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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

MUSIC, THEOLOGY AND ENCHANTMENT: a guest lecture to the Dept of Music, Durham University

I want in this lecture to explore the interface between music and religion. I don’t simply mean religious music – the part music plays in liturgy and spirituality. What interests me both as a musical amateur and as a theologian is the more difficult and fundamental question of what music is in itself, and its place in the divine scheme of things. This topic takes us into elusive borderlands where theology, psychology, philosophy, aesthetics, semiotics, social anthropology and cultural history meet. I can do no more than suggest a few threads we might fruitfully follow.

To do theology is to reflect on our human experience in the light of faith. All aspects of life provide the raw material for theological reflection that draws on the insights of the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the experience of people of faith down the ages. One of the most creative developments in applied theology in the past century has been to bring theological perspectives to bear on a whole variety of disciplines. Or as I would prefer to say, bring any or all academic disciplines into a conversation with theology in which each asks, what can I do for the other?  So my questions today are these (and I am framing them in the words of Jeremy Begbie who has written extensively on these themes, and has recently co-edited a stimulating collection of essays Resonant Witness: conversations between music and theology (2011): what does religion do for music?  And what does music do for religion? 

I hope you will forgive a somewhat off-beat approach to this topic.  I want to begin with some autobiography and reflect on seven pieces of music that influenced me early on in life. (Not eight – I wanted to avoid implying that this lecture is a version of Desert Island Discs.) These were – still are – profoundly important in shaping my thinking and indeed my life, and each suggests an insight about this conversation between music and faith.  After that, I want to offer a couple of metaphors suggested by poetry and film that may indicate paths worth exploring.

First up is Mozart’s 39th symphony. I cannot have been more than five when I first became aware of this marvellous work. I loved that slow, portentous dissonant introduction and how its clouds seem to be dispersed with the luminous first subject of the movement proper. It would be years before I understood Sonata Form, or any other musical form; yet as I look back, I believe I was drawn by the perfection of musical form the great classical symphonists exhibit; it happened that I learned it from this symphony of Mozart, but it could have been any of the other late symphonies of his, or the many more of Haydn. It is a kind of Pythagorean view that says that music reflects mathematical or cosmic perfection, the music of the spheres, but I can’t help feeling that there is a truth worth pondering in this.  So for a theologian, perfection of form is linked with a creation whose Great Original brings order out of chaos.

At about the same age, I discovered Schubert’s Lieder. Specifically, it was Winterreise, the winter’s journey made by a forlorn lover who has been abandoned by the woman on whom he has set his heart. These poems by Wilhelm Müller chart a young man’s solitary journey away from the home and community of his beloved into the darkness of a winter night where the frozen landscape acts as a metaphor of his desolate experience.  It is in fact the journey of a soul. How could such a work touch a youngster who had yet to discover the heart’s times and seasons and the capacity of love to bring both joy and pain? I don’t think it was this that I intuited; rather, the romantic’s ability to create new worlds, weave imaginative spells, transport the listener into different dimensions of human experience. Religion, I think, is also about imagining other worlds and inhabiting them, both the transfigured realm of heaven itself, but also the pain-ridden worlds of so many who suffer.  Indeed, if religion has nothing to say about suffering and pain, then in my judgment it has nothing to say about anything that is worth hearing. So Schubert began to teach me the life-lesson that, in Blake’s words, ‘Man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go’.

A few years later, I took part in one of the earliest performances of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. I was assigned the part of a goat. I loved that work for what I now see as its freshness and inventiveness, and above all for the way it brought so many people together in a community of music-making and enjoyment. Earlier this year, I took part in a performance in the Cathedral to mark Britten’s centenary. This time, I was give the Voice of God to speak. Needless to say, the press loved the ‘goat to God’ theme, especially when I waved at them the letter I received from Britten in response to mine telling him about the performance and how much I had enjoyed it. The Pears-Britten archive even produced my original to publish in the concert programme, the first time I had seen it for more than 50 years.  To me, Noye represented something essential about music, that it creates a community of performance. But there is more to it than that. The community actually embraces composer and listener as well. There is something analogous here to the way in which religious faith also creates a community around a sacred text. You could say, too, that theology, like music, is something that is essentially performed, that is lived.  This nexus between text, performance and lived reality is a fruitful issue worth exploring.

