Musical Theology

There’s Truth in the Tunes
The Philadelphia Catholic Mass Choir leads the congregation in song Jan. 18 during at the archdiocese’s 33rd annual service marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at St. Katharine Drexel Church in Chester, Pa. (CNS photo/Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly.com)

In recent years, thinkers such as Cambridge musicologist Jeremy Begbie (Music, Modernity and God, Resounding Truth, Theology, Music, and Time) and musician-theologian Maeve Louise Heaney (Music and Theology) have contributed to a growing conversation concerning music as part of the language of theology. They argue in various ways that music says things about God that really cannot be said in any other way, and that therefore music must be better understood in its unique role within the communication of faith. It is more than an envelope for a religious message; it is part of the communication itself. We use music, and are affected by music, theologically. But the fact of the matter is that we do not reflect upon it very much. We should.

This past winter, I had a chance to test the hypothesis that music is more than the envelope for a religious text by conducting a little experiment at a seminar for parish music directors. We looked at Frederick Faber’s classic hymn text, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (1862) and asked ourselves what it meant, simply by looking at the words. Then we sang the text to two different tunes: IN BABILONE and ST HELENA and again asked the same question. What did this text mean?

The group did not reject either version, or find one tune to be “wrong” and the other “right.” But we found quite definitely that the meaning of the text changed when the music did. In one (IN BABILONE) we felt the bright cheerfulness of sunshine and the energy of a marching tune, while in the other (ST HELENA) we felt the currents of ocean waves and the awe of mystery. ST HELENA, written by Calvin Hampton specifically for this text, emphasized its key theological words (mercy, justice, and so on) with changing notes. The transition to the Paschal Mystery portion of the text was underlined in the tune. IN BABILONE, on the other hand, bounded on with straightforward simplicity and was easy to sing.

If the question we ask is: “What is easy to sing?” IN BABILONE won, hands down. But as soon as we asked “What is the wideness of God’s mercy like? How do we receive it?” our response changed. These questions were answered more profoundly by the singing of ST HELENA. The difference was not in the text but in the music.

Some think of music as decoration or beautification of ritual forms.

To regard music as theological communication is a way of looking at music—particularly liturgical music—that challenges many of our received notions. Some think of music as decoration or beautification of ritual forms. Music can of course enchant us with beauty, but that is a different question. Neither is it the same as praising music’s value as a memory aide. I’ve heard the importance of liturgical music affirmed by observing that people remember music: “No one ever goes home from Mass humming the homily.” This is true, but is a different sort of observation. It is not even about the value of music as a community-building exercise—though shared song and music heard together is a powerful tool for building community. To reflect on music as theology is, rather, to regard music as a special sort of witness to truth.

Music is not self-interpreting. But neither are our more abstract verbal theological formulations. Creed and catechism never stand alone: they require a credible community of faith that bears witness to them, and a praying and celebrating life lived in dialogue with them, in order to make sense.

The question of how music communicates theologically has practical consequences for communities of faith. If we grapple seriously with music as theological communication, we find that we have to work harder at improving music in our parishes. Poor music in church is not just a regrettable aesthetic experience; it may actually say things about God that we don’t want to say.

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Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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