Rethinking Music: Ontologies of Music

Title: Rethinking Music

Editors: Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist

This book is a collection of essays on the same broad theme, written by some of the most prominent musicologists of this generation. The systematic presentation of modern music is useful to any reflective composer. There is nothing like understanding what someone else believes to clarify your own point of view. Here, rather than a review of the whole book, are analyses of three essays.

Essay 1 - The Ontologies of Music by Philip V. Bohlman

Bohlman begins with the strong affirmation that music is subjective, that we all understand it from different points of view. As each of us moulds a perspective, we have our own ontology of music. This makes any objective assessment of music's value impossible. Bohlman does not address this fact, more concerned with the ontologies themselves.

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Sacrificing Roger Scruton

Title: Death Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"

Author: Roger Scruton

An eloquent atheist like Scruton finds that he has much in common with Richard Wagner. Not that Scruton desires to bear the usual criticisms hurled (sometimes unfairly) against Wagner. But there is something about Wagner which appeals to Scruton and he has a sympathy which cannot be disguised.

It is helpful to have such a guide as Scruton when considering Wagner's Tristan und Isolde because otherwise we might be forgiven for trying to impose a Christian worldview on this work.

This rapturous evocation of the love object translate the once living Tristan into waves, clouds, scents, sounds, and finally into the “world-breath’s billowing all” as Isolde sinks into the joyful and all-knowing unconsciousness by the Upanishads and by the Hindu doctrine of Nirvana - release from the world - as the highest state of being. (p.72)

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Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Title: Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Author: Patrick Kavanaugh

Published: Zondervan, 1996

This volume bothers me. It appears to be the most ecumenical and non-divisive book on music ever written. That makes it far more dangerous than books that take a more blatantly controversial stand.

It is not as "neutral" as it appears to be. There is something subversive in the assumption that composers are de facto "spiritual". It is an idea just plucked from no where, or rather from the tenuous evidence provided from the lives of the "great" composers. When we look at them in further detail, they are all cut from different cloth. Some were bold believers who worked for the Church. Some were secret believers who never told anyone about their "private" beliefs. Some like Haydn believed a composer can earn musical ideas by being right before God. Dvorak believed God told him what to write. Handel too is regarded as divinely inspired. Others like Schubert are seen as re-crucifying Christ through their music. The conclusions we could draw from these points in our own lives and our own compositions are pretty devastating. As long as we have our own sincere kind of spirituality, God will "pay up" and make our music great.

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Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History 

Title: Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Author: Patrick Kavanaugh

Published: Zondervan, 1996

This volume bothers me. It appears to be the most ecumenical and non-divisive book on music ever written. That makes it far more dangerous than books that take a more blatantly controversial stand.

It is not as "neutral" as it appears to be. There is something subversive in the assumption that composers are de facto "spiritual". It is an idea just plucked from no where, or rather from the tenuous evidence provided from the lives of the "great" composers. When we look at them in further detail, they are all cut from different cloth. Some were bold believers who worked for the Church. Some were secret believers who never told anyone about their "private" beliefs. Some like Haydn believed a composer can earn musical ideas by being right before God. Dvorak believed God told him what to write. Handel too is regarded as divinely inspired. Others like Schubert are seen as re-crucifying Christ through their music. The conclusions we could draw from these points in our own lives and our own compositions are pretty devastating. As long as we have our own sincere kind of spirituality, God will "pay up" and make our music great.

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Paul Westermeyer and "Te Deum"

Title: Te Deum - The Church and Music

Author: Paul Westermeyer

This book ought to be a useful study of the Church's changing use of music. It is not.

Paul Westermeyer nods affectionately towards humanistic qualms while showing tremendous disrespect towards those Christians with whom he disagrees. This combination of the concilliatory mediator and totalitarian makes the book difficult to read, let alone recommend. When you are being kicked very hard, it really does not matter very much if the person kicking you is smiling benignly at someone else.

Humanism at its heart

1. Westermeyer believes in man's ability to be objective. Pure Kantianism.

"The value of objectivity suggests yet another reason for the study of church music, namely, backing off for a dispassionate view. Music, worship, and theological points of view involve us all at points beyond the rational. They arouse emotions and both conscious and subconscious likes and dislikes, which is true whether we are believers, nonbelievers, pietists, fundamentalists, orthodox, agnostics, or atheists. Nonrational factors are always at work when one deals with issues of this kind....  A study of this type gives you a chance to back off, suspend emotions and coercive tactics for a period of dispassionate investigation, and give everything a hearing." (page 5)

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The New Worship

Title: The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church

Author: Barry Liesch

Publisher: Baker Books, 2007

For a book which promises "straight talk on music and the Church", Barry Liesch still leaves us with a few questions. In Chapter 10 (p.199) he says:

"... most of us (even musicians) do not have the expertise to talk about music style precisely. We are better equipped to talk about the words."

