intriguing as well. Many have pointed out that the blues scale’s lowered 3 (E-flat here, the first so-called “blue note”) is a trade-mark of the African-American sound, as is, to an extent, the lowered 7 (B-flat). But the raised 4 (F-sharp) many ethnomusicologists trace to Jewish music, which you can hear if you play the whole scale on a piano and remove the F-natural.

And the theoretical maps onto the historical pretty nicely. There is no need for an endless list that would show how jazz piano or big band was dominated by black musicians, but the lesser known side of the jazz equation is that, with the notable exception of Cole Porter, next to no Broadway composers were not Jewish between George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim. Whence come the massive canon of jazz standards.

Think, then, of the festal side of the equation. Think of Classical music and the venerable tuba. Over the course of a concert, if the tuba is used at all, the tubaist will not play too many notes, either in 19th or 20th century literature. He might come in during the loud parts of the first movement, a bit in the third, and toward the end of the fourth. And he will get payed, in his cushy professional orchestra, a six-figure salary for doing all of this. (And it’s a good thing too: regardless of how many notes he played, he has to pay off all that student debt from Julliard.) This is festal cooking. It is totally unconcerned with resources. It employs 100 players a night at high salary, some of whom play just a handful of notes for the whole evening.

Jazz, on the other hand, is the music of leftovers. Think of the jazz standard as the dish and the jazz solo as the sauce. You can serve Satin Doll five times with five different sauces and not get tired of it. It is, as well, making-use-of-everything-you’ve-got music. Instead of an orchestra of 100, you have a combo of four. Each solos, each has a distinct role, each has an aversion to being merely supplementary. Think, too, of how Art Tatum stretches the limits of what a human left hand could conceivably do, a mere five fingers producing an entire big band comp at a lickety-split clip. Think of his inexorable desire to see every single one of those 88 keys get hit at some point by his roving, wild right hand.

A lot of our trouble in understanding the relationship between 20th century Classical and early jazz stems from these two things: (1) we imagine they are cooking with different ingredients when they are not and (2) we misunderstand that the difference is not of aesthetic quality but of economy. Jazz is the inevitable result of the Classical zeitgeist given only a piano, a trap set, a guitar, and an upright bass. Nothing could be more boorish of a music-lover than to out-of-hand dismiss jazz because of its ferial preparation. Don’t pass up the boeuf Bourguignon.

Eco Describes Organum

Eco in The Name of the Rose describes near the end the monks singing Sederunt principes in organum, probably much like this example here.

“On the first syllable, a slow and solemn chorus began, dozens and dozens of voices, whose bass sound filled the naves and floated over our heads and yet seemed to rise from the heart of the earth. Nor did it break off, because as other voices began to weave, over that deep and continuing line, a series of vocalises and melismas, it—telluric—continued to dominate and did not cease for the whole time that it took a speaker to repeat twelve ‘Ave Maria’s in a slow and cadenced voice.And as if released from every fear by the confidence that the prolonged syllable, allegory of the duration of eternity, gave to those praying, the other voices (and especially the novices’) on that rock-solid base raised cusps, columns, pinnacles of liquescent and underscored numae. [Not sure they would still be in use, but I don’t know for certain.] …Until that Neptunian roiling of a single note seemed overcome, or at least convinced and enfolded, by the rejoicing hallelujahs of those who opposed it, and all dissolved on a majestic and perfect chord and on a resupine neuma.

“Once the ‘sederunt’ had been uttered with a kind of stubborn difficulty, the ‘principes’ rose in the air with grand and seaphic calm. …Now the choir was festively chanting the ‘Adiuva me,’ whose bright a swelled happily through the church, and even the u did not seem grim as that in ‘sederunt,’ but full of holy vigor.”

Particularly incisive on Eco’s part, I think, is how this music is so dynamically clever. The drama of the music is simply the word. How exciting the word “adiuva” can be, when elongated! The vowels themselves portray some sort of story arc. The phrase sederunt principes will go from loud (e) to soft (u) to brighter (i) back to loud (e) and, as he says, the second a will be quite the dramatic surprise in adiuva.

A Little More Worldly, I Dare You

In a band, there are all sorts of rhetorical levels on which you can distinguish yourself.

1. Instrumentation

Well, if you use autotune, electronic percussion, lots of keyboard synthesizers, and are relatively light on the acoustic side of things, you’re pretty squarely in the Disney-ish pop realm. If you use acoustic everything and you don’t use autotune, then you certainly have your niche among those who like vests, cigars, and craft. If your bass is pretty much the loudest thing on the planet, then you’re using a distinct and popular connotation, especially in South London (I guess?).

2. Melody

If you’re country music, your melodies will be usually pretty monotonic, occasionally traveling along a major triad and hitting blue notes (flatted 3, flatted 7 usually). If you’re just good old pop, you’ll probably pretty squarely travel along the major triad. If you want a more Maroon 5 flavor of pop, you might add some scalar action in there. If you’re beer-sloshing Mumford, it’s pentatonic for you.

3. Harmony

Well, this is pretty well documented, but you have all the creative permutations of the vi-IV-V-I that are pretty prevalent and the occasional deviation from Edgar Meyer (ii-iii-V-[vii]) or Hans Zimmer (i-bVII6-VI-#III). You could also do some non-traditional (i.e. not four-chord) patterns, but then people would accuse you of being some sort of Radiohead imitation.

4. Idiom

This may be a bit subtler, but you can do all the above things identically and still be different. It might have to do with the particular textural execution of each of the instruments. Guitarists have a thousand and one ways of picking, and each one has a slightly different connotation. You could be a Paul Baloche kind of pianist or you could do some Hillsong stuff. Same instrument, totally different feel.

The following things aren’t really ways in which different niches within the popular music world distinguish themselves, but they’re actually so prevalent that they in part define exactly what it means to be popular commercial music.

5. Lyrical Structure

Probably verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, tag, chorus, tag, tag. Or maybe you want to shake things up. Food for thought: does this predetermined structure or form have an influence on how the content emerges?

6. Gesticulation

There’s a whole language of body that’s been extensively developed by commercial forces and which many of us assume to be natural. This is probably the most brilliant thing about modern music: you can feel like you’re moved to do things spontaneously that you learned to do slavishly and liturgically from all sorts of cultural sources teaching you when to move and how to do it right.

7. Ambience

What do your live concerts feel like? Dry ice? Strobe lights? Fog? Blood? Crazy paint displays on the stage floor? Dancers? Tuxes?

8. Habit

How do you dress? What’s your hair like? Don’t underestimate how these things are important—in some cases, how you’re dressed is probably more important than the music itself (either meat or nothing). But maybe you just wear plaid, or a vest, or suspenders, and this makes you feel more distinct. Ha, ha.

So the grand question, to finish up:

Is there a single aspect mentioned above in which contemporary Christian music does not imitate exactly what everybody else is doing?

Paul Baloche, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and all the rest: if Paul didn’t mean exactly what you do when he said “conforming yourselves to the pattern of the world,” I really don’t think he meant anything.