Sounds That Shape Society
Plato declared: “Give me the songs of the nation and it matters not who writes its laws.”
Music is not only a reflection of a culture, but it is a major force in shaping culture. There is a tremendous power in music. Music can have a highly edifying effect on people by celebrating the beauty of God’s creation, the majesty of Almighty God, our Creator and eternal Judge, inspiring and uplifting its listeners.
The Christian Church was born in song and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ has inspired the greatest music in history.
Professor Alvin Schmidt (Under the Influence – How Christianity Transformed Civilisation) observes that “pagan Rome made no contribution to musical progress. Its music was a degenerate form of music that was used in temple, theatre and circus in the time of the Empire.” However,“Christians brought a very different kind of music.” Dr. Schmidt documents the tremendous progress of music inspired and pioneered by the Christian Church, including: Monophonic music (including the Ambrosian chant, antiphonal singing, plainsong and the Gregorian chant); Polyphonic music, operas, solfege, anthems, oratorio, symphonies, sonata’s, cantatas, concertos, scales and the five finger technique for keyboard instruments.
Dr. Schmidt concludes: “Western music attained its greatness because its composers, such as Ambrose, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams, were inspired by Christ’s life, death and resurrection…Their lives had meaning and their music resonated those convictions. That is why Bach, for instance, felt that all music, even secular music, was an expression of Divinity.” While not all of these musicians had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they were the products of a culture and worldview that was Biblical.
The Scripture exhorts us to: “…Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks to the Lord always for all things to God the Father in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ,…”Ephesians 5:18-21
A Christian, Guido of Arezzo, in the 11 th Century introduced the staff of four lines of which the pitch of notes could be written. His invention enables musicians to notate music. Guido also devised solfege (do, re, mi, fa, sol, and la). These six syllables comprised a hexachord of six successive notes to which two more have now been added: ti and do. Guido’s contribution was “as crucial to the development of music as written language is to literature.” (What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by Dr. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe).
THE HANDMAIDEN OF THEOLOGY
Prof. Schmidt maintains that 500 years before the Renaissance, operas developed out of the practice of churches dramatising and performing Biblical stories in song; and that the greatest oratorios (Handel’s Messiah, Mendleson’s Elijah and Hayden’s Seven Last Words of Christ, for example) are Scripturally based. Symphonies and sonatas grew out of the 16 th Century Church.
“Bach wrote some of the finest polyphonic music the history of music has known. The creation and development of polyphonic, multi-voiced music sets Western music off from the music of other civilisations.” (Under the Influence)
Martin Luther not only reformed and restored the Church’s theology, but he also reformed its music. Congregational singing by lay members, had been practiced by the early Christians in the first four centuries. However, in the Middle Ages, only choir groups (commonly monks) sang, and then only in Latin. The Reformers reintroduced congregational singing in the common tongue.
Martin Luther taught that music was “the handmaiden of Christian theology”, the “living voice of the Gospel.” Christian music was the servant of God’s Word. Martin Luther wrote 36 hymns, including one of the all-time greatest hymns: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” based on Psalm 46. This battle hymn of the Reformation has been translated into more languages than any other hymn in history.
THE COMPOSER’S COMPOSER
One of the most gifted musicians in history, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), set Christian theology and the Gospel to music. Bach’s music reflects his strong convictions. He faithfully read and studied the Bible, along with all the writings of Martin Luther. Bach has been called the “composer’s composer whose analytical mind, belief in God and melodic genius led him to create some of the greatest religious music we have.”
This music giant wrote every kind of music except operas. He is also credited with introducing a new fingering technique to play keyboard instruments with five fingers instead of four as had been previously practiced. The thumb was previously not used. He created new scales, composed over 200 cantatas, more than 250 chorales and numerous concertos. Amongst his many magnificent achievements are St. Mathew’s Passion and the Magnificat.
Before beginning his musical compositions, Bach commonly wrote JJ (Jesu Juva – help me Jesus) or INJ (In Nomie Jesu – in the Name of Jesus). At the end of each manuscript he would write SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – To God alone be the glory). Bach taught his students that unless they committed their talents to Jesus Christ they would never become great musicians. To Bach all his musical creativity was the result of his faith, study of the Scriptures and devotional life. Alfred Einstein described Bach as one of the greatest masters and geniuses of all time.
BACH AND HANDEL
Dr. Schmidt asks: “What is the statistical probability for two geniuses to excel in the same area of expertise (music) to be born the same year (1685), to hail from the same country (Germany), and to confess the same religious faith (Lutheran)?” Yet, both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel share those distinctions. However, while Bach devoted most of his musical career to writing and playing music primarily within the Church, Handle spent his life writing and persorming before audiences in theatres. Gach stayed in Germany his whole life, while Handle immigrated to England.
