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    The Decline of Western Classical Music

    Chaos in Music or A Civilisation in Decline
    by Alan Morrison


    If anyone deserves the title, Apostle of Christian Music, Dr. Morrison does. As one of the few defenders of godly music in a generation where music has run wild, mixing the profane, demonic and sacred, he has been savaged by his own evangelical brethren and virtually driven from the Internet and his ministry. It is with deep gratitude and profound respect for his courage and wisdom that NCCG presents these careful and accurate studies of the music scene in the churches. Accused of being a 'gnostic' because he uses his brain and doesn't ride the tide of the feeling-driven emotionalism of modern 'Christianity', Dr. Morrison's materials should be studied carefully.

      "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, what ever is spoken well of, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things" (Phil.4:8).

    Although music is the most abstract of the arts, it is also the most intensely communicative — being able to cut through to the very heart of a person. Because it is something lovely struggling for expression in a fallen world, music can be both heavenly and demonic, inspirational and debasing. In this brief study, we show that although Western church music, and the classical music which succeeded it, reflected in some way the glory of God and the expressiveness of man made originally in His image, an unprecedented shift occurred around a century ago which undermined the fundamentally theocentric character of all music.

    In many Christian circles, there is a frequent denunciation of the corrupting influence of that corpus of sound known as 'Rock' music. This is hardly surprising, in view of its dark pedigree, rebellious expression and the extent to which it has been imported into Christian liturgy and worship. Western classical music has also not been without its influence in church music: Many tunes which have been used as an accompaniment to psalms, hymns and spiritual songs have been borrowed from what now forms the classical music repertoire.[1] Some of these tunes were themselves once used as a part of liturgical church worship. However, Western classical music has not come under a critical Christian microscope to the same extent as Rock music. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it has never appeared to directly threaten the Church; secondly, whereas Rock music has been corrupt from its very roots and inception, classical music has always contained much that is noble, lovely and praiseworthy on which to meditate (cf. Phil.4:8).

    Music, throughout the history of the world, has always been intimately connected with all forms of religious ritual and ceremony. As a valid vehicle of human expression, music provides a natural communication point between a religious community and its object of worship — however misguided that 'worship' may be. Five thousand years ago, the people of Sumero- Mesapotamia were performing temple rituals to the accompaniment of hymns and instruments. The fertility cultus and sexual rites of China c.2000 BC involved choirs of boys and girls singing alternately and together to symbolise Yin and Yang dualism. The ritual magic musical 'ragas' of India performed in c.1500 BC have survived unchanged to this day. The Psalms of the Old Testament, written between c.1000-c.400 BC, gave religious expression to the worship of Yahweh which is still practised today among both Jews and Christians. Music provides a fitting vehicle for human worship, be it true or false. And so it has been throughout the millennia of human history.

    The music of the churches consisted originally of plainsong or chant. This was initially monophonic — in a single line of melody, as in the well-known 'Gregorian chant' — and did not essentially develop beyond that in the Eastern Churches. But as early as the 9th century, the Roman Catholic churches began to develop polyphonic music — in which several differing voice-parts are simultaneously combined. This development marks a real watershed in the history of music, for it laid the foundation for the entire development of Western classical music. It is a most interesting fact that almost all that we today call 'classical music' has its roots in music which was written as part of the churches' Divine worship.

    Admittedly, church music went through some barren patches in which secular music played an increasingly important role (notably, the 13th. and 14th. centuries). But from c.1400 a new era began in which masses and motets flowered in an unparalleled manner. Some of those involved in this renaissance were the trend-setting English composer John Dunstaple (d.1453, whose hyper-polyphonic motet, 'Veni Sanctus Spiritus' — Come Holy Spirit — is one of the most exquisite pieces ever written), Guillaume Dufay (c.1400-1474), Josquin des Prês (c.1445-1521) and, later, Palestrina (1525-1594). Whatever one may think about the Mass from a theological standpoint, it has produced some of the most beautiful music ever to come from the human pen. The fact has to be squarely faced that there will have been some genuine Christians in the churches of this era, and much music came out of those churches which provided an expression for worship and edified the spiritual life of the people, while, at the same time, glorifying God.

