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.

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.

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

 

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.

5 Lessons Revelation Teaches about Music

Revelation 4 and 5

1. This music is loud.

The first voice he hears “speaking to me like a trumpet.” “Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder.” The mighty angel proclaims “with a loud voice.” And then something immense: “I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” not merely singing, but this time “singing with full voice.” And then the choir gets even bigger: “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing.”

2. This music is old and liturgical.

The four beasts are described in 4:8 wonderfully. “They were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.'” And here we have the liturgical element. It continues, even now. The King James allows this present tense to stand out against the rest of the past tense verbs. This is echoed in the twenty-four elders who whenever the beasts worship thus, “fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Thou art worthy, O Lord.'” This idea of without-ceasing is, I think, perhaps a little disturbing to Protestants when taken literally as a prescriptive of liturgy. It sounds too Eastern, like praying with “vain repetitions.” But it appears there is a kind of repetition that is not vain. This is an old musical act not simply because it has stretched into the past indefinitely but also because of the development that follows in heaven.

3. This music is contemporary and eschatological.

Suddenly in the midst of this litany the problem of the scroll takes center stage. Who will open it? The Lamb takes it, and immediately the four beasts and the twenty-four elders break out into a new song. This song is not directed directly toward God on the throne, but toward the Lamb. The same sort of language of honor and blessing is now ascribed to him, and the similarly liturgical gesticulations seem to be taking place, now re-oriented. This development is eschatological. Glory has been added onto glory. I think that the use of the present tense in the last passage is an indication that the older liturgy is still going beneath this newer activity. I realize that this is logistically difficult to imagine, but I don’t think that that should bother us. John portrays the action of chapter 4 as continuous through the present, which is why I think the eschatological development in the liturgy of chapter 5 happens on top of the other. Old beneath, continuous and unchanging; new on top, ever-changing and growing in glory.

4. This music is contrapuntal.

The result of this co-existence is that the worship is in some sense contrapuntal. An old song is happening at the same time as a new song. It necessitates that two songs are happening at once. This is testified by the fact that, even in the old liturgy, the grammar makes it impossible to imagine other than that the elders and the beasts are singing two different songs simultaneously. They are not singing the same thing. It is also polychoral. There is a chorus of twenty-four elders, which are angels according to James Jordan, and there is a chorus of four beasts. On top of this there is the larger chorus of angels unfathomable, and then the largest possible chorus of all creation. There is a certain dialogue between the various choruses of creation and the different choruses have different roles to perform, different songs to sing.

5. This music is surrealistic.

This is not simply because the scene is surrealistic, although that is part of it. There are certain images that are a little hard to imagine quite exactly. A rainbow like an emerald doesn’t seem to make sense as such, since a rainbow is multiple colors and an emerald is one particular color. The four creatures are also pretty fantastical, but then the strangest thing is the description of the eyes. At first they are described as “full of eyes in front and in back.” This forms a chasm where the description of each individual animal is bookended by an emphasis on the eyes, the latter description that they were “full of eyes around and within.” That’s just plain strange. The Lamb itself is nothing like our vision of him. He is described “as though it had been slain.” This clearly means that its neck is cut and bloody. It also has seven heads and seven horns. Oddly enough, that doesn’t seem to show up in a lot of icons or pictures of the Lamb. John would not tell us this, or any of these things, without realizing that he is giving us a mental image. I don’t think we should suppress these mental images because some of them are in fact symbolic. Indeed they are symbolic, but the mental images are powerful and strong and John clearly wants us to try to develop a picture. If we were to commission a Biblically faithful painting of this scene, it’s clear that the only painter who could do it faithfully is Salvador Dalí.

But this is logistically a necessity for the music. When you have polychorality, when you have any sizable group of people together singing, the sound becomes uncontrollable. Control is something we love in our music, and we usually feel that chaos is a pejorative. But chaos is inevitable with an ensemble of any greater size than 5,000. That many people singing even one tune or melody together at any speed greater than the utmost slowness would differ in all sorts of aspects. To add a sense of the contrapuntal on top of that means that likely the noise is not just massive but incredibly dissonant. It’s worth remembering that the rams-horn trumpets (think of Jericho and Gideon’s battle) are very loud and have no pitch control. I’m not sure what the specifications of the trumpet John was imagining would be here, but certainly any instruments present in this vast ensemble would not have the sort of melodic capabilities we expect of instruments now. It’s quite likely that they would be doing something improvisitory and varied with their instruments. I am not pressing for specificity in an effort to ignore the fact that this is all symbolic language. But the symbolic language would have connoted something in the minds of his readers, and it is not what Church music connotes in our minds. Which is to say, it is not tame.

