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.

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.

Bach’s Organ Stops

“To all this was added the peculiar manner in which he combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops. They believed that such a combination of stops could never sound well, but were much surprised when they afterwards perceived that the organ sounded best just so, and had now something peculiar and uncommon, which never could be produced by their mode of registration.” Forkel, in Bach: the Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff.

The Fastest Way to Learn Bach’s Organ Works

The theory: the fastest way to learn how to play the complete works for organ by Bach is not, in fact, to learn the complete works but to learn to sight read the complete works.

The experiment: I intend to immerse myself in (a) the open score works of Gabrieli, (b) the works of Frescobaldi, (c) the chorale preludes of Pachelbel and Buxtehude, and (d) the Well-Tempered Clavier. I will sight read all of them, not stopping to solve tricky sections or to learn anything in the 19th century use of the word learn.

At the end of the summer, I hope to be able to sight read the complete works of Bach without making serious mistakes and, for the most part, not having to go back over and practice sections into flawlessness. If Bach really was composing these for weekly services, could he have had so much discretionary time to learn his own works, if the time it took him to learn his works was the time it took the normal organist today? Given that he was also reputedly able to improvise fugues, I am assuming he had the facility to be able to play his own compositions without for the most part practicing them specifically. Perhaps the 19th century system of practicing a piece is so impractical when it comes to an 18th century mindset that it would be faster to learn the skill to be able to play this kind of music rather to than to learn to play each individual piece of it.

A Sketch of the 1749 Conflict

Frederick the Great was young. He had his hand on the rudder and a pleasant zeitgeist blowing into his sails. Johann Sebastian Bach was, at this time, a year from his death, and his whole reputation was built around a resistance to this zeitgeist. It was the same old battle that had started in the 1590s in Florence, but it was perhaps coming to a head here 150 years later in royal palace of Germany. Bach and Frederick were to engage in a clash of ideology, and not on entirely equal footing. J. S. Bach was the last great contrapuntal composer, and everyone knew it. Even his son, J. C. Bach, apparently knew it, since he was in the employ of Frederick the Great, composing music just how Frederick liked it. Not contrapuntal.

J. S. Bach, the father, arrives. Frederick shows off all his beautiful harpsichords and pianofortes, the way millionaires these days show off their cars. As Bach is feeling around one particular model, Frederick asks him if he might improvise a bit. He gives Bach a fugue subject of 8 measures. The melody contains 4 measures of straight chromatic scale. The rest contain intervalic relations designed specifically to make parallel fifths and parallel octaves a likely occurrence. The melody was conceived precisely to make it difficult for Bach.

Lots of people were present at this point, including members of the 18th century “press”. Bach had a reputation of being the last great contrapuntal master and legends had grown up around him about his ability to spontaneously invent a fugue. The ability to do so on a competent level, however, was more or less unprecedented in that age and possibly even in past ages. Given a melody like this with this level of pressure is bad enough. Much more was at stake than Bach’s reputation, though, and everyone knew it.

Bach took the royal melody and subsequently improvised a three-part fugue or “ricercare” on it. Keep in mind: a fugue does not simply harmonize its main melody. You essentially have to maintain two other, separate melodies whenever that melody appears. You must do so while adhering to the rules of counterpoint, which insist that there be no parallel fifths or octaves between voices. And you must do all this while still being artistic in your invention: melodies need to be recycled, structure has to be observed, and, much like a debate round, after the first page and a half, no new material should be introduced, only old stuff developed.

If Bach’s later transcription of his improvised ricercare is anything like what he improvised, Bach didn’t simply meet Frederick’s impossibly difficult taunt. He did so slapping Frederick in the face. Frederick’s whole opinion of music was based on the idea that the Old Style was outdated, incapable of entertaining, incapable of elegance. He favored the galant style, which was a direct descendent of the Italian monodist style. It was much more harmonically based music, the sort of thing Rameau would be proud of. It loved ornate melodies and simple ostinato accompaniment.

And so Bach does his typical thing, almost caricaturing Frederick’s caricature of counterpoint, making the fugue quite grave and serious. But here and there, he dabbles galant style on top of the royal melody. He does what he’s consistently done throughout his career: he imitates the galant style and does so in a contrapuntal way. The result is better than the original galant. And not just better all around, but better at the specific goals of the galant style. Better at entertaining, better dance music, a more enjoyable lightness, a more engaging elegance. Bach was the worst sort of opponent for a young man trying to lay to rest an outmoded style. Bach was just simply better at music than everyone else, and so at a grumpy 68 years old, he did an epic in-your-face to a young, rich prince who hated church music.

The papers, after the event, couldn’t elaborate in too much detail on the broader implications, for obvious reasons. Frederick had expected the evening, apparently, to be a once-and-for-all triumph of the galant style. By tempting Bach’s pride to bite off more than he could reasonably chew, Frederick could essentially take down the best the old style had to offer. Laughter is the greatest weapon, and an unsuccessful Bach would have allowed for some great smirks. But, there was nothing reasonable about how much Bach could bite off.

So the papers didn’t report that Frederick had, in some sense, lost the battle. But not, it seems, the war.

Kraut und Ruben in Biber’s Battalia

Update: well, well. The melody does not become swiftly unrecognizable, but is actually pretty clear the whole way. I guess the entire idea of the passage is to introduce lots of folk melodies in different keys, which would have been obvious to people who actually sang them. Silly me! How obvious.

Original post: A friend of mine showed me the delightful passage of Biber’s Battalia that imitates the sounds of the drunk singing in “Die liederliche gselschafft von allerley Humor”. I don’t know if this is obvious, but I may have found “Kraut und Ruben” hidden fairly early on there, becoming subsequently (and swiftly) unrecognizable in the mess. Maybe there are all sorts of German folk melodies in there, but I recognized this one because of its appearance in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Highlighted in red is pretty distinctly (without the final passing tone between the E and C natural) the following German folk tune (“Cabbage and turnips are driving me away”):

You can find a fantastic visual aid to understanding Bach’s 30th Variation here at Bach-cantatas.com.