More Justification – all the best tunes

Something else Mike Reeves highlighted in his talks on Justification at New Word Alive was the difference the Reformation understanding of justification made to the whole Christian experience. He illustrated this by comparing some of the music to come out of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation – the same piece (Hosanna) set to very different tunes by Palestrina and J.S. Bach. While I’m sure you can read too much into any such comparison, there is a pronounced difference in feel of the pieces – the staunchly Lutheran Bach’s music just seems to have a joy, a boldness, and a vitality in it that the beautiful but detached Mass by Palestrina lacks. “Bold I approach” indeed. If a nonmusician like myself may be allowed to wade into such discussions, the kind of music someone produces does tell us something about their theology. Indeed, talking of Bach, I came across this anecdote in The Times:

I once asked a famous conductor if he believed in God. “Only when I’m performing Bach,” he replied. “Then I start to think that if Christianity is capable of inspiring a human being to produce music of this sublime perfection, there must be something in it.”
… what Bach, Handel, Bruckner, Palestrina and the other giants of sacred music do is transport us – aurally, spiritually and intellectually – to a realm that is so adjacent to religious faith as to be inseparable from it. Music goes beyond words.

I wonder if this is something that is lost a little in the “worship wars” and debates over what kind of music we should play in churches. If the difference between Palestrina and Bach’s performances of the Hosanna (same words in both) reflects fundamentally different theologies of justification, then it does matter how we set the words of our hymns and songs. We shouldn’t let a good tune excuse bad or heretical lyrics; but equally we shouldn’t settle for poor, dreary or unhelpful music just because we’ve got the words right.

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4 Responses to “More Justification – all the best tunes”

  1. Sophia Marsden Says:

    You don’t like Palestrina???

    • agyapw Says:

      Palestrina’s Shorter Mass is beautiful, yes, and I have to say I did enjoy it. The point Mike Reeves made by the comparison was how the different theologies of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Protestant Reformation are reflected in the music they produced. I think the example of the two Hosannas does show this quite well – Bach perhaps is the most overtly Lutheran composer of all time, and his joy and assurance of being justified influences the way he writes his music. I suppose from the opposite view, one would possibly criticise Bach for not being as reverential as the Roman Catholic Palestrina, who would probably find Bach’s (and Luther’s) claims to have assurance of salvation as presumptious.

  2. cosmicdolphin Says:

    Are you going to put a post up every day? Your blog is really good and intellectual Phil, I dont understand most of it!

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