Handel wrote many Biblically based oratorios including: Esther, Joseph and His Brethren, Saul andIsrael In Egypt. Handel’s most famous oratorio is Messiah, which portrays the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Upon completing this majestic masterpiece, Handel declared in tears “I did think I did see all heaven before, and the great God Himself.” For over 260 years, whenever this Christian epic is performed, during the Halleluiah chorus, audiences rise to their feet – a tradition that began with King George II who in London 1743 rose to his feat in recognition of the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Messiah has been described as “the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”
When one asks the question: What does God’s glory sound like? Many would answer: Handel’s Messiah!
BEAUTY AND MAJESTY
Igor Stravinsky believed that music “is the Church’s greatest ornament.” Offering more praise to God than the most beautiful cathedral architecture.
As music historian Donald Grout has concluded: “The history of Western art music properly begins with the music of the Christian Church.” (History of Western Music).
However, while Christian influence resulted in both sacred and secular music which had a highly edifying effect on people, in the last half century, with increasing growth of secularism, there has been a steep and rapid decline in the wholesomeness and beauty of music. Whereas some of the greatest Western music was composed by musicians inspired by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, much modern music has been composed by God-denying and morally deviant individuals. Many modern composers and performers see life as meaningless and their music reflects that. Instead of the beauty and majesty once so skilfully conveyed, by God’s common grace, in sacred and secular music by Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Mozart, today we often are presented with music which no longer lifts and inspires one to worship, but with an angry and ugly beat which often appeals to the basest emotions and inspires more aggression and rebellion, appealing to the basest instincts.
SOUNDS OF DRUNKENNESS
Richard Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences, observes that much of today’s modern music caters to sensual pleasure and is often a revolt against God, Biblical values and even against society itself. Weaver saw jazz as giving freedom to the individual to “express himself as an egotist…the musician seizes a theme and improvises as he goes…instead of that strictness of form which had made the musician like the celebrant of a ceremony, we now have individualisation.” Jazz he argued has dissolved forms, developing not the music of dreams, “but of drunkenness.” Appealing to those “who take pleasure in the thought of bringing down our civilisation.”
SOUNDS OF REBELLION
According to the “Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia of Rock ‘n Roll” the term “Rock ‘n Roll” is a Blues euphemism for sexual intercourse.
Robert Walsern in “The Rock ‘n Roll Era” observed “Rock ‘n Roll triggered a crisis in cultural authority”. Its advocates claimed it had no need for intelligence, but only feeling. This emphasis on the sensual was often accompanied by vice. From the 1969 Rock ‘n Roll concert at Woodstock, sex, drugs and alcohol abuse have gone hand in hand with this new form of music whose disseminators openly admitted that they wanted no moral restraints – either in their music or their behaviour.
Martha Bayles in “Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning In American Music” noted that Heavy Metal music grew out of a “celebration of paedophilia, sadomasochism, heroin addiction and ritual murder…regards itself as an objective failure if all hell doesn’t break loose.” Some Heavy Metal Rock videos have included depictions of “female victims chained, caged, beaten and bound with barbed wire…”
Professor Schmidt observes: “Heavy Metal Rock music and much of the music of M-TV has become increasingly rebellious – rebelling against all Christian values, including sexual morality, human decency, the sanctity of life, human dignity, civilised language, and, of course, against the beauty of serenity of music itself. Behind the rebellion lies the rejection of God and His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, Who for centuries inspired musicians to write music that raised the human spirit. It is its rebellious nature that has produced music that has its hole in its soul…or no soul at all.” (Under the Influence).
CONFORMING TO THE WORLD
This raises the question of much of contemporary Christian music, including Christian “Rock”, much of which is obviously adopted and adapted from these very same secular artists. Many contemporary Christian artists even copy the world’s looks and lifestyles. Not only does much of contemporary Christian music leave much to be desired in terms of good Christian theology and Biblical content, but one needs to ask whether its performers and those who listen to it are not conforming to the world?
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:2
Thomas Carlyle once said: “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.” Today one could well observe that much of contemporary music is the speech of fallen angels.
TRANSFORMING THE WORLD
This presents a clear challenge to each one of us who love the Lord Jesus Christ with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength. Our Lord Who gave us the Great Commission to go into all the world and to make disciples of all the nations, teaching obedience to all things that He has commanded, requires us to go into the world of music, and to reclaim it for Christ. To reform music according to the Word of God, to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.
“Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:1
Dr. Peter Hammond