Next I want to speak about Bach’s St John Passion. I got to know it in early teenage years and it changed my life. We sang it one year in the school choral society. Its importance for me was twofold: first, it was my discovery of Bach, and second, it led to my discovery of faith. I had played a lot of Bach on the piano, and was starting out on the 48 Preludes and Fugues. But it was the St John that taught me something about Bach’s genius, specifically as an interpreter of religious texts. And it was his interpretation of St John’s great passion narrative that struck me with extraordinary force. I was not brought up in a religious environment: my father was a lapsed Anglican and my mother a non-observant Jewess who was fortunate to escape the Nazi holocaust in her native Germany where relatives and friends of hers ended their days in Auschwitz. Here was another text of pain, the suffering of Christ, whose Jewishness connected with my own. It led to what I can only call an epiphany. In time, I embraced Christianity and have tried to live by it ever since. It is certain that but for Bach, with his extraordinary gift for interpreting biblical and other texts and making them vividly alive, I would not be here speaking to you now. But more than that, I experienced his music as possessing a quality of disclosure, revelation: the capacity to get you to see things in a new way that is life-changing.

 In my teenage years, I became a church chorister: not, to my lasting regret, a cathedral chorister though this choir sang the cathedral repertory and sang to cathedral standards. This was my introduction to a musical language I had never known about before. In particular, it opened up the world of Renaissance music of which my mother, my chief musical influence up to this point, knew nothing about: music for her started in 1685 with the birth of Bach. I particularly loved singing the music of William Byrd: his mass settings, Ave Verum and so on. But the motet that touched me profoundly was Civitas Sancti Tui, a Lenten piece that laments the ruin of Jerusalem and in penitence cries out to God for forgiveness and restoration.  Its plangent cries ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, desolata est’ haunted me then and still do. This, like the Bach Passion, spoke to me about music’s ability to interpret texts (and yes, yet another text of suffering: I had not realised there were so many in my early life until I sat down to write this lecture). But not just that. It was music’s ability to speak in its own distinctive language that I was touching here: a form of speech different from the verbal and conceptual. So I need to put this on the table too, for religion has many different voices in which to ‘speak’, and one of theology’s mistakes has often been to restrict it merely to the spoken or written logos of human speech. And insofar as church music has as its end the praise of God, I want to suggest that all of music is essentially ‘doxological’, in that it points beyond itself, transcends its own boundaries, enables the created order to become sacramental as a symbol of deeper realities than we can see or hear or touch.

There are two more defining moments, this time from my student years. I read maths as my first degree, and this severely left-brained discipline pulled against the right-brained love of music and its different voices. For some reason that I can’t now recall, I fell under the spell of Richard Wagner. It began with Götterdämmerung, spread backwards to embrace the whole Ring cycle, then rapidly embraced the other music-dramas. Like Bach, it would take a lifetime and more to explore the significance of Wagner for human society and for me personally. I have still not yet seen all his works performed and am promising to take myself off to Bayreuth in retirement to put that right. It will be, I imagine, a kind of pilgrimage. And this is precisely, I think, what drew me to Wagner. It was not simply the extraordinary sound-world his music-dramas summon up, and certainly not any admiration for the man with his notorious political views. It seemed to me that there was something of a ritual, quasi-religious quality to Wagner, psychodrama in which the creation of imagined worlds of gods and humans, of myths and legends seem to embrace the whole of the human journey in its compromised ambiguity and its yearning for redemption. This was the drama of transfiguration which spoke directly to a young man discovering transcendence in the Christian message.  There are worlds so much bigger than we are: it is the job of religion to help us discover them, and music, whether it is sacred or secular (and how do we characterise Wagner?) opens up just such journeys of discovery.

