Current Sentimentality and Reformed Church Music

According to the historical narrative, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant could recognize only one musical composition, namely, Yankee Doodle. Such extreme tone deafness is undoubtedly rare. Most of us have a more sensitive discernment and appreciation. We all feel the need of music generally, and in worship particularly. We would consider a worship service rather drab if all the music were suddenly excluded. Yet, I suppose, few of us have stopped to analyze how and why music does for us what it does.

In the following I shall attempt a partial analysis. By so doing it can be that some of us may come to a better understanding of music and its importance. However, the prime motive here will be to arrive a some conclusions as to what constitutes the music of worship and what does not. It should be noted that by engaging in analysis we lose some of the immediacy of the musical situation. Nor should one be encouraged to engage in such analysis while engaging in worship through music. Much would be lost in that sort abstraction. For it is a fact that analysis, by drawing our attention to the relationships in which the aesthetic event stands, tends to drain the event of some of its aesthetic quality.

It should be understood at the outset that music, in contrast to the other arts, is a free carrier of the emotions. That is to say, music supplies us with no definite images of nature, as painting and sculpture do, and with no ideas as does poetry. We are, of course, speaking of music as tone. the songs we sing are a fusion of the art of music with poetry. Pure tone offers us no background for the emotions, no object upon which it may be worked out. Music supplies us with the feeling tones of things and events but not with the things and events themselves. Hence music is the most abstract of all the arts.

Now it may seem paradoxical that in spite of the fact that music is the most abstract, it is at the same time the most personal of the arts. But it is precisely because it is so abstract that it can be so personal. We ourselves fill in the impersonal forms of musical feeling with our emotions. It is our hopes and fears, our longing and striving, our love and worship that music expresses. So it is that the same piece of music can be variously interpreted. So it is also that the same music can mean different things to different people. For example, those in the Roman Catholic tradition, or others not acquainted with the words, may be stirred by the worshipful strains of the Ave Maria, while others may be repulsed and disgusted by this expression of Mary worship in spite of the fitness of the tone vehicle.

From the foregoing it might possibly be concluded that music is emotionally indiscriminate. We are free to fill in what feelings we will. Such is not the case. If music were merely a means for the arousing of our feelings, it would be an orgy and not a fine art. Musical feelings, though they are our own, are also experienced as sound. In music we live in a region beyond ourselves. We live in the rare and non-practical medium of tone. In this region we gain dominion over our feelings by the order which the music imposes on them. Our feelings become an object for our reflection and understanding. At times the sounds may reach the deeper and sometimes morbid strata of the self. But instead of being aroused to evil thought and action, the feelings are released in an orderly fashion in the sounds. The feelings are not only aroused but they are also carried away by the music. Hence the cathartic effect of music and its usefulness in pyscho-therapy.

We suggested that music gives ordered emotional expression and thus escapes the organic. It is also true that the emotional expression depends on the type of music which we hear. Rhythm, intensity, timbre and melodic structure play an important part in leading our feelings. The trumpet may startle, the violin soothe, the bassoon may create the eerie feeling of suspense, the great swells of the organ may inspire. Instrumentation plays a basic role in all programatic music, but it is equally effective in non-programatic music. We react differently to the sweetness of the strings than we do to the thunder of timpani. By programatic music, we mean music that tries to tell a story such as, “Peter and the Wolf.” Beethoven’s “Fifth” is not programatic music though it iterates and reiterates a melodic theme.

In spite of the relative difference in timbre of the various instruments and the relative richness or paucity of overtones, the essential emotional effect of music depends more importantly on its melodic structure and its rhythm. Of course, it is a fusion of all the elements of the musical experience which gives it aesthetic quality, as we intimated at the outset. We apprehend by intuition the aesthetic quality, and thus we lose something in abstract analysis. Moreover, responses differ. The response to rhythm is almost universal while sensitivity to harmonic nuances largely depends on educational development.

Rhythm is so effective in arousing emotional response because when we hear rhythmical sounds we not only follow them mentally but we also follow them with our hands and feet, our head, heart, and respiratory apparatus. There is a very direct psychological connection between the hearing of rhythmic sounds and the tendency to execute certain motions. More than that, there is an equally direct relation between emotions and tendencies to movements through which the emotions find expression and are given effect in the outer world. To every kind of emotion, love and hate, fear, sorrow, joy, lust, there corresponds a specific though perhaps not self-conscious mode of motor manifestation.

