Music as a Christian Art
Frederick Stocken

To say that music is the most Christian of the arts may seem a contentious statement. Yet what is often forgotten is that all the other art forms were highly developed before the Christian age.  Music was the only exception.

Of course there are specifically Christian forms in all the arts but, nevertheless, architecture, sculpture, poetry and painting had all reached sophisticated levels in the ancient world.  Even a thousand years before the ancient Greeks (that is, in the 20th century BC) we can see at Knossos highly developed art and architecture.  In comparison with all this artistic activity, music alone remained largely undeveloped.  There were, of course, various instruments that existed in pre-Christian days such as the lyre, drums and elementary woodwind instruments.  But from what we can deduce, ancient music was of the very simplest kind: basic tunes, perhaps with one or two accompanying chords.  Plato mentions music briefly in The Republic, referring to the power of the ancient musical modes and their ability to alter human moods.  This is certainly evidence that the ancients had worked out musical scales.  A double flute was used to keep rowers in time, or to provide a rhythm for gymnastic exercises, just as pop music is used today for aerobics.  A strumming lyre would be used to accompany lyric poetry.  But the fact remains that anything beyond the very simplest harmonic blocks, let alone polyphony, was unknown.  We have to skip forward into the Christian era, and to Catholic Europe, to find the invention of what we would understand as music. 

I realize in this very simple description that I have left out what is loosely described as ethnic or folk music.  I am also leaving out the vast subject of plainsong, which was part of the worship of the early Church - not because it is unimportant, but because what I want to focus on is the whole notion of music as chordal progression or several voices singing together in different parts.  What I am saying is that music as we know it, music sometimes referred to as “art music”, was an invention specifically of the Catholic Church - and that a similar claim could not be made for any other art form.  I am talking here about the motets and masses of Machaut, Josquin des Pres, Palestrina, and then on through Byrd, Monteverdi, to Vivaldi and beyond.  The world never saw anything like it before, and it staggers me to think that it all happened so recently in relation to the history of civilization.  It has all happened in the last five or six hundred years.

  Bearing in mind that it was under the auspices of the Church that music exploded into being with little or no reference to the ancient world, unlike every other art form in the Renaissance period, I want to ask how this could be?  Is it coincidence or luck?  Or is there something unique about Christianity, or even about Catholicism, that allowed music finally to come of age in Europe?

Many great composers have of course not been Catholics.  The example that immediately springs to mind is Bach.  Sir Thomas Beecham, when asked why he didn’t like Bach said, “It’s the counterpoint, and even worse, it’s Protestant counterpoint.”  Now I don’t want to spoil my argument by overstating things.  Bach was, undeniably, a devout Lutheran.  However, any musicologist will tell you that part of the reason for Bach’s greatness is that he was international in his outlook, and was particularly influenced by the music of Catholic Italy and France.  From Italy we find the influence of Vivaldi, about whose music Bach was so passionate that he arranged six of the composer’s concertos for organ.  Vivaldi’s influence can be seen clearly in the way Bach builds musical structures where the themes reappear in different keys.  Without wanting to get too technical, this is known as ritornello structure.  From France, copies of the music of Couperin and other French masters have been found in Bach’s hand - and from France many believe comes the grace in Bach’s music, and the influence of dance and the works called Suites (there is a tradition of French Suites and of Italian Suites).  It is not hard to make a case that Bach was profoundly influenced by music from Catholic countries and cultures - and that without this he would almost certainly not have achieved his greatness.

As for the two other members of the trinity of the world’s greatest composers, Mozart and Beethoven, although they both worked for Catholic patrons, our image of them is not as especially devout.  (I remember in the biography of Mozart I read as a child there was a very dramatic picture of the Archbishop of Salzburg in full clericals physically kicking Mozart down some stairs, to illustrate his being sacked.  You might have thought that this would be quite enough to put Mozart off the Catholic faith.)  Of course, I do not need to remind you of the sublime beauty of Mozart’s Requiem. Yet surely he was more at home, more characteristically “Mozart” in his symphonies and operas?  And we know that he was that anti-Catholic thing, a Freemason.  Nevertheless, an old family friend, Abbé Maximilian Stadler, stated emphatically that Mozart nevertheless considered church music to be his favourite genre, and in his famous Ave Verum Corpus, a gem we perhaps too easily take for granted, Mozart was even instigating a new style of religious music - unadorned, devotional and easily understood.

