Sunday, March 15, 2015

Faith and Music

From Standpoint:
Even in opera, a seemingly secular arena, Christianity commonly frames the moral dilemmas of the characters on stage. Mozart's Don Giovanni is dragged off to Hell, Verdi's Leonora takes refuge in a monastery, and Janáček's Jenůfa is just one of the many characters from the operatic repertoire who offers up a Christian prayer in a moment of great despair and need. This isn't merely because the Church held the purse-strings, as some have argued, but because there is a profound and inseparable relationship between music and Christianity; in fact, I would go as far so to argue that there is a sense in which Western music is Christian. The very scales (originally church modes) and harmonies which musicians of any ilk take as a given were forged in the cathedrals and churches of the medieval world. Through a gradual process of setting liturgical texts to music, sonorities such as the dominant-seventh chord were discovered, which then became the basic material of all classical and popular music. Something of the wisdom of the Gospels and the Psalms shines out of the harmonies of Western music—which is that crucial balance between judgment and compassion—and this is why, even on the operatic stage, a Christian moral logic so naturally and fittingly flows forth from the voices of the characters and the machinations of their plots.

Two operas in particular strongly support this line of reasoning, both of which place the suffering of Christ on the cross as a central image around which their respective stories revolve: The Rape of Lucretia by Britten, in which a narrative chorus "view these human passions, and these years/through eyes which once have wept with Christ's own tears", and Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, with its profound insights into the relationship between religious communities and sexual desire. Both operas acknowledge the debt which music owes to Christianity by bringing it back into the realm of secular music-making, and the consequence in the instrumentation of both scores is a remarkable glowing luminosity.

To gain a proper and complete understanding of what we call "classical" music is to appreciate that it was all written within the context of societies which were predominantly Christian in nature, and where celebrations of traditional national attributes were not seen as old-fashioned or backward-looking as they often are today. This all changed, however, in the 1960s, with the old moral authority of Christianity and nationalism brought into question by two World Wars which had slain "half the seed of Europe one by one", and the dawning of the sexual revolution. Liberated from the traditional restraints of Christian society, not least because of the oral contraceptive pill which spread rapidly throughout the world during the early 1960s, there was a sudden seismic shift in young people's behaviour and attitude towards sex, and one of its many consequences was the beginning of an era of "popular" music which gave expression to the new feelings which they could now experience and communicate publicly without shame or censure. (Read more.)

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