(Original posting 10/25/2017) Does the way you look at the world affect how you think about music in worship? Do you see yourself as an individual on an island in time and space, or as a link in a line extending backward and forward to generations gone by and yet to come? Those two points of view have, or at least so some scholars say, a lot to do with your attitudes toward music and life in general. As part of this continuing series of music ministry philosophy exercises, here is my synopsis of the history of church music philosophy:
How has the church’s view of music changed over its history?
Quentin Faulkner argues that the story of the church’s perception of music is one of changing world views: from what he calls a world-conscious view, where a sense of belonging and obligation to a people, or cult, is paramount, to a self-conscious worldview, where the individualism is supreme [his use of cult is not our 21st century concept of a perverted religion, but a group of people with common beliefs, ethos, and behavioral standards]. He feels that the world-conscious view was predominant in the church, and indeed in all western societies, until the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. Prior to the enlightenment, the church viewed music as essential to development of intellectual and spiritual character, an essential part of perpetuating the well-being of the cult. Since the Enlightenment music has become a vehicle for stimulation and expression of emotion, a tool to enhance the esteem of the individual.
As the church began, it inherited its musical practices from the Hebrew synagogue, which came from a people raised in an Old Testament ethos that was sympathetic to music in religious services. Synagogue music was modest, text-focused, objective, and corporate, and predominated by psalms. From what we can see in the New Testament, which is fairly neutral towards music, early church music imitated the synagogue practices, adding canticles (biblical texts outside the Psalms) and hymns to Christ.
In the centuries immediately following the New Testament, the early church fathers, with their classical training, applied and adapted Greek philosophy with a Christian perspective. They applied the Doctrine of the Ethos, which taught that certain musical modes developed good character and other modes degenerated good character. Music’s purpose was to make people noble. They saw that music could help develop good Christian character.
The Middle Ages saw the church develop an indigenous Christian style of music that affected all of Western civilization. Augustine and Boethius, writing De Musica and De Institutione Musica, respectively, helped to promote this with an extensive philosophy of music that put Greek thought into Christian terms. They established music as a science which saw beautiful music as reflecting the cosmic order created by God, thus making music of essential importance in the church.
This same era saw the rise of first, the monastic movement and then, cathedral schools. Both taught the philosophy of Augustine and Boethius. This had several effects: it integrated music philosophy into the church’s theological tradition, produced increasing church music excellence, and led to an emphasis on musical perfection and splendor so as to represent heavenly worship. Unfortunately, this latter spurred the removal of congregational singing from the church lest the congregants mar the perfection of the heavenly representation.
The Renaissance period saw a revival of the Doctrine of Ethos and continued emphasis on music as science. The 1st wave of humanism also took place, emphasizing the value of individuals as carriers of the imago dei (image of God). Much emphasis was placed on appropriately matching texts with the correct musical mode and music theory focused on music’s revelation of the divine. Music continued to be valued for its development of character rather than for pleasure. Music and architecture were seen as means to incarnate and contemplate cosmic perfection. Thus, musical splendor and complexity exploded.
Humanism’s valuation of the individual was also a catalyst for the Reformation. No radical new musical thought came out of the Reformation but it paved the way for the rise of the self-conscious worldview. Congregational singing was restored in the reformation churches but this had the adverse effect of segregating the clergy from the choirs which eventually cast church music loose from its theological influence. Music theory began to disappear from university programs soon thereafter. Lutheran churches continued to value a rich musical aesthetic but without the philosophical underpinnings and the suspicion that had been in place for over a thousand years. Other reformation churches took an ascetic approach to music, from mild to extreme, similar to the synagogue and early church practice.
The arrival of the Enlightenment, and the 2nd wave of humanism that came with it, saw the self-conscious worldview displace the world-conscious worldview. This had a profound effect on music both in and outside the church. Music’s purpose changed from developing character to stimulating the senses and expressing emotions. Individuality and originality became prestigious virtues in composition and performance. The public took the place of theologians/philosophers as the supreme judge of music quality, and an anti-intellectual attitude toward musical science prevailed.
Secular thought in music was adopted during the Enlightenment by the church such that music was robbed of any ethical dimension. A movement toward pietism (self-expression) in music replaced contemplation on the divine. The entire gamut of sacred music philosophy, composition, and performance was relegated to backwater status.
This course progressed through the 19th century to the point that church music became a theological orphan, having no coherent theological basis for its significance or function. It resulted in emotional, highly personalized church music and church music that followed secular music trends. This appeared in evangelical churches as excessively sentimental music which moved from camp meetings and revival services into Sunday worship. A reaction in Lutheran and Anglican/Catholic circles known as the Oxford movement sought to restore more reserved ancient and historical sacred music forms but it was as much driven by nostalgia as philosophy.
In the 20th and 21st centuries the condition became a muddle of worldviews about music. Church music continues to follow trends rather than set them. Its music is dominated by a consumerist attitude and an anti-art ethic that values the emotional and subjective ethos of a self-conscious worldview and rejects the transcendent philosophies of the world-conscious view. It is left without an objective qualitative system of evaluating its music.