What's the value of sacred music in a secular age?

Is sacred music past its sell-by? Religious leaders, musicians and non-believers share their views.

Dennis Hart: Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne

It is my firm conviction that beautiful music sustains and uplifts the human spirit in a way that no word can do because it is the use of one of the highest gifts given to human beings by the Creator. I have always found that beauty in music, particularly of sacred music, leads us to the depth of our being and onward to the one whom we seek, the divine person.

In a society where we are constantly surrounded by noise and a heavy, throbbing beat, the beauty of music can tend to be eclipsed and sound can become an imposition on the human spirit. Bach concentrated on beautiful harmonies. The Catholic Church, with Gregorian chant and polyphony and, more recently, good hymn singing, sustains the link of beauty of music and word. One of the great losses in the last twenty years has been where trite music and poor words are used. These do not uplift the mind and heart and soul to God, but keep us fixed in our human condition.

It is my belief that every human being can be touched by beauty. A non- believer, if touched by beauty, can be led to investigate where music and words lead us and can come to faith, knowledge and harmony. My personal faith deepens my musical experience because it leads me to find the perspective in which my whole life is led, and to see the beauty of music and the experience that goes beyond words.

Peter Phillips: Director, The Tallis Scholars

Essentially I don’t think the value of sacred music has changed in the modern world, except for those few people who use it as a means to promote a particular cult. For the rest of us, sacred music will have the same healing and soothing powers that it has always had. I choose to perform sacred music as an entirely secular activity, simply because I believe that this music is great. The fact that religious words encourage people to think outside the usual earth-bound boxes is of course part of its strength and appeal.

I don’t think that belief in Christian dogma has much to do with appreciating sacred music, at least not the almost abstract mathematical constructs which underpin much Renaissance polyphony. People of opposing faiths, or no faith, can experience something just as essential about their lives as ardent believers. The truth of the music we sing is contained more in the sounds that its texts have inspired, than in the literal meaning.

Freed from dogmatic constraints, atheists may actually have a freer access to the beauty, which the sound of it creates. The power of performing almost abstract polyphony in Latin is that it sets up a sound-world, related to the harmony of the spheres through mathematics, which, if performed well, will come over as being uncomplicated and ethereal. This can take the listener away from worldly cares and into a magical place. I often hear listeners saying our performances act on them like a drug which they hope will not stop.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence: Chief Minister of Sydney's Great Synagogue

I think that if you’re a believer you look at life through a particular prism. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that people who believe in good fortune and blessings find those around them in their lives. If you have this spiritual prism, sacred music that lifts you, but also possesses the ability to make you wonder at the Creator rather than just the composer, has a dimension that a non- believer might not find.

At the more extreme end of the religious spectrum, music that has been written with a view to celebrate another divinity though is a problem for us because it’s participating in someone else’s worship. Much of the music we listen to was written for our shared God and many of the people who were writing it were under the patronage of clergymen despite being profound atheists and hedonists themselves.

Jews draw a distinction between music on Old and New Testament themes. Some masses may count amongst the most beautiful music written but an observant religious Jew would not feel comfortable listening to them. And many would simply not listen to a Bach Passion, viewing it with the same distaste as music by Wagner.

Our greatest music has been written to accompany prayer and is most often found in choral performance within the synagogue, not as an abstract piece to sit back and listen to at a concert. Hallowed music is part of our life. Don’t forget, the psalms are part of the Old Testament, and the book of psalms is attributed to King David who was one of our guys.

David Marr: Author and social commentator

The purpose of sacred music is to give delight and create drama.You don’t have to believe in Valhalla to be moved by the Ring.You don’t have to believe in Jesus to be equally moved by the St Matthew Passion. I think the Crucifixion is the greatest story ever told, but it is a story, and it is not an accident that it has been the subject of some of the great art of the Western world. What gives it its power is the genius of artists to connect it with human emotions. The Virgin Mary’s lament at the foot of the cross in the St Matthew Passion is just about the greatest piece of music ever written. But I don’t believe in Mary, or Jesus or the Cross. Church music is different for believers and non-believers only in that for believers it is a great reinforcer. But it is only so because it is doing what music always does, which is to move and to excite. Music must do its work as music, then it can do its work as propaganda for the faith. Some of the greatest art has been created to argue for, explain, glorify and dramatise Christianity. But it only works for the religious if first it works as art. At the opening of the London Olympics a black singer, Emeli Sandé, sang Abide With Me as a lullaby, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Amazing! I don’t believe a word of it, but it had the power to move the world.

Harry Christophers: Director, The Sixteen

With so many ensembles worldwide, I believe the interest in the great sacred music of our past is increasing. People from all faiths can read into the work of masters like Palestrina, Byrd and Bach what they want to and appreciate the music for what it is – amazing music. Some find it relaxing, some uplifting, but you cannot help being moved in some way. If you have Christian faith maybe you can benefit from having a greater knowledge of the scriptures. However if the performers are doing their job, then even an agnostic or atheist can be drawn by its beauty, power and sentiments.

When a Passion or biblical oratorio tells a story, whether you are a believer or not should in no way hinder your enjoyment.

Behind every great work there is a story, a social setting, a country with a political scenario, be it state or church politics. The more we learn about the period in which the composer is living the more a listener can relate to him. I perform sacred music all over the world and I find that it attracts not only people of all faiths but also from all walks of life. If we believe in what we do, are humble in our performance and don’t lecture people about what they should or should not listen to, we will win through. In my book so far so good!!


John Safran: Documentary Maker and Broadcaster

Religious art or music is at its best when it makes you feel small – that’s why churches were built so big and grand. Growing up though I’d look at black American music and think,“Oh my god that’s the Holy Grail. It’s so much more exciting than my life here as a white Australian.”Black music’s informed

by a magical/irrational/wonderful belief in God and Jesus and it’s the most popular music among young Black America. I love music that goes there. Some of my recent favourites have been those albums Johnny Cash made before he died. He’s covering songs that have to do with God and dealing with death and Armageddon and punishment. I love all that, because you’re playing with fire and it’s out of step with secular modern Australia. It seems exotic, dangerous and problematic and it plays with your heart and your mind a bit, which is good.

I connect with religious artists on their madness level where they’re being wildly irrational. Religion’s a bit like that isn’t it? It’s the same when you see a mad person out on the street and they just scream and you just have this primal connection with them. You’re connecting because you’re seeing the madness inside yourself when everything’s stripped away. And so I think that’s why I connect with religious music. Maybe for atheists it’s different. Richard Dawkins could look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling and think, “That is amazing” on one level. But maybe on another they can connect with the beauty but not the madness.

Copyright © Limelight Magazine. All rights reserved

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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What's the value of sacred music in a secular age?
John Safran: "I connect with religious artists on the level of shared madness"
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