So, what does the Tradition demand? What is ostensibly maintained and cultivated by those in the strict camp, guaranteed by reproducing the past? What are those of us who are not in strict practices to do? We say we are in the Tradition, but so many of our practices (especially our music) are – let’s be honest – not very old, at least in their surface forms. What values are we to honor to guide us so that our practice cultivates what the others say is cultivated in their practice?
I labor under the guidance of two basic principles:
First, music in the Church needs to be beautiful. It needs to be well-crafted after some manner of artistry. Of all the music I have to choose and reject, in the end, it has to reflect some quality of beauty. This includes strength of structure as well as quality of character. It also includes some attractiveness, that “pleasing” quality which invites the hearer to listen and even to listen again and again.
It’s a cinch that not all of our melodies need to be exquisite. A certain amount of rather plain naturalness goes a long way toward filling the quality of beauty. Even the simple formula do-re-do contains a beautiful quality to it for reasons I’ll not go into here, since this is not an essay on the philosophy of musical beauty. But that short formula is very simple, quite natural and lends itself to liturgical responses.
Second, music in Church needs to be objective. The rigorists seek to achieve this through the principal of never introducing anything new, even in the manner of performance. The idea behind this is the exalting of community forms: it’s our melody. How this keeps itself from idolatry, I’ve no idea. But those of us outside the strict camp have to practice the virtue of objectivity in less obvious and mechanistic ways.
A musician needs to develop the discipline of discernment. There are musical qualities which do make for subjective and even sentimental character. Again, that is quite beyond the scope of this essay, and probably beyond the scope of this blog. But a musician who has not developed a reasonably strong set of musical values and the ability to judge music at some level will probably not judge music for the Church really well. Perhaps he has a good natural sense, and this might go a long way. But how will he pass it along to others?
This does not mean unexpressive music. It means expressiveness within the realm of liturgy, which is the external celebration of a commonly-held Faith. Within the expression of penitence, joy, lamentation, exultation, triumph, humiliation, trust and need there is a universal sense that the worshiper adopts for herself. The individual’s experience doesn’t become universal. A gospel song I grew up singing, goes, “Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful day! Day I shall never forget! When after wand’ring in darkness away, Jesus the Savior I met.” This is really not the sentiment of the Church. It is the sentiment of a believer. It could even be St. Paul, for that matter. Many have had this experience. Many have not. (Indeed, the fewer who have had the experience of “wand’ring in darkness away” the better.) At any rate, it is a particular experience interpreted, not by the community, but by the individual. The song goes on to exult in a salvation experience I quite emotive terms – terms derived from early-2oth century American secular songs.
Instead, the universal is meant to become individual. The experience of the blind man in the Gospel conveys a universal experience meant to be made individual. An Orthodox songs says, “I come to You, O Christ, blind from birth in my spiritual eyes, and cry to You in repentance: You are the most radiant light of those in darkness!” No one comes to the Savior already seeing. If so, “your sin remains,” He says. In effect, the Church in appointing this hymn for all to sing says, “If you’ve not had this experience, if you’ve not felt this way, you need to. Seek it.”
The music of the Church, while conveying the sentiments listed above – both in text and music – does so from the high ground of universal experience. It must have a certain arms-length quality to it. Again, this quality is sensed by a musician who has developed his sensitivity and ability to judge musical sensibility. (I’m using “sense” words intentionally.) Without it, how does one choose or create music to accompany the text, “Woe is me, my Divine Child!” This text must be communicated truthfully, and humanly. But it cannot be conveyed literally as though the despair weren’t redeemed and glorified. There is real loss expressed here. But in the liturgy all – all – is done in the light of the Resurrection and Ascension. We preach Christ crucified, but we don’t preach Christ reduced to a bloody pulp. That misses the point.
A good and appropriate analogy here is that of the Church’s icons. Take the icon of Christ crucified. He’s clearly suspended on the Cross. He is clearly bleeding. He is clearly dead. But it is the serenity of that self-sacrifice that is communicated. It is a death that exists in all eternity. It is all-embracing and includes the heroic and bloody death of the martyr as well as the peaceful death of grandma in her bed. All are invited to make this death their own, to “die with Christ.”
The music of the Church must carry this iconic quality as it meditates on both life’s suffering as well as Life’s Triumphs.