Music: The Message of Music

Music: The Message of Music (Part I) Classic Gospel Song Writer

The Message of Music (Part I) Classic Gospel Song Writer

Dean, Atlantic Union College


Music forms a vital part of worship. It is an unusual language, for while in its simplest rhythmical form it speaks to the untutored and primitive peoples, in its profoundest form it stirs the deepest intellectual and emotional power of the most highly educated and cultured. There is music for all from the naked rhythm of the tom-tom to the rich symphony orchestra. To the simple rhythm of primitive music we may add a pleasing succession of sounds, and we have melody. We may add a second melody running simultaneously with the first, and we have contrapuntal music in its simplest form. If we have several melodies running along together, in which all the notes sounded at the same time are in pleasing combination, we have harmony. If we play these harmonious chords on instruments of different tone qualities, we have symphonic orchestration the highest form of music, which requires for its appreciation intellectual and moral understanding and imagination. Its full enjoyment may indeed require long musical training.

Considering the fact that America has attained to a large extent the music leadership of the world in the past twenty-five years, it is well for us to evaluate and understand what this means to us. In spite of all the jungle music that assails our ears, the fact remains that the level of music is rising among the better class of citizenry. We, as Seventh-day Adventists, should be in the forefront of those who foster truth in music as well as truth in worship and doctrine.

"Music," said Tschiakowsky, "is the most beautiful of all heaven's gifts to humanity. Wandering in darkness, it calms, enlightens and stills our souls." Music is both a science and an art, and as such, its contribution to our enjoyment and refinement may be immeasurably increased by our study and development in its intricacies. The highest musical expression, of course, is that of creativeness. The composer may be endowed with the gift of spontaneous invention that is the inspiration of art. He may study music as a science and produce thousands of compositions as mathematically correct as a quadratic equation, only to be forgotten as soon as most of us forget quadratics. Not many of us are composers, but nearly all have a perception of musical talent, that is, an aptitude of perception and appreciation, if not the ability of performance.

Music, therefore, is universal. Even among the so-called primitive African tribes a nonmusical person is unknown. The most primitive and unlearned sing in eight parts as compared to our usual four parts. They have never seen music written down; they know nothing of it as a science of sound. It simply springs as unpremeditated art. One of the most deeply moving experiences of my life was sitting out under the stars of a night in Central Africa, listening to three thousand African Christians sing a song of their own experience in the form of what we would call an oratorio so complicated that even the student of harmony and counterpoint would have difficulty in disentangling the intricate harmonies and reducing them to written form.

The grandeur and expressiveness of music is demonstrated by the fact that the most sublime experiences in human history have been accompanied by music. This marks it as the supreme expression of the height and depth of human emotion. Job tells us that at creation the morning stars sang together. After the deliverance at the Red Sea, Moses sang in such majestic language that its inspired theme is worthy to be sung on the sea of glass. At the dedication of Solomon's temple, the dwelling place of God among men, thousands of Levite singers arrayed in white linen with cymbals and psalteries and harps, one hundred twenty priests with trumpets, and a great trained chorus accompanied the orchestra. The record says that the harmony was perfect, for "the trumpeters and the singers were as one, to make one sound." Then it was that the house was filled with a cloud, so much so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the glory of the Lord that filled the house. On the night when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the hills of Judea were flooded with the music of a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.

The earthly pilgrimage of man has been marked by a constant effort to approach the music of heaven, but "the history of music shows a slow, almost painful development to ward the attainment of the heavenly in music. In the wilderness, Israel chanted the commandments to the sound of instrumental music," so we are told by the Spirit of prophecy. Simple in form though the chant may be, "their thoughts were uplifted from the trials and difficulties of the way; the restless, turbulent spirit was soothed and calmed; the principles of truth were implanted in the memory and faith was strengthened. Concert of action taught order and unity, and the people were brought into closer touch with one another."

