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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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.

Beethoven Politics

“If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces.” (Theodor Adorno from Mark Berry’s Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire)

The Monuments Men

I recently watched The Monuments Men, a George Clooney film about the men who saved European art from destruction at the end of World War II. It was very much a throw-back to the movies I grew up on, like The Great Escape or Bridge on the River Kwai and so on. One of the interesting decisions that Clooney made was to focus the movie on this central question: what is about this art that makes it worth dying for?

And another interesting decision was how he chose to answer that question. He did not choose the obvious answer, that this is Great Art. Clooney’s character (a thin disguise for Clooney’s viewpoint, I guess) was not that this art had some intrinsic value that necessitated its saving. Men did not have to die because Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was just So Damn Good. The movie obviously doesn’t deny that the art is amazing and repeated study.

The argument is, instead, framed quite elegantly in terms of a thought experiment: if Hitler destroyed all the individual people of Western civilization, it would strangely still pop up again soon enough. If Hitler really wanted to destroy Western civilization, he would have to destroy things like its art. Art is our communal identity.

And here I muse off in my own direction. This art was not Great Art, in that it bore in itself such surpassing worthiness to cost two men’s lives in its protection. No, this art carries with it, sacramentally, who we are. It is molded by us and its greatness is the way it too molds us even further. Western culture molded Michelangelo and he expressed what we taught him better than we ourselves could have conceived. Michelangelo has molded us.

But the value of art is contingent. It is not inherent; it would not exist in a vacuum. It is context-specific. This does not mean that standards go away, or that I am favoring artistic relativism. Those who would insist on an artistic relativism can be refuted easily without insisting on the idea of Great Art that exists in some ideal world of forms. We don’t need to become Platonists to appreciate art.

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?

Psalm 87

“Both the singers and the players on instruments say,

‘All my springs are in you.'”

Glorious things are spoken of Zion: people in Egypt and Babylon, in all the corridors of power, look at the successful, the prosperous, the blessed, and say that they hail from Zion. The Psalmist give multiple examples of these glorious things, but the final sign of Zion’s social and political greatness among the nations is that her singers and players hail from her.