Monthly Archives: March 2015

Theology of Music

Through the sounds of music one can experience time, for music does not exist outside of time, rather music demonstrates a multiplicity of times. Music marks our temporality in and out of various times as experienced in the seasons and multiple stages of life. There is a multiplicity of quality of times: times that are easier as well as times that are more difficult. This experience of time and its mending of past, present, and future  are realized in music as demonstrated in Theology, Music  and Time by Jeremy Begbie.  This theological presentation will be demonstrated in five different Christmas musical compositions.

Tomas Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium

This work begins quietly with the soprano melody moving higher and louder followed by an alto voice entering second as a counterpoint harmony beneath the melody. A tenor male voice enters beneath the female voices becoming stronger. Finally as a bolder voice, the bass takes over as the leading voice with all voices now singing variations on the theme. At the point in the piece of “Ut ani ma” – the male voice leads with the female voices later following in repetition.   At the point of “Pio” all the voices are in unison until “o beata vir-” all the voices are sung together but in harmony. The lyric of “Jesum” followed by – “Alleluia” – the voices are sung together but in harmony and accentuated together for affect- then the four choral parts sing variations on “Alleluia” – with the tenor closing the resolution. The accenting of the “Alleluia” is the celebratory mood of JESUS breaking into the history of our temporality. The contrast of the smoothly connected lyric to accentuation of each beat is quite dramatic. It is reminiscent of the incarnation and rhythmic hear beat. God breaks into our time and unites with creation.

This piece features repetition.  Repetition heals our temporality (172)  according to Begbie.  Repetition enables concepts or life in general to make sense to us. A song is aesthetically beautiful when we  can participate in it. We can hear a theme and it takes off from one voice to another as if eternal. The past voice which began the melody or theme is then taken over by the next voice. In this piece the lyric takes a new shape with a variation on the theme. Music is performing an eternal work with each voice entering in and out carrying on a different variation of the theme, yet it also features repetition.

James MacMillan, In splendoribus (Christmas Eve)

Male voices begin in harmony and chant – expressing the past in an open chord flow and chant. Abruptly a trumpet call breaks into the present. This is quite a dramatic feature expressing the angelic hosts calling from the desert, “Behold the Lamb of God” breaking into historical time. The trumpet contrasts the voices in harmony with a male drone below all voices demonstrating an eternal tone. Repeatedly the trumpeter calls forth as if in rapid fire – the drone and slow moving open chorded voices contrasted by the singular sharp and at times dissonant tone of the high pitch trumpet almost prophesizing the rejection of the child and future suffering. The male voices hold the chords and move slowly through various tones repeatedly as the trumpet contrasts with high and syncopated tones. The trumpet is announcing the breaking into history of the promised MESSIAH and the voices represent the temporality of time. The repetition calls over and over holding the open chords and drone of the lower tone reminding the listener of eternity. Concurrently the trumpet continually interrupts the chorus with the new call while breaking into the temporality of the voice. The repetition again is healing. The double tonguing rhythmic pulse completely contrasts the lower slowly lyrical connecting movement of the open chorded male voices. The trumpet at the end is muted calling out change and transmitting its voice slowly blending into the growing male voices that then diminish to the final call of the muted trumpet. The ending movement of the male final chord held to eternal length finally breaks to the last call of the trumpet that diminishes into eternity. The beauty of this piece contains a “complexity of intersecting variables” (175) which adds to the musically brilliant communication of the Christmas story without any need to translate the lyric.

John Tavener, Today the Virgin 

This piece demonstrates the collision of past, present, and future as well as repetition, “Some view his music as a route to eternity” (129). The meter pushes along briskly and invokes a feeling of a cosmic, exciting event. The verses and refrain roll back and forth as a wave of sound changing dynamically with the contrasting voices as do the rolling seas that remind us of our temporality. Not only do the dynamics vary, the voices change with each verse alternating between the male and female voices. Throughout every verse the male bass continually drones beneath referring to the everlasting, eternal WORD. Some refer the drone to the “umbilical cord to the sacred” (136).

The song begins with the all voices singing in unison except for the bass drone sustained throughout. All the voices arise growing loudly together as fortissimo in an open chorded tone with a“Rejoice oh one with the angels and the shepherds, give glory to the child. Alleluia”. The juxtaposition of variation and repetition of the voices heightens the sense of changelessness (139). The last verse sung in unison with the droning voice below contrasts  the open chords of the antiphon which ends with the drawn out “Alleluia” repeated over and over. The “Alleluia”  for the final time  is slowly drawn out announcing the Eternal Word born into our temporal world! Emmanuel!!!! 

Gustav Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter

Gustav Holst quietly begins with choral voices, a boys choir with the soprano voices singing melody. The tones blend from word to word as if connecting one with eternity. The silence between the verses remind us of our temporality through the delay and gratification (107). The contrast of the dynamic demonstrates the birth of the Christ Child when “Angels sing loudly” while sustaining the final chord into eternity. During the final verse the bass voice sustains notes under the melody reminding us of the eternal WORD. “If I were a wise man” for the final verse  brings resolution connecting past, present, eternal together through the harmony seeking the final resolution.

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming’

This song employs a most interesting use of meter that invokes promise and fulfillment. The call for the prophesied messiah is fulfillment of Christ’s birth. This theme is demonstrated by the dramatic and deliberate pauses  followed by the fulfillment through the melodic resolutions.