Finally, I want to mention music of an entirely different genre which leaped out at me as a student and made me begin to reassess what I believed about music and wean me off an over-elitist assumption that only ‘serious’ music could touch the human spirit. This was the musical Cabaret, or at least the film version with Liza Minelli as its unforgettable star. When I saw it, I was both moved and shocked. Moved because of its narrative, set in Berlin at the end of the Weimar era and the rise of Nazism.  There were obvious echoes of my mother’s past.  But I was shocked for the profanity I then ascribed to it, the sexiness and depravity that characterised the low-life, and not so low-life, of Berlin in those times. But to my perplexity, I found myself humming those marvellous songs, bewitched against my own will by a film which at the time with all my purist presumptions, I wished I had not gone to see. Well, things come full circle.  My daughter took part in a 6th form performance of the musical, and I applauded the loudest. It is surely one of the great musicals of all time.

What I began to learn from Cabaret has two aspects. The first is the improvised quality of so much music that appeals to the popular imagination. Theology as a performance also needs to learn to improvise: listen to all the other voices and join in appropriately sometimes as a solo voice, but mostly in concert. The other is that our discourse about music must not be confined to the serious, high-art end of the arts spectrum. On the contrary, the vast majority of the music that is played and enjoyed in this world is and always has been populist, of the people for the people.  It exists to entertain.  Much of the conversation between theology and music tends to ignore this, but it does not need to. If we equate ‘entertainment’ with ‘recreation’, we see at once that there is a deeply theological nuance in the idea that entertainment brings happiness and enjoyment. This dimension too needs to be brought into the conversation about what music can bring to religion, and what religion can bring to music.

Much of what I have said so far comes down to how music and religion ‘speak’.  This array of different ‘languages’ is to recognise something very important: that ‘theology’ is not only done through the explicit use of human speech. It also happens through many other forms of ‘speech’ and behaviour, often unconsciously. Among these, music surely has a prominent place, not least because of its appeal to the affect, our human emotional life. So to ask, ‘how does music speak to us of God?’ is not a frivolous question. It may well be absolutely central to how we understand what we are about as theologians and believers. When liturgists say (correctly) that people learn theology, not from Bible reading, creeds, pulpit utterances or liturgical formulae, but from the hymns they sing, they usually mean that the lyrics of hymns and songs tend to lodge far more securely in the memory than texts that are merely spoken. That may be for better or for worse. The logic of that insight points attention to how rhythm, melody and harmony all play a part as ‘carriers’ of a message, as transmitters of meaning. A ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ tune has as much to do with the formation of people’s theological minds and hearts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ texts do. In other words, the ‘text’ lies not only in the words but in the music and its performance. There are considerable hermeneutical ramifications to that.

So perhaps we can begin to gather up some possible answers to the two questions I began with. The first was: what does religion do for music? I believe we can say that it places it within a larger context of human, and a theologian would say divine, activity. Theology suggests not only that music is not an end in itself (I doubt if anyone would dispute that) but how it has meaning and value because it belongs to the sphere of human creativity that in the end reflects and even embodies God’s creativity. One of the meanings we could give to the statement in Genesis that God created humanity in his own image is that human beings are given a share in God’s dominion over the world, which is an aspect of his own creativity. And just as talented creativity in any aspect of life is commonly called a ‘gift’, we can speak of music as in its very nature a ‘gift’ offered to humanity for its benefit and enjoyment by an infinitely gifted and talented deity.

I spoke of music as community-building. We could also say that in public social terms, music builds the kind of communities that resist the reduction of human life to what is merely measurable or functional. The current pressure on local authority arts budgets illustrates the tendency, when times are hard, to judge the arts by the criterion of utility; and indeed only last week, a government minister called on those promoting the arts to show the extent to which they benefit the economy.  Arts communities, like faith communities, resist this way of commoditising that in which different kinds of value reside. Music, therefore, bears ‘witness’ to what makes a human community with wholesome values, wholesome in that they respect the imaginative, spiritual dimension of life and not simply the economic. This can be part of what religion brings to music.

