Sacred music in a secular world

Updated Thursday, 13th March 2008
Richard Langham Smith muses on the interplay between sacred music and secular culture.

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Two women singers

Not too many years ago, the charts were surprised by the incursion of a CD of Gregorian Chant into the weekly best-sellers. People were listening to music written over 1500 years ago in preference to the songs of yesterday.

It made you think.

The questions that came to my mind were ‘Why"?, of course, and "Who"? What could these wandering melodies, sung in priestly tones, do for the modern listener? And who were these listeners who bought the recordings? Committed Catholics perhaps? I doubt that the majority were, rather the reverse, though a survey would have been interesting.

There was a popular aphorism going round musical circles a few years ago to do with so-called ‘authentic’ performance:

Two guys came out from a Californian jacuzzi where the music of Bach’s St Matthew Passion had been piped in. "You know", one said to the other, "that was the real thing, the ‘authentic’ version, done on original instruments, just as Bach would have heard it". The story raises further questions.

But we are back to the role of Sacred Music in a secular world.

Gregorian Chant book
Gregorian Chants - by Amppit via Flickr under Creative Commons BY-NC licence

I like to take these questions apart. The first is to do with changing contexts and the power of certain musics to survive. Gregorian chant - or Plainsong, to give it its other name - and the music of Bach are cases in point.

Somehow they have survived vastly changing contexts: Bach Passions playing in a jacuzzi can hardly be ‘authentic’. We couldn’t be in the same circle of performance and reception as Bach anyway, if we were not believing, potato-eating Lutherans sitting in a freezing church in Eastern Germany in the eighteenth century.

But both Bach and plainsong (and a multitude of other religious music) can give succour to the non-believer, they can be stress relievers; their beauty may transport us into spiritual if undefined realms where somehow we feel transcendence; and they may recount telling stories nowhere more profoundly uttered elsewhere. Maybe this highlights needs so basic in mankind that we crave for it even to the extent of buying it in record shops.

Such music clearly delivers. But why? That’s where a closer look at the music can provide insights, together with a look at ourselves: where do we overlap with music? The answer is in our physical make up, our body-rhythms are an important part added to our capacity to tense up and relax. Music engages with both of these things.

Gregorian chant is extraordinary in that it has no metrical rhythm: nothing to engage with, neither our heartbeats, nor our walking, marching, dancing or running; and nothing to key into the rhythms of the act of sex.

It is without these body rhythms - acorporeal is a sophisticated word for it - and in being so is entirely the opposite of many other musics - sacred and secular - throughout musical history.

Dance music has to be acutely metrical as do military musics designed to regulate marching at various speeds. Many other kinds of music engage us through regular rhythm, taking us on emotional or intellectual journeys (the Symphony for example) where we follow musical materials against a backdrop which irrevocably takes us forward by steps in time: sometimes rushing, sometimes at a walking pace - the musical term ‘Andante’ precisely indicates this.

We might be tempted to deduce that deprived of these metrical aspects, plainsong frees us of corporeality. In fact listening to it - and even more singing it - works rather on another of our bodily functions: the rhythm of breathing.

Slow, rhythmic breathing has long been the key to meditation in many cultures, and early Christian music was no exception. Take away the context of the Mass, Solemn Benediction, Compline or whatever and the music still does its business, innately. There lies the explanation of its surge of popularity in the charts.

That’s one approach and we’ll come back to that question of tension and resolution. But what about changing contexts? Let me for one minute change to a personal note. My church career (and attendance) stopped forty years ago but I still have more CDs of church music on my shelves that any other genre. I have to ask myself why. Maybe you are the same.

In my long career as a university lecturer I’ve met many musical enthusiasts for whom the landmarks of Sacred Music mean far more than those of the central European symphonic canon, whether or not they have any truck with the established church (and they most often don’t).

Monteverdi’s Vespers; the intricate music of the Notre-Dame school; the anthems of Purcell; the 40 part motet of Thomas Tallis: the cantatas and Passions of Bach, not to forget his great B Minor Mass - these are just some of the most durable works which somehow light people up.

Whether committed to religious belief or not, there are questions of context: both those of today and of the past. Go to St Thomaskirche in Leipzig if you are a Bach-lover; go to Rome to think yourself back into Palestrina; or closer at hand Waltham Abbey, or those other churches once inhabited by our great Renaissance composers, Byrd and Tallis.

If you can’t, the BBC series Sacred Music will visit them for you. So much for taking yourself back into the vestiges of time: how are the legacies of great composers such as Bach and Palestrina surviving in the modern world? Pretty vigorously it seems!

Choirs of amateurs continue to delight in this music. Atheist or agnostic; believer or non-believer; ungodly or heretic: Sacred Music has much to give. You can take or leave the words. If you take them you may find deep union with the music; if you leave them the music may do its work by itself. It is an incredibly rich heritage which is far from defunct, and still gives life-blood to a world which is aware of its loss of spirituality and sometimes doesn’t seem to know what to replace it with.

Then there is that question of tension and relaxation. Certain intervals in music sound tense, because of physical properties of sound. Music since the Renaissance has exploited these and allied them to our constant patterns - in all spheres - of this ever-repetitive process: we hear news and we sigh; we see something and we tense up. Good news relaxes us.

There is a constant corollary in music, an elementary way in which we identify with it. In the vocal music on which these programmes centre the links to our own physical make-up, and to our responses are perhaps at their clearest.

Wherever its strength comes from, Sacred Music will continue to adapt to the changing world, to reflect its light and its darkness, and to enhance those vaults of the Gothic and Romanesque and complement the most modern of devoted spaces. It will move the hearts of the godly and godless alike and we can hope that its magic power will go some way to humanising what Thomas Tomkins so aptly called ‘these sad and distracted times’.


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