The Canons of Sacred Music

What are the canons, or laws, of sacred music which should govern our choice of sacred music ?

By H. B. Hanum, Professor of Music, Emmanuel Missionary College

What are the canons, or laws, of sacred music which should govern our choice of sacred music ? These principles are just as certain and definite as any laws, but their appli­cation presents new modifications in different ages and in various countries.

First, religious music, or music used as sa­cred music, should be free from secular associa­tions. It should not be tied to associations with worldly pleasures or secular pursuits. It should not call our minds from the sacred to the secular. This means that religious music must not be borrowed from operas familiar to us, nor from popular dance music, nor from concert music which suggests places and occa­sions other than the worship of God. The rhythm of the tango, rhumba, waltz, or foxtrot is not appropriate for church music. Devices of secular music—syncopation, gliding, chro­matics, peculiar tone qualities—such as are produced by muted trumpets or moaning saxo­phones—are of very doubtful religious value.

A second fundamental law of religious music is that it should be beautiful. It seems strange that it should be necessary to mention this, but there are those who think that if there is a wholesome religious sentiment in the words, the music may violate all the laws which govern beauty in music. By beauty we refer to those aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint, and fitness which govern all works of art. These same principles of good music should govern a piece of music used in worship just as much as they govern secular music. The great religious music of all time—from the chorales of Luther, the music of Handel, Bach, Franck, and Widor, on to the modern hymn tunes—all conforms to these laws of beauty. Therefore, this music lives on. This is the kind of music the church should adopt and adapt, for it conforms to the great laws of God which govern the arts.

A third principle might be stated, although it is included under the second law. Religious music must be dignified, and in harmony with the idea of worship. It must be appropriate for the worship of God. The King James Bible has set a standard in appropriate and dignified English for use in church and worship. Our sense of fitness is offended when we hear slang in the pulpit or careless speech in prayer. We use the word "Thou" instead of "you" in ap­proaching Deity, because of the dignity and restraint of such appropriate language. Simi­larly, we should be careful about the musical idioms with which we worship. Syncopating the word "Jesus" is most undignified. Care should be taken that sublime truths are not made sentimental or cheapened by inappro­priate musical language. It would hardly be appropriate to clothe the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in a sentimental waltz theme. Un­consciously, perhaps, we are too inclined to make some of the most sublime of sacred truths common, through commonplace music.

Now it is highly essential, if the sacred mu­sic of the church is to be recognized in all its dignity and beauty, that our ministers lay aside any prejudices they may have built up on per­sonal likes and dislikes, and utilize the leader­ship of trained church musicians where such is available. No progress in church music is possible when the music program is run by the method of judgment Samson applied in the choice of a wife—"She pleaseth me well." Such standards mean that music will be judged on a subjective and sentimental basis only. True, the effectiveness of music on an audience must be considered, but this effect is often misjudged through faulty opinions which pass for authoritative laws.

We need to realize that the field of music is governed by laws just as real as the laws of science, and the average untrained man may err in musical judgment just as easily as he may err in scientific statements. In the field of music "a little learning is a dangerous thing," and some set up their own judgments in musical matters who barely know the rudiments of music, let alone the laws of art which govern beauty. It will be a day of hope and progress when the advice of the trained musician is sought and taken seriously.

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By H. B. Hanum, Professor of Music, Emmanuel Missionary College

September 1941

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