The Devil's Tunes? Black Sabbath and Birmingham Cathedral

This week a new work was released after collaboration between Birmingham Cathedral and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. The Dean of Birmingham selected the words (based on Psalm 133) and the choral arrangement was by Paul Leddington Wright; but it is Iommi’s name that is attached to this work. 

We might wonder why. After all, fans of Black Sabbath are unlikely to be interested in Christian-themed choral music, whilst regular attenders at Birmingham Cathedral are - hopefully - even less likely to be fans of Black Sabbath, with their occult and horror themes.

Such a collaboration is not only acceptable today, but it is immune to criticism. In Music Mania, we discover the roots of this modern attitude through events that took place in 1875.

The Three Choirs Festival began as a religious event with music but by the year 1870 it was a musical event in a religious building. A storm had been brewing for years, regarding the irreverent behaviour of those attending. Clergy objected to picnics in the pews and dancing down the aisles. So in 1875 a revised Festival took place, with sermons replacing the entertainment. The people revolted. Cabbies put black ribbons on their horses, mourning their loss of earning for the Festival period. Principled ministers were criticised fiercely in the press - a music journalist even asked who did these ministers think they were, acting as if they owned the cathedral?

It was a watershed moment. The ministers of the Church had lost any appearance of moral authority over the people. The people in turn were too rebellious to be taught anymore. Biblical doctrine of worship was set aside to make the Church a rival to the music hall, on the pragmatic basis that it would keep the pews full in an "age of doubt". There was consequent pressure for the music to be of a high enough quality to be competitive. Christian composers were few and far between, so the Church put out a begging bowl for any composer to write “sacred” music - no matter how degraded, debauched and insincere the composer's character might be. 

And that is still the situation today. People turn to music for solace and comfort. They rely on artistes to tell them the truth. Because of this misconception, people will be more likely to trust Tony Iommi than any ministers of Birmingham Cathedral. Not because of who he is or what he has done but because his music moves them and if they are moved, they believe. 

This is the knotty problem. It is not a question of whether Tony Iommi is "good" enough to write music for the Church. It is not a question of whether his music is in an appropriate style. It goes much deeper. We have to learn to disbelieve in music, to remove it as an idol that mediates between us and God. Then, we will worship the Lord as He commands and not as we want.

Read more about the promotion of music as a religion in England -

Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England have never been the same since

by Abigail Judith Fox

‘An Object must be found’, announced the Baron [von Sweiten], ‘for music which, by its fervour, its universal sufficiency and perspicuity, may take the place of the Pious Emotions of former days’; God turned into a working mechanic ...