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.