In the normal audience situation the emotions are aroused by the rhythmic sounds alone. They have no object towards which they are directed, so they are interwoven into the sound and carried off by the sound. In the exceptional situation the effect is emotionally much more volatile. With the fight song and the opposing team, military music and the presence of the enemy, the jazz rhythm and the dance partner, the object of the emotion and its rhythmic stimulant are brought into proximity. The incidence of overt action is thereby greatly facilitated.

Occasionally there are those who argue that the devil’s tunes can be agreeably transferred for use in worship. This type of suggestion betrays an ignorance concerning the fundamentals of musical structure and rhythm. The rhythms and harmonic sequences of jazz tends to create a kinesthetic response which is inimical to the sublimity of worship. I suppose that most of the advocates of “peppy” music would hardly advocate the transplanting of a popularly known jazz tune into the milieu of worship. The more common practice in Fundamentalist circles, allows the use of the same rhythmic patterns and shallow harmonies which are found in the jazz idiom. In fact, many of the jazz harmonies are even more interesting than some of the trite hymn compositions. The discouraging aspect of this tendency lies in the fact that it is done in the face of a rich musical heritage, especially in the Reformed tradition.



Think for a moment on the three basic questions of the Heidelberg Catechism; sin, misery and gratitude. Now sing the first line, or stanza if you will, of “Love Lifted Me.” Pause for a moment and reflect. Now take up the stains of “Psalm Forty-Two”* with either the English or Dutch versification. Which heightens your feeling of solemnity, awe, love and gratitude? Obviously the former is not equal to the depth, breadth and height which such sublime expression demands. In music we should carefully distinguish between the emotional and sentimental.

Some may censor this suggestion, but in view of our discussion on rhythm, it is quite possible that when young people get together for an evening of so-called “peppy” or “snappy” hymn singing they are for the most part not engaging in worship at all. The music may he releasing pent up feelings, perhaps even lustful feelings. The same effect might conceivably be achieved by listening to some favorite jazz records. To say that jazz music is not the music of worship is not the same as condemning all jazz. The emotional involvement and the corresponding kinesthetic reaction to a jazz tune may be a useful outlet for feelings which might otherwise fester in to harmful repression or reprehensible overt actions. Jazz can be a cathartic as well as other types of music.

Music as well as the other arts is subject to extrinsic influences. These influences range the gamut from instinct to fashion. And though fashion and instinct are both social structures, the influence of fashion is generally more transitory and very often does little more than give the particular work of art a date. To illustrate, it would be difficult to visualize the Mona Liza without thinking of the latest in fifteenth century Italian fashion. Moreover, the appeal of fashion may be as intense in its time as that which is related to instinct though the appeal will most likely be transitory and may be localized. When? fashion is thrust into an area that would be ruled by instincts inimical to it, a fugitive art is developed. Jazz in the area of sacred music gives us a striking example. Further musicologists may well shake their heads when they study the hymnology of our jazz age. It will certainly constitute an adverse commentary. It does not follow without exception that any are that takes cognizance of current trends becomes a fugitive art by so doing. Fashions ride on manner, manners on customs and customs on basic instincts. Yet future students of music may well put our instincts under scrutiny and wonder why we lost our feeling for the sublimity which is essential for the atmosphere of worship.

We have just discovered some of the influences of rhythm. But rhythm cannot be divorced from the tonal structure of a musical composition. In music we also look for harmony, dissonance, and organization of finality. For purposes of the present discussion the idea of finality will be used as synonymous with organization.

Harmony is constituted in the consonance of two or more tones. Most of us immediately appreciate harmony. Yet dissonance is just as basic to tonal structure. Dissonance gives contrast. In its emotional effect, dissonance expresses conflict. And who has not been stirred by conflicting emotions? As we listen to a composition, we anticipate the resolution of the dissonance into a subsequent harmony, but the harmonic structure is greatly enhanced by the intrusions of the dissonance with its subsequent resolution, it takes dissonance to convey emotional depth. So it happens that the sweet harmonies of many hymns are more akin to sentimentality than to emotional depth.