The song begins with an instrumental and a deliberate use of silence between phrasing. The deliberate stops seem as if the phrasing is disconnected, but then there finally is connection. The banjo picking is counter to the other instrumental voices. Within the verse containing “Isaiah foretold it” – there is a stop – disconnected phrase – “the virgin mother kind – to show God’s love – She bore to us a Savior” – builds louder – followed by the instrumental with more picking. The banjo voice is distinct –while the vocal sound of the open chorded voices and the deliberate pauses demonstrate longing for the resolution, that is longing for the Messiah:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from (pause) tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as (pause) those of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, (pause)  a-mid the cold of winter,
When (pause) half spent was, the night.

Instrumental Interlude-
I-saiah ’twas foretold it , the –(pause) – Rose I have in mind;
AND when we behold it, the (pause) Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright (paced evenly), she bore to us a Savior,
When ((pause)) half spent was the night. Extended pause demonstrating delay and patience (99).

The song ends with a feeling of anticipation as well as filled with an eternal longing of the PROMISED Messiah.


Simple Gifts

You go from people’s earbuds, into concert halls, into living rooms, into cars, into what — so you can — it can exist across a lot of different physical spaces and geographical spaces.” ~Yo-yo Ma

Music exploits the ‘omnipresent’ (25).

When you receive something that’s living (music), it goes inside you, ….. it becomes your own.” ~Yo-yo Ma

The bodiliness of sound experience is harnessed intensively in music…speak of musical sound as received through your body” (27).

Recently, I heard an interview of Yo-yo Ma expressing somewhat of a spirituality of music. One finds similar sentiments when reading Jeremy Begbie’s exposé in Theology, Music and Time. To demonstrate the theological themes of music I found on YouTube, a duet of Yo-yo Ma and Alison Krauss playing “Simple Gifts.” I will unpack the themes that I discovered in the hymnody. This melody with different lyrics is more commonly known liturgically in music missals as the “Lord of the Dance.

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight- played in unison with the cello.

(There’s a slight pause of silence before the chorus)

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right

The song begins with the cello playing solo the first time through the verse and chorus moving smoothly and continuously through each note.

The second time through ‘Tis the gift to be simple’ – the verse is sung by Alison with an undertone of the cello that ends the final note in unison on “right.”

Halfway through the recording the cello again plays a verse solo until Alison joins back in singing the melody ‘And when we find ourselves in the place just right’ with the cello playing harmony under the voice. ‘When true simplicity‘ is played with a counter melody and harmony of the cello building through the ‘turning, turning’ lyric and ending again in unison on “right.”

For the final repeat of the chorus  ‘Till by turning, turning we come ’round right’ the tempo slows down with the cello playing in unison on the final note an octave under the voice.

Change and order

As a most beautiful piece that begins quite simply with a solo cello voice lyrically played at a moderate tempo rather straight forward to a duet with a lyrical voice that slows dramatically for emphasis, this piece invites change and order. With that “music demonstrates that there can be ordered change, that change need not imply chaos” (85). This piece demonstrates that order of A, B, A, B, yet paradoxically there is change. The tempo changes, the voice changes, the melody is at first in unison, but later harmony is introduced. As a theological lesson it seems ironic that order and change can both go hand in hand, yet music embodies this concept.

Taking time

Music thrives on momentum. Classical pieces are composed in movements that build from one to another with interplay artfully woven between movements ever growing until the final movement when everything fits together in the finale. This inherent character of music is a theological attribute of all of creation and its temporal order of being. “The created world takes time to be”(86). With regard to this piece “Simple Gifts” Yo-yo Ma begins deeply and softly on his cello only to build into a duet with Alison Krauss changing octaves and adding harmonies while also changing tempos and adding retards. Half way through Yo-yo Ma again plays solo and softly as if demonstrating a time to wait during the lyric, “When true simplicity is gain’d,” There is a sense of enjoyment that the movement is building to something bigger. The anticipation is rewarded again with Alison’s voice and  the cello’s counter play. “Waiting is an experience based on the interpretation and understanding of the temporal structures of events and human desires”(87).

Limited Duration

As temporal beings one is aware of life’s limitations and finitude. Music too exacts the temporal nature of humanity where one note gives way to another. “Music is constantly dying, giving way ” (92). Yo-yo Ma does this so artfully where the notes almost breathe into the next. There is great continuity where one note ends in the voice of Alison and Yo-yo Ma continues the tone of the cello as if there is an eternal nature to the song, “Twill be in the valley of love and delight.” The lyric conveys the notion of heaven as the notes end and enter into the silence. Between the verses before the song loops back to the beginning there is a moment of silence. As Augustine refers to the use of sound and silence demonstrating one’s coming into being from nonbeing, music artfully invokes this deeply ontological significance as “musical silences are not mere void but enter into the proportional ordering of music” (96). The significance of the pauses and recognition of the nothingness is of utmost importance to maintaining the harmony of humanity. Similarly speaking as a musician if one doesn’t recognize a rest or accidently miscounts, there can be disastrous results in playing when one is to be silent.

As Rowan Williams states, “What we learn, in music as in the contemplative faith of which music is a part and also a symbol is what it is to work with the grain of things, to work in the stream of God’s wisdom.”