In the case of Beethoven, apart from the fact that the whole of Vienna, where he lived and worked, was steeped in Roman Catholicism, he himself was not orthodox in his belief and practice.  However, he repeatedly refers in his letters to his aspiration to bring into the world music that will reveal the divine, and praise the glory of God.  To my ears this is apparent in everything I have heard by him and, given his cultural background and working environment, leaving aside the not insignificant matter of the Missa Solemnis, I think, whether Beethoven admitted it or not, he was heavily influenced by his Catholic environment.

What could it be about music, then, that is essentially religious, Christian, or even Catholic?  One important factor is that music, like religious experience, is beyond words.  It is less representational than visual art.  Its lack of rootedness in life, such as that maintained by arts like poetry, can be felt sometimes to put it at a disadvantage, but it does mean that music lends itself to expressing transcendence better than other art forms - as has long been acknowledged by both poets and philosophers.  All very well, but what is it about our Faith that could have led to the invention of the harmonic system and to the cycle of keys?  What did Christianity have that the artistic genius of the Greeks or Romans did not?  Indeed, why did the Jews not work out harmonic music beyond their admittedly ravishing, but basically very simple, songs of praise and lamentation?  After all, they, had, and have, a profound sense of the ineffability of God.

One rather prosaic answer to the last question is that the making of musical sound on instruments of any kind counted as work and would therefore have been illegal on the Sabbath.  But I think we can go deeper.  If we are prepared to acknowledge that music more than any other art form is able to capture or evoke transcendent experience, then perhaps it was only in the Christian era, when God had revealed who he truly was, when he had manifested his transcendence within the world in the person of Christ, that man could develop the transcendent art of music.  The scandal of God becoming man in the theology of Christianity demands, to put it crudely, a new level of faith.  To believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection demands more of us than to believe simply in a transcendent God, difficult though even that may be for many people.


Religion and Faith

Music has syntax and rules that no one has ever been able fully to understand or explain.  Having studied music to a fairly high level myself, I am always surprised that people who have not done so assume that learning music is equivalent to learning a foreign language.  The art of music is still a tremendous and perplexing mystery.  It has no equivalent of the "laws of perspective".  It demands, at its theoretical roots, tremendous faith.  That is why I suspect that it could only be in the faith-soaked Christian age that the laws of music could be discerned - that music could be "made flesh". 

I think I can even demonstrate the dependence of music on faith historically.  It always amazed me how such disparate musical styles as baroque, classical and romantic music (in fact the whole range of music from Josquin des Pres to Bruckner) has far more that unites it than separates it.  In this period of five hundred years, a period in which music retained faith in its musical laws, the supremacy of the so-called musical triad (otherwise known as the common chord) remained inviolate.  The key system was expanded though never changed, and the chordal relationships within keys remained constant.  In terms of basic musical structures, form and chordal procedure, a Josquin motet works in a surprisingly similar way to a Bruckner symphony.  This is astonishing.  But what happened to music as it entered the last century?  Those laws, based essentially on faith rather than proven by science, were rejected.  Is it mere coincidence that in the very year, 1907, that Schoenberg began ripping the intestines out of music in his first atonal compositions, Pope St Pius X was issuing his encyclical Pascendi Gregis against Modernism?  To the casual historical observer the activities of an atonal composer and a Pope shoring up the theological purity of the Catholic faith would seem entirely separate.  But with hindsight we can discern a relationship between the decline in Catholic, and indeed in all Christian, belief in the West and the collapse of music.  Many of those who rejected religious faith at that time still believed that the common-sense moral assumptions of their culture would remain in place, and they were proved wrong during the twentieth century.  In a similar way, the commonly accepted musical laws of Western culture could not survive the loss of the faith which provided a context in which they made sense. 

