Posts Tagged ‘J.S. Bach’

More Justification – all the best tunes

April 11, 2009

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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