    Music of the Cosmos

    The undergirding feature of all church music had been primarily one of cosmos rather than chaos — of consonance rather than dissonance — of concord rather than discord. There was a real 'centre' to this music — a stability and harmony which was designed to be pleasing to the ear. The original meaning of the Greek word kosmos was order or harmony. As an example of this, in Matt.12:44, the Greek text shows the Lord Jesus using this word kosmos to refer to a house as being 'empty, swept and in good order' ('garnished', AV). Similarly, and from the same Greek root word, in 1 Tim.3:2, one of the qualities of an elder in the Church is 'orderliness' ('of good behaviour', AV). Later it came to signify the world or universe as an ordered system — hence our word 'cosmos'. The universe is an ordered system because it has been created and is being upheld by God. As human beings were originally created in the image of God, anything which they create should reflect this orderliness, this harmony and beauty.

    And here we come to the core theme of our study. Because of this undergirding idea of kosmos, one can say that church music was theocentric in both its form and its expression. It was standing on solid ground: the cantus firmus in any contrapuntal structure is the musical equivalent to the terra firma of nature. This vocal polyphonic music of the churches based on the principle of kosmos eventually found its expression in instrumental polyphonic music — from string viols with lute accompaniment in the 15th and 16th centuries, through the baroque orchestra of the 17th century, to the full classical-romantic orchestra of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus the theocentric solidity and consonance of monophonic and polyphonic church music was carried over into the classical music repertoire, as its very foundation.

    To this writer's knowledge only four composers in Western classical music have deliberately dedicated their music to the glory of God — often inscribing this on their scores.[2] But is there not also a sense in which all genuine music glorifies God because of all that is in it which is beautiful, ordered and reflecting of His glory. Consider also that every single contrapuntal complexity in a piece of music (a fugue being the most extreme example) reflects the elaborate counterpoint of the cosmos, as God upholds the myriad functions of the universe in any single moment of time. Wherever there is order, He is there.

    Surely, it also follows that for music to be a valid representation of the mind of God and His creative work, there should be a resolution of tension and conflict. This accurately reflects the entire run of history: for tension and conflict exist in the cosmos in the first place because of the Fall. For the present, the whole of creation groans and labours with birth pangs together, and the entire universe is longing for the final resolution (Rom.8:19-23). But God has guaranteed the outcome in "the restitution of all things" (Acts 3:21; Rom.8:21), the inauguration of the New Heavens and the New Earth (2 Pet.3:10-13). All music should ultimately reflect this, even if there is tension along the way. That this is so can easily be demonstrated. Take the well-known nursery rhyme, 'Three Blind Mice'. For it to conclude musically with the line of notes "Did ever you see such a thing in your life" would be absurd. The light of nature tells us that those four descending notes of the final cadence which bring it back to the 'tonic' must be added. Not to do so would be perverse.

    Thus, in the early church 'modes', even before tonality or key had been developed, there would always be what was called 'the final' — the natural-sounding note at which the music could come to a halt (similar to that final 'tonic' note in 'Three Blind Mice'). It is most interesting that in the 4th and 5th centuries, because the Psalms chanted in church did not end on this 'final', in order to obviate the inconclusive effect, antiphons which did terminate on the 'final' were added both before and after a Psalm. It is natural for music to be orderly and thus be 'cosmic' and godly.

    It is for this reason that the extremely systematised musical development known as 'sonata form' came into being in the early eighteenth century. In many ways, this imitates the poetic form of the 'sonnet' which has two parallel subjects, stated at the start of the work, followed by a development and a coda. In the sonata type of movement, there is an exposition of two musical subjects, followed by a development section, a recapitulation (summation by way of return to the exposition, though transfigured in some way) and finally a coda. As an expression of the harmony which lay at the heart of the baroque and classical eras, the sonata form — in spite of it being apparently tied to a particular matrix — was exploited to maximum effect in a astonishing variety of ingenious ways by many composers. It represents a supreme manifestation of order in music — and the individuality of the composer had to be subsumed in this order

    The fundamental purpose of music, then, is to create something which is pleasing to the ear — a thing of beauty and inspiration. This does not mean that there will never be any tension in music; on the contrary, tension and even dissonance can be introduced into a piece of music as a deliberate contrast, yet without in the least destroying its underlying beauty. Unfortunately, as Franz Liszt (1811-1886) rightly said: "Musical history is full to overflowing with unresolved dissonances".

