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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The other historical shore

“If Bach could still see in harmony a metaphor for God, Goethe was already speaking from the other historical shore—from the world in which metaphors are all we have. In this new world, our world, it is God who has become the metaphor for harmony.” Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity, 129.

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.

Psalm 78

The famous opening words, quoted later by Jesus:

“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, Telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.”

I want to suggest here that Psalm 78 isn’t just obeying this directive, i.e. God commands us to tell our children the stories of Yahweh’s redemption. It is also, even primarily, telling a story about what happened to Israel when they failed to obey this directive. Psalm 78 isn’t just a story of Yahweh’s redemption, but it’s the story of what happens when we forget to sing of Yahweh’s redemption. Psalm 78 is a cautionary tale for us.

For instance, v. 32 says “In spite of this [i.e. the water, manna, and meat in the wilderness], they still sinned, And did not believe in his wondrous works,” which is clearly poking fun at the people of Israel for having the attention span of a fruit fly. In v. 41 it says “again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel,” but in v. 42 it describes how they tempted God: “They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy, When he worked His signs in Egypt, And His wonders in the field of Zoan.” So sinning against God, tempting God, limiting the Holy One—these are all Israel forgetting his acts of redemption. For the people of God, “turning back and acting unfaithfully like their fathers” means “not keeping His testimonies,” which testimonies are not simply his laws but the testimony of his works of redemption.

So the opening lines, “Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth,” are a caution. These “dark sayings of old which we have heard and known” we must not hide them from our children, lest we fall into the same mistakes that the wilderness generation did.

Psalm 78 is, in this sense, a meta-psalm. Psalms, from this perspective, are expressions of the specifically dramatic nature of God’s redemption. As we have all heard much of lately, God’s redemption is not a statement or a proposition but a story and a narrative, and as such it must be made into poetry and songhence Yahweh’s redemption is a kind of redemption that always produces psalm singing (Exodus 15). Psalm 78 is a meta-psalm because it tells that story of God’s redemption but in so doing it tells the story of why such stories are so important, why these stories must continue to be sung. Psalm 78 is the ultimate justification for the entire book of Psalms and its continuing usage in the Church today. It is also, for that matter, the justification for the continued composition of new poems and songs that praise current and recent and particular acts of God’s redemption.

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