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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We are Mozartians

“The Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter. Carolyn Abbate’s argument against plot-centered, as opposed to narrator-centered, understanding of musical narrative exemplifies how widespread the assumption is that all music must be essentially temporal, that the disposition of events in time always matters in music: since all music is temporal, Abbate argues—that is, since music always has a temporal arrangement of events or ‘plot’—it is all ‘narrative,’ and hence applying the term, taken in this sense, to music is redundant. But for music written a mere half century before the Viennese classics this assumption of the primacy of the temporal disposition of events is invalid.” (Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow)

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

 

Homage to Capon: Jazz as Ferial Cooking

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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.

Why I’m Encouraged by Pop Music Trends

An acquaintance of mine, a semi-well-known actress, apparently ran into Kanye West and talked with him for a bit. (I feel famous.) He told her that his latest big project is coming up with a way to release a song along with all the tracks and mixing that went into it. In other words, he wants to change the music scene so that whenever any artist releases a song, all the tracks are released as well and can be brought up in a sequencer. You, the recipient, can then perform a musical lobotomy on the song: you can take out Kanye’s voice and put your own in, or change one of his loops, or put in your own percussion. Or you can just mess around with plug-ins and make it all sound like the chipmunks going hip-hop. And that’s just an anecdote—I hear and see this idea gaining ground all over the place and have even seen a few examples. Everyone’s becoming a producer these days.

Over on the other side of the popular music world, it seems these days like everyone is wearing a vest, plaid, learning guitar, and singing with a raspy voice. Many people lament this, that somehow alternative and folk rock is turning into something anyone can do. Oh, and, if you didn’t catch it, that is a bad thing. Somehow the fact that Mumford & Sons can be reproduced by any group of four guys with some musical talent is a detriment to them.

I think not. What we’re seeing is the collapse of a system of music that will, after its demise, be considered probably the most bizarre ever. It’s a sort of game: whereas all your ancestors enjoyed music by actually doing it, you enjoy music by listening to other people doing it. Whereas popular music used to be a communal activity that everyone engaged in, popular music is now anything but popular: it’s utterly professionalized. The melodies are so unsingable even the singers need autotune and only the talented perform karaoke. So we listen to other “talented” people perform and think that we’re enjoying music ourselves through them.

All that is ending. To borrow Marxist language, we have alienated the human impulse to music from ourselves, but that is not a tenable situation in the long run. It’s like putting a cap on a pressure-filled pipe, and it must burst. Sooner or later, we’ll just decide to stop listening to other people enjoy music and we’ll start to actually enjoy it ourselves. And then I think we’ll realize just how bizarre we were for about 60 or 70 years there in the 20th century.

So, for my money, Miley Cyrus’ performance was encouraging. Kanye West is encouraging. Everyone becoming the next Mumford is encouraging. We’re seeing the old way of doing popular music die away (some say twerking, some say death throes…) and an older way resume. Increasingly, humans are becoming musicians. They’re butting in on the musical act, because the musical act is an impulse God put in us. And that doesn’t mean that there won’t always be those who are better poets or better musicians than the rest, but what a difference it will make to have an audience of musicians to listen to them.