Is An Evangelical Art Music Possible?

by Matthew Raley The father of Christian contemporary music, Larry Norman, recorded a song decades ago quoting Martin Luther: "Why should the devil have all the good music?" It was push-back against those who said rock and roll was inherently devilish.

Ever since, the quote has been a favorite of youth pastors who like to think that Luther was talking about tavern drinking songs that were turned into hymns. Take the music of the marketplace, they say, and make it preach Jesus.

Sorry. Martin Luther never thought the devil lived in taverns. The man liked his beer. As far as Luther was concerned, the devil lived in Rome. Specifically, the devil had taken over St. Peter's, with its architecture, its sculptures and frescos ... and its choirs.

In fact, Luther's quote was about the most eminent composer of that time, one-time member of the Papal choir, Josquin des Prez. He it was who wrote "all the good music" that the devil had -- art music, developed over the centuries from Gregorian chant. This music was pre-Palestrina, having many independent parts, so florid in their mutual imitations that the text of the mass tended to get lost.

Luther himself was a well-trained singer and a composer. He wrote many of the Lutheran hymns himself. They were not tavern tunes at all.

Larry Norman's little artifact comprehends the scope of my argument over the last few months. Evangelicals have ditched their folk singing tradition (music from life) in favor of pop music (music from the store). In doing so, they leveled the varied and authentic cultures of churches all over the country into the wasteland of Christian radio. Evangelical leaders committed this blunder because of musical illiteracy, and turned their movement into a cultural parasite.

I have argued that the folk singing dynamic can be recovered, and the richness of local church cultures gradually restored.

But there is one last consideration. The art music descended from Josquin and from Luther's heir, Johann Sebastian Bach, ran aground in industrial society. Philosopher Theodor Adorno said that the only thing left for modern music to express is the alienation of the individual.

Contemporary, newly composed art music (mostly from secular academia) has no mission to edify people, that is, to bring them together on the basis of shared things. The mission of new art music seems to be that of presenting very personal pieces that, it is hoped, will be "accessible" to listeners. It has institutional support, for now, but no philosophical basis.

I may be alone among evangelicals in thinking this is an important problem. But here goes: Evangelical composers could produce what academia cannot, a renewed development of art music from living folk traditions. This art can begin by adding emotional range to a worship service to glorify God, replying to folk singing with artistic affirmation. (An example from Bach here.) An evangelical composer can do this by exploring three mandates:

1. Modernist alienation from the listener is evil.

The musician is a servant of God to the community, not a prophet of his or her own selfish passion. God's musician should not affirm sentimental delusions in God's people. He challenges perceptions and assumptions. But he does so within the confession of truths that are prejudicially shared.

New art music, following Adorno, has restricted itself to the tools of deconstruction and shock so long that it now exhibits a pathetic inability to relate. Whatever its brilliance as art -- and the brilliance is often real -- it is frequently not humane. When it does reach out, it offers the tentative comfort of the emotionally distant.

Overthrow the Beethovenian priesthood of the artist. Reconstitute Bach's guild of pious craft.

2. Bypass pop music and mine a living folk tradition in a local church.

Pop music is, in the vast majority of cases, dead commercialism. It sometimes renews itself with an act that comes straight from the street. But the market usually softens the act. Renewal may come with the Beatles, but what gets stuck in your head is the Monkeys. There is not enough raw material in pop music to interact with meaningfully.

Evangelicals have a folk tradition. Once they resuscitate it, they should speak to it. The interaction between art composition and folk singing is so long and fruitful that it needs no more than a few names to fill it in: Bartok, Kodaly, Katchaturian, Copland, Shostakovich, Chopin, Paganini, Haydn, etc., etc., etc.

American evangelical folk hymns are fertile ground. They only require a composer who believes what they say.

3. Employ forms that live in the broader American tradition.

An audience responds to form before it responds to style. Form is prejudicial. A composer who aims at edifying an audience shouldn't waste his time with surface-level stylistic mimicry. Form says "we." The 12-bar blues and the 32-bar song are both suited to unbelievable stylistic flexibility. And, with Americans, they retain the unconscious power of a Sarabande in Bach's day. (Bach took care with his stylistic etiquette, yes. But his dance movements are harmonic and contrapuntal tours de force.)

These three mandates had their equivalents in Luther's day. He understood that the Reformation would never thrive as a cultural parasite on Roman Catholicism. So he worked hard at developing his people's folk singing. And he inaugurated an artistic tradition that produced, in less than two centuries, Bach himself.