There are two subsequent observations that I’d like to make. First, that these truths about the worship of heaven have been prescriptive of worship music of the church in the past and to some extent today. Second, that they ought to continue to be prescriptive of how we think about music and compose it.

A few examples of the first point: One of the lessons that I think high music ought to learn from popular music—particularly metal, techno, pop, and dustup—is just how important and powerful a loud bass can be. It’s nothing to sniff at. A bass that makes you feel the raw, physical power of music is terribly important for reminding you how physically powerful and raw music is. Your jaws rattle, your cheeks jiggle, you feel it in your chest. This is visceral the way music ought to be. There are very few instruments throughout the 18th and 19th centuries capable of producing this effect besides the bass drum, which is scarcely used by any composer of respectability besides maybe Tchaikovsky (and there are many who think he isn’t). But this is to say nothing of the 17th century. There is, really, only one instrument that rivals today’s synthesized popular music in raw power and compelling bass, and that is, of course, the pipe organ. This is not incidental—I think the presence of a timbre-distinct and prominent bass is exactly what makes pipe organ continue to be the best instrument for congregational singing. It is an instrument designed to smack you into the back of the pew with its magnitude and might. J. S. Bach reputedly loved the 32′ register on the organ. This is the register, incidentally, that is too low for the human ear to identify distinct pitch, which means that, with soft pipes, you simply hear a rumble, and with loud pipes, you hear loud whacking and growling. The sound of a full organ with a 32′ bombarde is a sound that will never stop surprising you because it goes lower, pierces deeper, literally moves you more than you thought it possibly could.

I say this not merely as a backhanded form of job security. There is no way I can Biblically bind the conscience into an appreciation of the organ. It is particularly good at what it does and I think it’s the best choice we’ve got, but there will someday no doubt be a better choice. The point of this here is that the organ developed and grew in influence and ubiquity because it possessed the ability to be louder than anything else. The instruments of Bach’s time continue to produce the loudest sound of any instrument ever made that isn’t electronically amplified. Even with its electrical competitors it holds its own.

The 16th and 17th century loved large, loud ensembles. This is primarily a Lutheran and Venetian thing. The name of the day prior to the Reformation was often a small a cappella choir to sing this or that chant or a mass setting with the ordinal. After the Reformation, contemporaneous with the explosion of the printing press, all sorts of instruments are thrown amongst the choir in a hodgepodge. It occurs to many composers to treat the congregation as a sort of choir itself and they start to add in multiple other choruses in different positions in the church.

Church composers have always been interested in the new arising out of the old and existing simultaneously. In the Middle Ages, the primary form of composition was performing an old chant very slowly and atop that a new exuberant composition full of rhythm and life. Just before and after the Reformation, the beloved style was hiding a traditional tune inside a newer composition, still using it as the basic structural device but adding in an element of mystery and suspense. It is impressive how truly ubiquitous this style has been: new composition is old composition with glory added on top, simultaneous.

But why should we adopt any of these principles for our worship music? There is a very simple reason. “For you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are registered in heaven…. therefore, since we are receiving of kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire,” (Hebrews 11:18-28). The reason our earthly worship ought to be more like heavenly worship is because it is heavenly worship. The author of Hebrews makes this same argument: you worship in the heavenly places, so act like you do. I think that Hebrews is not just a slap on the wrist to people who casually break it down in church (although it is that), but I think it’s an entire aesthetic philosophy of worship. Just as Leviticus was a structural pattern for our covenant renewal service, so Revelation 4-5, according to the author of Hebrews, is the model for worship in the throne-room. These are principles and history provides us with applications, with methods. I do think all the people of God ought to follow these principles in worship, but I don’t expect them all to follow these principles in the same way.

I think an examination of our tastes in worship music reveal themselves to not align perfectly with God’s. He apparently likes loud music, chaotic music, lots of choirs engaged in counterpoint, and the co-existence of contemporary and traditional, the co-existence of liturgical repetition and wild improvisation.

And my last comment is the comment that should be obvious but never is, for whatever reason. You cannot simply take what I say and haphazardly apply it. The application of these principles necessitate knowing how they have been applied in the past. And so it’s still utterly necessary to familiarize yourself with old church music. Listen to lots of Perotin, Dufay, Josquin, Byrd, Praetorius, Purcell, Schutz, and Buxtehude. They will provide you with a myriad of possibilities that you could not have otherwise conceived of yourself.