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.

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3 thoughts on “Theology of Music

  1. I enjoyed your thorough analysis of these pieces! You understand music and it was helpful to read some of your thoughts that I had not picked up on. Also, I enjoyed your take on repetition. “Repetition enables concepts or life in general to make sense to us…. 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.” I thought of how we are all uniquely created, carrying on a different variation of the theme, and yet the theme is repeated throughout history and we all are invited to participate in the one reality of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

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  2. It is great reading your posts and hearing the musicians perspective. 🙂 You do a really great job of identifying the carrying metric in each piece and connecting it to the distinct periods of time, “past, present and future” in each piece.

    The note about MacMillan’s piece on the repeated nature of the lower tone and its connection to eternity struck me. I had not thought of the repetition in this way and how it reflects the eternal nature. I think this comes across as well in the lyrics of Steven’s rendition of “‘Lo How Rose E’er Blooming” with the connection that is made across the various stories foreshadowing Christ on earth.

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  3. Great post.

    Your analysis of “In splendoribus” was particularly striking to me.

    “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.”

    It’s amazing how music can do something like this. It can remind us of the finite and the infinite/eternal at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

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