God and Music

I should explain at the outset here that I do believe God exists, and I am not using this to denounce any church or religion, or any religious icons, nor do I want to upset people that don’t have that belief. At the same time, I do feel that there are times where I can understand the point of view of both the faithful and the skeptical and I end up somewhere on the fence (What is that exactly? A half-conscientious observer of religion of some sort?), so hopefully this explains where I am approaching this from. And I also want to keep this squarely focused on classical music, not going anywhere near any gospel or Christian music or any genre tied in with those.
For the record, it should be noted that I was raised a Catholic and attended Sunday masses every week up until I was in high school. I was even in the church folk group for a time. Not really sure when it grew apart from me or why.

I guess this is rather a prolonged question than any kind of statement, and I don’t know if this is the best time or place to bring up this thing that’s been troubling me for quite some time, but it seems there may never be any best time or place for it. I’m in charge of my own blog, and The Glass seems like as good a place as any to post this, so, here goes.

Am I the only person that listens to the liturgical classical music of people like Bach, Handel and Mozart, and feels a sense of confusion in today’s climate? Since the days we live in are quite liberal in terms of the way we think and explore the possibilities of what is or what could be or should be, and what really exists or doesn’t exist, is listening to music with liturgical texts or references out of place?

It does seem a bit weird for me when I watch people like Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais on TV and hear where they stand on religion. They are funny people, and I’m entertained by their comedy immensely, but I don’t always agree with them. But, I’d probably dislike it if they suddenly found religion again and incorporated that into the comedy (which probably wouldn’t even work anyway) just as much as if either one of them insisted that we all denounce religion 100%. Maybe that’s just me, but comedy is another art form that does use a lot of realistic points of view and ideologies.

I don’t really know how far into religion the composers were, personally. As far as we know, Bach was a Protestant, was even a cantor at the Thomasschule zu Leipzig, and had written cantatas, a Christmas Oratorio, and many other sacred pieces with and without vocals. Liszt has a ton of liturgical works, including really beautiful and epic pieces like Christus and Graner Messe, and he was also a priest. There were quite a few great requiem masses composed (Mozart, Verdi, etc.) that are very popular repertoire today. But were any of these artists ever wearing their beliefs on their sleeves enough that you thought this was all they were about? And yet I still listen to all of it without needing any kind if religious context, particularly when it comes to the organ works of Bach and Liszt. Regardless of the many sacred aspects of the pieces, the sheer massiveness created by the sound of the organ is enough to move me in a way that I feel closer to God than I ever did kneeling on the altar at masses every Sunday.

And there’s Handel’s Messiah. I love listening to it and singing along with it every time I hear it. I love the overture, the Pifa, and I love all the arias, the choruses–all of them, not just the Hallelujah one. For me, it is the most perfect work for singers and orchestra, and I’ve even owned several different versions/recordings of it. So if I haven’t been to church in ages, and the last time I actually have been to any kind of church service was the last wedding I attended, does this make me a hypocrite for loving this piece? Perhaps there’s this sort of spirit that exists in this music that pervades our hearts regardless of whatever denomination of religion is supposed to be celebrated or acknowledged.

Anyway, that’s really just something I wanted to raise as a question because I wasn’t sure if anyone else was feeling the same way. Again, this is not meant to be an anti-religious discussion or anything like that and I hope nobody takes it to be such.
I do hope that everyone enjoys their New Year’s celebrations.

Happy 2012 from The Glass!!

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4 thoughts on “God and Music

  1. An immensely interesting question that I am constantly struggling with on my own blog. The question is extremely thorny and the field of religious aesthetics is an underserved area in academics. I can tell you that the questions you pose have been answered variously throughout the history of music. Many of the answers depend on what it is that you believe music is supposed to “do”. So, for people like St. Augustine who view music as a means to carry content, he can be very suspicious of its power to focus our attention on worldly beauty and take our focus away from God. Of course, this is the line of thought that is criticized because it sees music in terms of what it does instead of what it is. Those who take that point of view have much more room for the general spiritual content of the music.

    It gets even more interesting when we start asking questions like the Yale philosopher Woltersdorff. He points out that the most significant composer of music for the average church choir in the 20th century was Ralph Vaughan Williams – an avowed atheist. What do we do with that?

    Or, what do we do with a thinker like Thilieke who would say that no matter how profoundly beautiful a Beethoven symphony might be, and no matter how close to God it might make us feel, it will not tell us to stop cheating on our wife even if we listen to it 100 times.

    There are many more aspects to this question, but I’m so glad you started the discussion.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback, Kurt. Wow, I didn’t even know that about Vaughan Williams!

      Yes, starting this discussion was a bit awkward for me, so, I’m so glad someone noticed what I was getting at.

  2. I think it’s great you raised this. I’m not religious, so the way I settled this in my head is, in a quick and dirty summary: great music is great music, and for a long time, “the church” was a big patron available. This doesn’t mean anyone has to endorse the practices or beliefs of a church. I’m glad composers had a financial perch from which they could give us so much wonderful music–though, certainly, it makes me even happier when there are a multitude of financial supports. To a great year of music in 2012!

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