As I age, more of my cherished myths implode. For example, I had long proudly defended the Christian Church as a patron of the arts, encouraging creativity.
Not so, apparently.
True, Michelangelo created magnificent statues, art, and architecture for the Vatican. But most musical compositions we associate with religion were sponsored by European princes, not by the church.
Research by my choir’s music director, Fran Barton, suggests that the institutional church actually restricted creativity in music.
Perhaps it’s because music is a different kind of language. Music is not like other forms of art. Words can be defined, controlled. So can visual images. But music is a free spirit. It is neither representational, like painting and sculpture; nor intellectual, like words.
Because music appeals directly to our emotions, primitive people believed it must have come as a gift from the gods. Changing musical idioms would be like repudiating what the gods had given.
Judaism and Christianity abolished pagan gods. But the pagan attitude carried over. Some kinds of music were considered acceptable; others were not. So when new instruments were invented, they were often outlawed from churches.
The organ, for example. Today, many congregations would recoil in horror at replacing their magnificent pipe organs with kazoos, theremins, or Caribbean steel drums. But for a long time, the organ was bitterly opposed. Martin Luther declared, “The organ in worship is a sign of Baal.”
While the church refined its traditional chants, street minstrels composed melodic ballads. People experimented with the sounds of pan pipes, fiddles, cornets, tambourines….
The church typically denounced these new creations as “instruments of the devil.”
Methodists were renowned for their singing. Charles Wesley wrote over 1,500 hymns. But his brother John Wesley, founder of Methodism, apparently stated, “I have no objection to instruments of music in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen.”
Perhaps the strictest churches were Presbyterian. Here in Canada, notes music historian Bruce Harding, one Ontario synod decreed, “Instrumental music in public worship is not approved or permitted by this Church…. Take order that no such innovation be introduced in any congregation…”
Bishop John Spong recalled his mother’s church: “They sang no hymns in worship, since hymns were human creations, and they believed that only the words of God should be heard in church, so their hymnal consisted of the 150 psalms set to music.”
With a severely limited range of music, at that. One Canadian Psalter authorized just twelve melodies!
Amazingly, you can still find websites which argue that musical instruments don’t belong in worship, because the Bible makes no mention of early Christian congregations using them.
The attitude derives, I think, not from the Bible but from fear. Music – as philosophers like Hegel and Schopenhauer reasoned – bypasses our conscious intellect to touch the subconscious.
That’s what makes music powerful. That’s what makes it dangerous.
Dangerous? Yes, indeed. Remember the public outcry over Elvis Presley’s gyrations? Over rock music in general? More recently, over rap or hip-hop?
I’m afraid we’re still afraid of anything we don’t understand and can’t control.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.