What about the other question, what does music do for religion?  I have already spoken about the ‘language’ of music, and how this helps theology to be less ambitious about what can be expressed in words. If religion is engagement with mystery, then we would not expect verbal formulations to be more than provisional in their penetration of what is essentially ineffable, that is, capable of being expressed in words. Music can teach theology to be more respectful of other ways of engaging with reality, to be ready for disclosures that come other than through the cognitive route.  ‘From the heart: may it go to the heart’ wrote Beethoven on the score of his Missa Solemnis. The language of the heart can encourage theologians to think metaphorically, understand that much theological reflection is more in the nature of poetic analogy than description and propositional statement. Importantly, it can teach theologians to be silent altogether in the face of mystery: ‘that of which we cannot speak, of that we must be silent’ as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said.

In these ways, music and the arts help theology to be both imaginative and playful. It is important to connect the idea of ‘playing’ music in performance with ‘playing’ in the recreational sense. If as I have suggested, music is a genuinely ‘recreational’ activity in the sense of imitating divine creativity, then play is an important aspect of being creative. In the Book of Proverbs, God’s act of creating the world is likened to divine play.  God creates us not just because a cosmos that has purposeful activity is better than one without, and not just because it is an act of hospitality in which he, so to speak, steps back in order to create space for the created world and human beings to come into being.  It is presented as an act of pure enjoyment, an end in itself that gives God satisfaction in just the same way that an artist derives pleasure from his or her own artistry. So music, as a vehicle of pleasure and fulfilment can enable theology to be more joyful, less solemn, more relaxed. It is a bit like Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game whose players strike me as rather like instrumentalists tackling a late Beethoven string quartet for the sheer intellectual and emotional pleasure of understanding the game from within and mastering it.


The risk in all this is that we try too hard to ‘explain’ what the artist is up to and what happens when we encounter his or her work. What Isadora Duncan said about dance is true of all the arts: ‘if I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it’. St Francis told his brothers: ‘Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.’ There is tempting to collapse the experience of music down to mere prose. In fact, Art is art’s own best interpreter. So let me conclude by doing some playful metaphorical thinking based on a novel, a poem and a film. I hope they may help us recognise what is happening in this conversation between music and religion. Here I am drawing on a piece I wrote for a symposium on the relationship between music and theology a decade or so ago.   

My novel is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Here is a cameo of a very ordinary encounter in a record shop:

‘Have you got any soul?’ a woman asks... That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no. A few days ago I was right out; now I’ve got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can’t seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn’t be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.

Nick Hornby charts (forgive the word) the fortunes of an obsessive. His public world is the record shop; his private one his record collection, his relationships, and the inner complexities of the male psyche. The book is funny, wise and in its off-beat way, disconcertingly accurate on life and art and sexuality: what it means to be a man and know from the inside what lust, longing and love are. Records are both a metaphor of another world and a gateway to it:

Is it so wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like .... collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colourful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in....

The question that runs through the novel is the woman’s question in the shop: ‘have you any soul?’ To which the answer is, it depends what you mean by soul, what it means to be a human being. That is art’s great question down the centuries. That is religion’s great question too.

Hornby stands in a long tradition that grapples with the function of art at an oblique or metaphorical level. Perhaps that is the only level at which it makes sense. The world of his record collection, both lovelier and more depraved than the world of his own experience, is not a fantasy world but the real one. Far from dulling his senses, music awakens in him a deeper awareness of reality just as fairy tales ‘enchant’ children into discovering at a mythical, symbolic level archetypal truths about the way things are. In Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines, aboriginals ‘sing’ the world into being. In their cosmology, the world would not exist without music, or it would not be recognised. Whatever else is going on when we listen to music and feel ourselves stirred in some way, there is surely an act of recognition taking place, a response, a welcome, an embracing of truth that is too deep for words. We are back to the parallel languages we need in order to do theology.