This kind of honest assessment makes Liesch (for all of our theological differences) hard to dislike as an author. If only he did not contradict his own logic:

"we should begin with the thought that no melody, scale, chord, rhythm, instrument, or timbre should be theoretically off-limits to the Christian composer." (Chapter 12, p.182)

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Meller's "Celestial Music"

Title: Celestial Music? Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music

Author: Wilfrid Mellers

It is difficult to read a man groping in the dark, as Wilfrid Mellers does in Celestial Music. He rests far too heavily on music for his comfort and support:

Music is often said to be the closest of the arts to religion since what we call its ‘language’ cannot be intellectually articulate; indeed, its very lack of articulacy may put us in touch with the numinous, and therefore presumably with the divine, or at least with the forces we call ‘spiritual’. Although I am not myself a ‘believer’, I seem to be partial to religious music, I suspect because it asks, though it cannot answer, those eternally Unanswered Questions.

Prologue: What is religious music? p.xi

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John Frame and Music in Worship

Title 1: Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defence

Title 2: Worship in Spirit and Truth

Author: John Frame

Publisher: P&R

John Frame introduces himself to his readers as no specialist in music but someone who loves music. Of course his actual field is theology - and it shows. He writes about music as the man enamoured with a subject, not having yet learnt the complications which defy such simple love.

His specific target in these two books is the use of music in worship. The basic thrust of both books is well-summarised in this quotation from Contemporary Worship Music p.25:

"unless it can be shown to be inappropriate for worship, everyone’s music should be heard: old people’s and young people’s music; European, African American, and other ethnic music; complex music and simple music. This is how we defer to one another - serve one another - in the body of Jesus Christ."

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"Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" by Oliver Sacks

Title - Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Author - Oliver Sacks

In this book Oliver Sacks weaves a collection of tales of people’s experience of music, tales that range from the sub-normal to the paranormal.

We read of ordinary people, who are haunted by music. They would give anything for the music to stop “playing” in their heads. But it will not go.

We read the story of a man struck by lightning, who develops an obsession with playing and composing, an obsession that destroys his marriage.

Always amongst the most heartwarming, we have people with physical or mental restrictions, who find that their skills in music are abundant. We can focus upon this small number and, with the arrogance of our age, declare that they are blessed. The fact that such people may be socially isolated or physically incapable of looking after themselves is outweighed by the fact that they give us music.

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The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Title: The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Author: Jamie James

Published: Abacus, 1995

"There was a time when the universe was believed to cohere, when human life had a meaning and purpose. ... The key to the universe is no longer of use to anyone, because the exquisite edifice it once unlocked has crumbled into nothingness. Nonetheless, it does seem worth knowing that down through the vastest [sic] majority of history, our ancestors believed that the world made sense, that it was a place where they belonged. And because they were human even when they were wrong, we can belong there, too."

The Music of the Spheres by Jamie James, p.xiv-xv

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The Instrumental Girardeau

Title: Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (1980 edition)

Author: John L. Girardeau

This is a work that has been criticised for its existence as much as for its content. Those who believe that there is licence to worship God according to our own lights are offended at the idea of a book such as this by Girardeau, for they perceive a restriction upon their freedom to do what they want as "unfair". Girardeau is a breath of fresh air because it does not enter into his argument that worship should be regarded on such a trite, horizontal level. Worship, to Girardeau, is the vertical aspect - we worship God, and we worship him as he wants to be worshipped.

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Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores, a Selected History

Title: Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores, a Selected History

Author: Gergely Hubai

Publisher: Silman-James Press

Film music is a complicated subject for discussion.

Some people never get to first base because they disapprove of films and therefore the music associated with them is tarnished with the same brush.

Some people disregard film music, as lacking the artistic integrity and importance of non-film music, largely because it communicates with people rather than serving itself.

Other people regard film music as something that is better done by concert composers than the "commercial" experts, who have made their names in the field.

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Pop Goes the Gospel

Title: Pop Goes the Gospel

Author: John Blanchard with Peter Andreson and Derek Cleave

Published by Evangelical Press

The subtitle to this book is "Rock in the church". It is an attempt to highlight some of the origins and associations of popular music in order to repel Christian youth from demanding its place in the public worship of God. So there are quotes from heavy metal groups, anti-Christian musical writers and everyone else in between. Blanchard seeks to establish that most popular music is either anti-Christian or demonic.

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