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.

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Ammerbach’s organ endorsement: variety

I’d like to spend a few posts exploring the reasons the Reformation liked the organ so much. Their reasons are usually not ours. They did not endorse the organ because it was an old or traditional instrument; it was actually because it was so new. It was equipped with new technologies that could produce new possibilities for sound. They did not like it because it was huge and grand; oftentimes, the organs of this period were small enough to be fit in houses. They did not like it because it had religious connotations; the late Middle Ages and the Reformation invented the religious connotations for the organ, which had had a largely secular one in previous eras.

First example is Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach, organist at Leipzig in St. Thomas Church. He published a pedagogical anthology of organ music, sacred and secular, for organ and said this in his introduction:

“Among different musical instruments, however, of which I leave each as established in its worth, the organ—so nowadays employed in our churches and sacred service, and (as some suppose) unknown to the ancients—, in my opinion, justly has preference. For on it, thanks to its abundant stops (Regiester) and many kinds of timbres (stimwercks), one can devise and realize a great varietet and artistic change in the voices, which is not found on other instruments.” (lxxiv, “Source Texts”, Orgel Oder Instrument Tabulaturbuch, Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach)

The CREC in the Wilderness: A Parable

And they all cried out to God, and said, “God, sure we have Reformed theology, but we want to change the world with it! We want to do the work of your kingdom. Give us weapons of warfare. Give us food and nourishment.”

So God thought to himself, “I will give them the ultimate weapon of warfare and the most filling food: I will give them the ability to sing the Psalms. But I will test them and only give them 2/3 of the Psalter in a little red book, and see if they complain.”

So the people enthusiastically began singing the Psalms and even were enthusiastic about the Goudimel and the wild word order of the Scottish psalter. But soon the food became bland to them and they lost interest in using the Psalms as weapons. They complained against their leaders, and even some of their leaders began to complain as well: the settings were too hard. “We would rather go back to singing Egyptian songs than have to sing this stuff.” And so they did, or, if they sang the Psalms, they sang only a fraction of the 2/3 of the Psalter they had, and pretty gloomily at that.

And they looked around and saw some mildly disappointing results. Churches fizzled or split, reformations didn’t seem to happen, congregations were remarkably self-absorbed and acted confused when the evangelical Baptists would get the jump on them in ministering to the world. And they all cried out, “God, you need to come down and start a reformation! We need congregations that are aflame with faith, and free! You know, the single sword to Thee bit?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

And they looked around and saw the poor and destitute, widows and orphans, persecuted and helpless. They saw wicked men, tyrants, abusers, molesters. They saw abortion, genocide, all sorts of awful things. And they all cried out, “God, how do you expect us to deal with all of this? We need a battle plan, we need some paradigm, we need a mechanism for social justice, we need some totally different approach to this that will change everything! Why aren’t you the God of our fathers, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the God of the Reformation, of Luther, of Knox, of Calvin?”

But God was busy scratching his head, wondering when they would start complaining about only having 2/3 of the Psalter to sing.

God’s Grace Is Limitless (Which Means American and Evangelical)

It’s ironic that this story is lifted up as an example of God’s grace crossing “cultures, races, creeds, and religions,” since it is such a peculiarly American and evangelical export in every aspect of its makeup. It would be one thing if all these different countries were simply singing “Our God” because they liked it, but this is being touted as an ecumenical event, Tomlin’s song the “anthem of every Christian.” And for that reason it is all the more manipulative. Everyone singing Chris Tomlin in different languages does not make Tomlin’s music international, it merely makes international Christians more like Chris Tomlin, and so it dangerously conflates Christendom with American, commercialized evangelicalism. Why on earth would we want that?

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.

The Church Music Program

I spend a lot of my time whining about how bad things are. And I try my best to spend equal parts whining about how good and how bad things were in the past. But I would be remarkably hypocritical if I didn’t actually try outlining a vision for how to make things better now, so I’m going to try to break that down and work on it piece by piece.

Broadly, I’m painting it like this, although it’ll probably change around:

1. Creating a Psalm-Centered Culture

  • What Psalm Culture Looks Like, but also
  • How to Actually Get There

2. Musical Education: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, or

Why Things Will Never Get Better Unless Composition Is the Capstone of a Classical Education in Music

3. Importance of Instruments in Worship

  • Why Money Is Central to Church Music
  • Internship-Mentorship Model
  • Our Competitors Are Symphony Halls and Music Conservatories

 

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.