The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Music- Sacred, Profane, and Just Plain Tacky

"They transform into entertainment that which has been created for no other purpose than to produce in the Christian soul a holy and salutary sadness."

Can you guess where this quote is from? A Roman Catholic traditionalist propaganda sheet? A traditional Anglican polemical essay? Actually, we have to go back a few centuries and go to another continent. This was one of the complaints of ecclesiastical authorities in France against Marc-Antoine Charpentier's settings of the lessons for Tenebrae of Maundy Thursday. This, of course, was in the seventeenth century.

If you know well enough the history of ecclesiastical music, you will know that sacred and secular styles were not so differentiated in the past. Monteverdi could use one piece of music in an opera, and then turn around and use it in his setting of Vespers. An aria from a sacred motet in Mozart is no different than an aria sung in a theatre house. So why do we, as liturgical reactionaries, react so harshly to secular styles entering the church: drumsets, bass guitars and all? Only an elite corps of snobs (yours truly included) would find Charpentier's Tenebrae Lessons enthralling and scandalous now (most people it would just put to sleep). So are we going to have as much egg on our face as those Jansenist clergy in France who considered this piece scandalous?

We should thus ask about the question of style: are all epochs of music created equal? Yesterday's Elvis may indeed becomes today's Bach; forms once considered offensive become the orthodoxy of tommorrow. We could argue then that all ages are created equal, and it is just a matter of time until we adjust to prolonged guitar and drum solos in our churches.

Then again, we could do another exercise. Say we took a contemporary classic.... say NWA's Straight Outta Compton, and did a setting for the Vienna Boys Choir:

Conductor (in a heavy Austrian accent): You are now about to witness the power of street knowledge.

....and a boy treble proceeds with an angelic solo with unforgettable lyrics like:

When I'm called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off
You too, boy, if ya f@#* with me
The police are gonna hafta come and get me....

Or maybe we can do Jimmy Hendrix's Purple Haze for string quartet. (Wait a minute, that was done by the Kronos Quartet.)

Yes, it could be argued that we are just reactionaries and snobs. It can also be argued that maybe we live in a musical landscape where an African drum circle is a step up in the hierachy. Maybe all musical ages are equal: maybe Perotin would be just as scandalized at a Mozart Mass as we are in a rock and roll Mass. But to paraphrase Orwell, all ages are equal, but some ages are more equal than others.


At 6:46 AM, Blogger Sean Roberts said...

"Let us move on!"


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