Go back with me now to our first example in contrasts. Listen for a moment to the harmony of “Love Lifted Me.” Now turn again to “Psalm Forty Two.” It should be obvious that the former does not express conflict like the latter does. In fact the music of “Love Lifted Me” does despite to its own words; words which would contrast the abyss of sin with the joy of salvation.

Though important, it should be noted that dissonance and conflict have their limits. When all is dissonance we have cacaphony. When all is emotional conflict we may be ready for the psychopathic ward. Thus it is interesting to note the current extremes in the use of dissonance by some of our modern composers, Stravinsky and Bartok among others in the symphonic field, and the arrangements of Stan Kenton in the jazz idiom. They reflect our age. They reflect conflict but much more, confusion. They are the musical relatives of the existential philosophers who are also always in crisis.

Something must also be said about the third element in music which we have termed finality. I would suppose that music in the Reformed tradition should be somewhat theological even as the great music of the past seems to be. It should have a pattern and a purpose and should seek that purpose from the beginning to the end. The great symphonies iterate, reiterate and elaborate, but they finally come to rest, though perhaps climatically. In contrast, the modem writers seem to be going nowhere. The extreme use of dissonance borders on cacaphony and the lack of pattern leaves the listener with the frustrated feeling that all the sound and fury signified nothing. In this respect also, modern music would seem to reflect modern confusion.

With respect to finality. mat:y of our hymns are again found wanting. The music is not only inadequate to the expression of emotional depth, but neither does it cover what we might call an adequate emotional span. It is always coming to a full stop before it has made any real progress. It halts before it is well on its way.

On the basis of the above we should ask, “What constitutes the music of worship, or, if you will, church music? In the first place, I would suggest that we use the broader rhythms. We do not need the syncopation and scintilation of jazz. This does not exclude spirited music. Secondly, it should be Music that makes sufficient yet judicious use or dissonance. This it does in contrast to the shallow harmonies of many modern hymns and in contrast to the extreme use of dissonance by the so-called moderns in secular music. It should be understood that “pretty music” is not necessarily Church music. Thirdly, the music or worship should have finality along with adequate coverage as to range and melodic theme. The resolution of its dissonances and conflicts should suggest that rest which the Christian finds in his Lord.

It is quite possible that he may need a good bit of education before we can enjoy and appreciate the music of our Reformed heritage. It may even take some will power. Just as it is easier to watch a comedy on television that it is to provoke ourselves to thought with a challenging book; so it is easier to “float along with a ditty than to allow our emotions to be plumbed to their depths by the strains of truly great music. Yet no one will say that the former is more rewarding than the latter once the capacity has been developed.

There may be those who would argue for the complete subjectivity of aesthetic valuation. (Suffice it to say that some norm which determines its subjectivity and defines its meaning.) There exists no aesthetic subjectivity apart from a universally valid aesthetic norm to which it is subjected.

Let me say in conclusion that it is very gratifying to find the music faculty of Calvin College engaged in an effort to stem the tide of musical sentimentality. It may be that the influence will reach down to our Christian schools and Sunday schools as well. Perhaps the day will come when we will no longer find it necessary to substitute choruses and other hymn books for our own Psalter Hymnal. At present that substitution is apparently made in order to satisfy the demand for light and “peppy” tunes.

We should strive to maintain our Reformed heritage with every educational means at our disposal. The field of music is no exception. Yet, in so doing, it will be necessary to avoid the opposite extreme lest we fall into aestheticism, lest we embrace the form and prostitute the meaning. It will be necessary to steer our course carefully so that in avoiding the whirlpool of sentimentality we are not broken on the craigs of a spiritless aestheticism. Aestheticism is not a substitute for the basic emotions of a deep and abiding Christian faith.

If we are diligent ill this task, it may be that even in our generation we can add something worthwhile to our Reformed heritage in the field of music. Certainly the great theme of sin, redemption, and gratitude is worthy of symphonic expression. And who would say that the Catechism could not give the inspiration for a great oratorio? Soli Deo Gloria, never Ars Gratia Artis (an for the sake of art).

*As found in most of the better hymnals, No. 80 in The Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church, for example.