Anglican Samizdat

April 9, 2009

Music and Faith

Filed under: Christianity,music — David Jenkins @ 9:45 am
Tags: ,

From here:

I once asked a famous conductor if he believed in God. “Only when I’m performing Bach,” he replied. “Then I start to think that if Christianity is capable of inspiring a human being to produce music of this sublime perfection, there must be something in it.”

Not an answer, I suspect, that would impress either the Archbishop of Canterbury or, in the other corner, Professor Richard Dawkins. Both would probably protest that what the conductor was describing was not religious faith – even of a temporary sort – but a mental illusion induced by the pleasurable impact of music on the senses. One’s values and beliefs, they might argue, should be formulated after rigorous thought – not allowed to ebb and flow at the whim of whatever music, painting or drama happened to be passing by.

The answer may not impress Rowan or Richard, but I know what the conductor means. J. S. Bach’s music is one of the high points of Western Civilisation; partly because of Bach’s genius and partly because of the subject of much of Bach’s music. As Bach said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul”. Bach’s music conveys so effectively the feeling of someone who has experienced the glory of God that the listener himself is drawn into the composer’s vision of that glory.

When I was a but a callow youth rebelliously espousing a convenient existential atheism in order to relieve myself of moral restraint, I first listened to Bach’s B minor Mass. I found Bach’s expression of God’s glory sufficiently convincing that it started me on the long path from atheism to theism to Christianity. My experience of God through Bach was an aesthetic one: that is to say, I saw what Bach saw, I didn’t see God directly. And this is why the conductor mentioned above can believe in God while conducting Bach and set the belief aside later.

This also illustrates why a congregation listening to a church choir may be experiencing the aesthetic rather than the divine – assuming the choir is any good, of course.

Tolstoy in, What is Art, said it well:

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications. To take the simplest example: a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own lightheartedness, and then the wolf’s appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc. All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art. If even the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if, wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the world, that also would be art. And just in the same way it is art if a man, having experienced either the fear of suffering or the attraction of enjoyment (whether in reality or in imagination) expresses these feelings on canvas or in marble so that others are infected by them. And it is also art if a man feels or imagines to himself feelings of delight, gladness, sorrow, despair, courage, or despondency and the transition from one to another of these feelings, and expresses these feelings by sounds so that the hearers are infected by them and experience them as they were experienced by the composer.

1 Comment

  1. David, I am in complete musical agreement with you. As a child I was raised in the ACoC and was blessed with good choral directors. I sang in the boy’s choir until I started to look like a girl, and wept at the beauty of some of the choral work we sang. It was all to the glory of God. My parents took me to great concerts where the work of Bach, Handel, et al were performed, and I sensed the presence of God and His Spirit. In my early years as a music teacher, we often entered music competitions, and our “best awards” came when we sang pieces that glorified God. In those days we were able to pray before practice, before performances, and God honoured our efforts directed to Him.
    Thank you for reminding us about Bach, a servant of the Lord.

    Comment by Jennifer — April 9, 2009 @ 10:47 am

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