Next, the poem. I doubt if anyone has ever compared Nick Hornby to Dante. Yet in a curious way, Hornby’s record collection embracing the entire spectrum of human life, echoes Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the universal works of the human spirit. There, Dante uses a literary device to open up the worlds of hell, purgatory and heaven, the worlds, that is, of ourselves and our human journey. The Inferno opens with a man lost in a dark wood, not knowing which way to turn in order to travel safely. Dante introduces us to the figure of the Roman poet Virgil, who shows him that he must travel through the circles of hell in order to come out the other side, climb the slopes of the mountain of purgatory and reach paradise. The metaphor here is of a journey into the self. Dante must travel ‘down’ into the dark places of terror, fear and sin that lurk in the human spirit in order to travel ‘up’ into divine light and grace and glory. We can only know God, Dante is saying, as we are prepared courageously to tackle the hard journey into knowing ourselves as we truly are.

Why Virgil? Why not, as in Pilgrim’s Progress, an evangelist to point the way? Perhaps because Dante’s Virgil does more than point the way. He is travelling companion and guide, the map-reader who helps Dante understand the landscapes he is passing through. He is the interpreter without whom these bewildering, often terrifying worlds don’t make sense. And in his choice of Virgil, regarded by medieval Christendom as not only the greatest of poets but on a par with the Old Testament prophets, Dante reveals an entire theory of the function of art in society. It is not to prettify, but to illuminate in the technical sense of the word: to uncover meanings and shed light on human experience. It does this, says Dante, not directly, full-frontally, so to speak, but by ‘telling it slant’, to use Emily Dickinson’s memorable phrase: by means of analogy and metaphor that awaken the imagination and lead the soul into dimensions of truth that didactic prose by itself cannot penetrate.

The last part of the journey, the Paradiso, introduces us to a different guide. This is Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life, whom he had glimpsed as a young man by the Ponte Vecchio in his native Florence, and was only to encounter once more in his life. Beatrice is Dante’s symbol of beauty: glimpsed, perhaps, rather than embraced - for like Beatrice, beauty cannot be trapped and tamed by human beings, made subject to their whims and desires. Again, the message is clear, that beauty is to lead us by the hand into paradise and the vision of God. Only then does she bid farewell to Dante as he looks on him whose love ‘moves the sun and the other stars’. When we gaze on the God who embodies all beauty, art’s work is done.

Finally, my film: Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). Set in 19th century New Zealand, it chronicles the fortunes of a dumb heroine Ada who is married off to a tyrannical and abusive husband. She has three ways of communicating: a writing tablet, her little daughter by a previous affair, and her piano. Both Flora and the piano enable her to break her silence and ‘speak’; but the piano is her only vehicle for communicating her passionate emotions, what lies in the depths of this complex, agonised woman’s heart.  Ada falls in love with another man, Baines, a neighbour. The complex interactions within this triangle of obsession, domination, and redeeming love are resolved when Baines finally takes Ada and Flora with him in a boat away from the island. On the boat, Ada insists that the piano is thrown overboard. She deliberately catches her foot in the ropes holding it, and is pulled under by the instrument. Just in time, she extricates herself and climbs up to the surface to live again and find her own voice and freedom.

If the piano is the real heroine of this film, it is because it is such an eloquent symbol of the human predicament. To be human means to be heard, known and understood. Ada’s piano is a complex metaphor of this, a transitional object that enables Ada to cling on to her humanity and keep her soul intact while the forces around her threaten to tear her apart. With her piano, she can move safely from one stage of life to the next. When it has served its purpose, it can ‘die’, and with it, her old self. The piano works at one level as a symbol of how music makes up for the deficiencies of other forms of speech, whether written words (epitomised by the writing tablet) or oral (her daughter, her mother’s surrogate mouthpiece in much the same way as the Old Testament describes Aaron as Moses’ spokesman or ‘prophet’). The late works of Beethoven show how his beloved piano, too, became just such a mouthpiece in the face of his increasing deafness. Those words perhaps encapsulate one message of the Piano.