We would think of chanting as a very simple form of music, for its rhythm was determined by the text of what was sung, and therefore was not regular at all as we think of rhythm. But the only way to keep religious music pure was to preserve it in such a form. In the three centuries before Christ, known as the Hellenistic Age, when the influence of the pagan Greek civilization became universal, it was difficult indeed to preserve the purity of truth in music, for the immoral Greek feasts were accompanied by vocal and instrumental music of far more appealing beauty so far as the senses were concerned.

When we arrive at the Christian Era, we find, too, that the early church music was disassociated severely from the music of the pagan world. In fact, during the three or four centuries after the apostolic age and until the development of the papacy, the history of church music is closely paralleled by the system of church government in its development from the democratic apostolic system to the hierarchal organization of the medieval church.

During these first few centuries, a few great hymns such as "Gloria in Excelsis," "Te Deum" and the "Magnificat" found their way into Christian worship, but as we approach the setting up of hierarchal forms of church government, more emphasis on ritualistic music be came characteristic. The laity ceased to share in the music of worship. The Council of Laodicea (fourth century) forbade congregational singing in the churches. The use of instruments in worship likewise ceased entirely. It was St. Jerome who declared, "A Christian maiden ought not to know what a lyre or flute is or what it is used for."

The purpose of all this was to avoid entirely the very appearance of pagan music in worship and especially Greek music, for they realized how easily music might become debased by rhythm, as we see so well illustrated today by some of our modern music. Therefore, we have the Gregorian chant in perfected form from the time of Pope Gregory, a form of chant that lived long in the history of church music. But plain unison singing could not satisfy the heart of man forever, just as today many sing a bass or tenor part even before they can read music. So it came about that by the end of the tenth century a second voice was added to the monotonous chant to give a little color to religious music.

Under the influence of the Renaissance and the freeing of the very spirit of man, even church music became so flowery and contra puntal in form that the words could not even be understood, with the result that the Council of Trent threatened to anathematize all such music and demanded a return to the simple chant of unison singing. To save something of what had been attained in the enrichment of church music, the famous Palestrina came to the rescue and presented to the council, so it is believed, his restrained but beautiful music. Although it was contrapuntal, it was nevertheless so simple and beautiful that it received the approbation of the Roman Church.

This important Council of Trent in the sixteenth century fixed the pattern of much of Catholic practice and belief for all time to come, and it is interesting to note that in the field of music, all liturgical forms of worship, including the Catholic, preserve a relatively simple form of religious music. Here we come to an important point of departure, for with the Protestant Reformation we see an altogether new emphasis on the hymn sung by the people, in the language of the people, as a symbol of emancipation.

In England, the Lollards, the followers of Wycliffe, the morning star of the Reformation, two centuries before Luther's time introduced a new type of religious music which sprang warm from the hearts of the people. Huss in Bohemia published two collections of hymns before Luther's day. These hymns were based mostly on folk music, but usually were modified in some respects as religious music. It is interesting to note, however, that we have hymns in our own church hymnal that were purely secular tunes at one time. If we knew the original words, we should probably not enjoy them at all as hymns, just as many feel about Schubert's "Ave Maria," not recognized even by Catholics as music of worship. It remained for Luther, however, to make such hymnology a thing militant, to free the hearts of men by the power of music.

The very spirit of the Reformation was carried on the wings of hymns based on the folk music of the people. Many of Luther's hymns served their purpose and died as do many hymns today, but one at least will live forever as the battle hymn of Protestantism "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

With the Wesleyan revival in the eighteenth century, a new music of experience was born, deeply emotional in character. Today we still sing the beautiful hymns of the Wesleys, Isaac Watts, and others. During the 250 years since then, hundreds of hymn writers have brought to us a great wealth of hymnody. Under the impetus of the various revivalist bodies of the past century, a new type of religious music, the gospel song, came into great prominence a type of music that is as varied in merit as it is in style. The Pentecostal bodies of the past thirty or forty years have popularized an extremely emotional type of gospel song. They are entirely sincere in employing music that is largely secular even though the words may be sacred. Sincerity about music does not necessarily make it right, for the most sincere are fre quently the most misguided in other things as well as in music.

(To be continued}

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Dean, Atlantic Union College

March 1953

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