Sunday, September 23, 2007

Does Simple Music Form Simple Faith?

NYT - September 23, 2007
Does Simple Music Form Simple Faith?

A CEREMONY at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sept. 11 offered some patriotic music and a few dabs of the classics, but everything else made me wonder whether I should be listening as a critic or as a Christian. A lot of liturgical music these days asks you to choose between the two.

With its hand-clapping, inspirational, just-folks character, how different this music is from a tradition that ran from plainchant through Josquin and Palestrina to Mozart and Beethoven, and finally to Messiaen and Britten. Without the church to inspire — not to mention finance — great composers, how diminished the history of music might seem to us.

Beauty of musical color, elegance of harmony, soundness of construction and exquisiteness of originality once worked as the lure that would draw the faltering worshiper nearer. Music, as well as architecture and visual art, represented heaven to the earthbound, something dazzling and unapproachable, an advertisement for a paradise still held at arm’s length.

The neo-Edwardian anthems and elaborations on ethno-popular culture at St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, might lead us to infer from Bach’s B minor Mass or Haydn’s “Creation” a certain irreligion, a seductiveness that captures the senses and leads the heart away from true communion with God. Does simple music form simple faith, arguably the best kind? Has the Dark One used great musical art to his advantage?

Sophisticated music that doesn’t reach out directly to its listeners — that doesn’t depend on their response — bears the seeds of its eventual irrelevance. One reason classical music struggles as it does today lies with the several generations of composers in the last century who demanded that audiences understand them rather than the other way around.

But music written solely for the comfort of its audience is equally irrelevant. Pushing ethnic buttons as a form of quick access to the worshiper’s attention is only advertising. Easy familiarity acts like the door-to-door salesman’s foot in the door, the prelude to making that sale.

The Christian, on the other hand, can argue with perfect rectitude that music is just one more evangelical tool, useful Muzak to accompany the winning of converts and the reinforcement of faith. Interesting music distracts the faithful, or so this line of thinking goes. Interesting music does not tell us to be good or bad. It asks only to be admired. Getting great music and simple faith together happens, but with difficulty.

Verdi’s Requiem, with its visceral depiction of human fright at Judgment Day, comes pretty close to satisfying both the critic and the Christian. My nominee for the music that both thrills the senses and puts into its auditors the appropriate fear of God is the gospel singing of black churches. The sounds are amazing, and everyone in the building has something to do with making them.

The church has reason to fear great beauty, hence the effort to rescue our attention, through plainspoken and deliberately flat-footed modern texts, from the mesmerizing graces of the Latin Mass or the splendid poetry of the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. I am one small example, having spent the Sunday mornings of my youth in the Episcopal Church allowing Thomas Cranmer’s magical imagery and liquid liturgical responses to roll off my tongue without a thought to God at all.

One reason that less important music is being written for churches is that composers have other things on their minds: among them, making a living. Churches were once the center of life, and centers of wealth and power as well. Composers thrived in their employ in times when public concerts barely existed. The rich commissioned liturgical pieces as their personal upscale rapprochements with God. What money for composers circulates today is largely in secular hands.

The decline in classical music and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have things in common. Musical audiences dwindle and age; church attendance in Europe has dropped precipitously; and evangelical and fundamentalist movements in once solidly Catholic Latin America are growing exponentially. Without the divide between audience member (parishioner) and artist (clergy), rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and like species so involve listeners that the audience becomes an added instrument, singing along or shouting approval. Religion in country churches is not about intransitive shows of respect but about energy bouncing back and forth.

In a television interview not long ago the novelist Margaret Atwood gave as good a reason as any that a recognizably human, touchable God so engages spiritual seekers. People are lonely, she said. When they look out at the universe, they don’t want to see rocks and gases; they want someone to talk to.

Do we go the other way, approach God as spectators and accept religious art’s tantalizing promises of a kingdom of heaven filled with nonstop Mozart and Michelangelo? Or do we sit down, take our maker by the shoulder, put beauty in its place and work things out person to person?

Ritual-driven, beauty-ridden Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans may not be doing as well right now as they would like, but history keeps turning in circles, and they may have their day again.

Meanwhile grab that guitar. Clap those hands.

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