 But precisely because the piano is only a transitional object, there comes a time when there is no further use for it. And without it now (the film implies), Ada achieves resurrection and can speak for herself. So the film can be read in terms of music’s redemptive role in human destiny. This places it in a long tradition of poetry and drama that does this. One example is John Milton’s poem At a Solemn Musick, which interprets the entire story of creation (the state of ‘perfect diapason’), fall (the ‘harsh din’ that ‘broke the fair music that all creatures made / to their great Lord’) and salvation (which is to be brought back ‘in tune with heav’n’) through the imagery of music. Another is Wagner’s music drama Die Meistersinger, set in 16th century Nuremberg, where the prize-winning piece in the annual song contest is a symbol of the new, creative art against the old and the hidebound. But in the drama’s story of individual human lives, the prize song is also the means through which love is declared and relationships redeemed. All these works affirm that music is a basic human need and experience in which tragedy is expressed, catharsis takes place and resolution is achieved. In The Piano, music has a redemptive function. Without it, we are less than human, and unable to reach our God-given destiny. That we experience music as gift and recreation makes it a very apt symbol of divine grace. This is, perhaps, the Augustinian subtext to the film.

That is one reading of the film, perhaps the expected one. A more open-ended reading would take the sinking of the piano to the bottom of the sea, not as a redemptive moment but rather as a symbol that music shares in the ambivalence of things, is a victim of our brokenness, can even have destructive associations. The piano must ‘die’, and part of Ada with it, if another part of her is to live. When I was a student, in love with Wagner, I was advised by some Christian Union colleagues (who could not have been more fervently evangelical than I was at the time) not to flirt with art associated with Nazism. Associations can colour art: it can be meat offered to idols. Another film, Amadeus, raises the issue of how sublime art can derive from a mind so scatalogical and corrupted as Mozart’s - something his greatest theological admirer, Karl Barth, had already commented on. Is the truth that sublimity is achieved despite the character of the conduit or the associations it can subsequently come to carry, in much the same way as Paul speaks about God’s strength being made perfect in human weakness?

That music belongs to a world that is not yet healed hardly needs stating (and in the Genesis story, Jubal, ‘the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe’ belongs to the progeny of Cain, very much part of a fallen world). What is much more difficult to put into words is the difference between music that catharises darkness, evil and pain, Britten’s War Requiem for instance, or Bach’s Passions, and music that may seem to reinforce it. Not long ago, a worshipper at my last Cathedral complained to me about the liturgical mass setting that was something of a party piece - the Messe Sollonnelle by Jean Langlais. This magnificent piece is bold, exhilarating, and driven from beginning to end by a furious energy. To her it was the epitome of our century’s contradictions: violent, conflicted, disintegrating, pulling in the opposite direction of a liturgy that is meant to put us back together again as human beings. We agreed on the importance of not denying but offering in worship the angry realities of the world and of our own lives in the way the psalmists do. But we did not succeed in ‘reading’ the music in the same way. To her it was ‘bad enchantment’ - not because the piece or the composer carried any negative ‘associations’, and not because it was kitsch - another issue again, but because it was intrinsically destructive, demonic even, by its very nature. To me, it was the exact opposite. But what are the theological issues at stake here, and how do we identify them?

This lecture can do no more than raise a few questions. Like all good theology, it turns out to be about the whole of life, and what it means to long for and know and love God. To go back to Nick Hornby, it is about ‘soul’ - the soul of each of us, of humanity, of the world. It is about what the gospel warns us against losing. I hope that this all-important conversation between music and theology may help us to recover ‘soul’ in human life, and to re-connect with what is so often a lost part of our world and of ourselves.

Durham University Department of Music
7 May 2013

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