There are parallels between bad music and false doctrine.  Heresy is the distortion of an aspect of truth so that it becomes out of proportion.  (The most famous example in Christian history is the misunderstanding of Christ’s humanity versus his divinity.)  It seems that a similar failure to keep melody, harmony and rhythm in balance and in proportion has been the case with music over the last century.  Percussion instruments, for instance, which are so magical in their effects, seem to swamp so many modern scores at the expense of melody.  Indeed the reliance on instrumental timbre, which is vital in any music, has grown out of proportion so that musical form itself has been all but abandoned.  Indeed Modernism in all its forms could be said to be an exaggeration of things that are vital to all great art, whether it be colour in art or rhythm in music.  Certain elements are isolated and then blown into nightmarish proportions, just as in heresy an aspect of truth is taken out of its context and placed in a false perspective.

I am not here advocating any sort of timidity in musical creation.  Indeed the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven shows a kind of radical extremism in its attention to the balance and proportion of rhythm, harmony and melody.  What these composers accepted was that there were timeless laws of music that could be adapted to every age, in the same way that Catholic dogma remains the same but may be subject to new insights through time.  The whole background of a culture steeped in the Catholic faith allowed composers to accept both the order and freedom that tonality brings with a "religious" faith, even if they never stopped to think of it in those terms.

It is sobering to think that the entire history of music rested on a faith in tonal principles which scarcely any music college or university would now accept as valid for undergraduate or postgraduate composition.  In the field of architecture, the Protestant architect, Quinlan Terry, argues that the classical style of architecture is divinely ordered and inspired.  I would love to come up with similar arguments to defend my own musical language, though I am defeated by the essential mystery of musical expression.  I am convinced, however, that, just as the Catholic Church was in effect the midwife of classical music, so it could yet guide music out of the difficulties in which it presently finds itself after many decades of crisis and stagnation.  Let me try to suggest how.

I recently heard love described in terms of the utmost simplicity as the ability to pay attention.  It suddenly struck me that paying attention was also the very essence of being a musician - paying close attention always to every sound you are playing, or as a composer, creating.  The listener who pays close attention to music almost becomes the music whilst it is playing.  If love is at the centre of the Christian message then perhaps music, fostering, as it does, our capacity for attention, has a unique mission in the fostering of this divine love.

The idea of paying deep attention was also beloved of the mystics.  In modern culture almost the highest term of praise that can be given to a work of art is to describe it as imaginative.  Yet the author of The Cloud of Unknowing reminds us that the imagination needs careful control.  He says: “The disobedience of the imagination is clearly seen in the prayers of those newly converted to the life of devotion.  Until the time when their imagination is largely controlled by the light of grace in their reason… they cannot dispel the amazing range of thought, hallucinations and images which are projected and imprinted by their fertile imaginations.  All this disobedience is the result of original sin.”

The Church has the ability to teach us how to rescue the imagination - or, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing states, to keep the imagination “restrained by reason in the light of grace.”  If I think of the phrases of praise used to describe contemporary music, which I have read in reviews in newspapers, they are almost identical to those used in The Cloud to describe a mind far from God.  I believe that just as the Church invented music, it is only Christ who will once again teach composers to turn away from the “resounding gong and clanging cymbal” of so much modern music, towards a vision of music more in line with St Paul’s plea to the Philippians, and which fits so well with the music of composers such as Palestrina, Mozart, or Bruckner: “Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous and worthy of praise.”


Frederick Stocken is a composer whose commissions include a mass for the Brompton Oratory in London and a Symphony for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He read music at St Catharine’s College Cambridge, and he was also awarded a PhD from the University of Manchester in 2008 for his work on nineteenth-century harmonic theory. This article appeared in Second Spring issue 5.