    Additionally, this does not mean that a great work of musical art will always have a wholly 'happy' ending. Benjamin Britten's powerful and haunting Violin Concerto, written as World War II was beginning, has a most enigmatic coda with the soloist trilling gently between the major and minor thirds. One is left unsure in which mode the piece concluded. Many other works have been composed out of a situation of appalling tragedy, and the music reflects the genuine expression of the composer's heartache. For example, the tortured homosexual Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' Symphony, or Franz Schmidt's intensely moving Symphony No.4, written after the death of his beloved daughter in childbirth. These constitute exceptions to the principle that there must always be a resolution of tension and conflict. For they have been deliberately constructed to convey an empathetic experience of pathos. Other compositions which did not provide a final resolution in the closing bars, yet which still held to the fundamental principle of musical order, were Brahms' and Sibelius' fourth symphonies. One could also cite here the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich which, although coming to an apparent resolution in the coda of the final movement, was really a hollow sound of victory behind which lay the composer's heartache over the despotic devastation wreaked on the U.S.S.R by Stalin.[3]

    So we are not here taking issue with the natural expression of human emotion in music. Music written under the inspiration of a moving event will naturally reflect that situation. The creative urge can often provide a catharsis in times of trauma. A bereaved composer will write a tragic piece; a composer in love will write a romantic epic; a composer abandoned by his love will reflect that bleakness. These are all genuine snapshots of real life. They do not represent a breakdown of order, but merely the outpouring of a heavy heart. Such music still has a 'centre', a sense of integrity, and continues to reflect God's cosmic order.

    However, this fundamental integrity, which had prevailed in Western church and classical music for almost 1500 years, began to disintegrate towards the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, a change altogether unprecedented in global music history was about to make its mark in the world of music: the movement from 'tonal' to 'atonal' music. Until a century ago, all music had been 'tonal', marked by loyalty to a tonic 'home note' in the piece (as in the last note of 'Three Blind Mice'). As one musicologist puts it:

    "One of the most striking phenomena of music is the fact that, throughout its evolution — in non-Western cultures, in Gregorian chant, and in harmonised music — practically every single piece gives preference to one tone (the tonic), making this the tonal centre to which all other tones are related".[4]

    This universal musical feature is known as 'tonality' — which is really the musicologists expression for the necessary cosmos of music discussed above. That we are speaking of the same phenomenon is borne out in the definition of tonality as "a particular expression of the general principle of relaxation of tension — tension being a particular state that implies its 'resolution', i.e., a return to relaxation, a stable state".[5] The actual break-up of tonality in Western music began with Adolf Hitler's hero, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) — notably in his opera 'Tristan and Isolde' — and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), who was the Grand-Master of the occult Rosicrucian lodges in France. However, their work by no means completed the job, for they still retained the essential elements of tonality in their music. The real descent into the chaos of atonality began after the turn of the century in the decadent cultural capital of Europe, Vienna.

    Music from Another Planet

    Orchestral music had gone about as far as it could possibly go with Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in Vienna, who set out to encapsulate 'the whole of life' in his massive symphonies. Mahler himself was not actually dedicated to the idea of atonality (as were many of his admirers), but the fear of his looming death from heart disease suffused every piece he composed after the Eighth Symphony with a chromatic melancholy which stretched his sound-world to breaking point. When the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony screamed out an awesome ten-note chord — probably the most overwhelmingly frightening moment in the entire history of music — the chaotic chasm of atonality opened up, ready to swallow up the one who would take the leap.

    The mantle fell to his pupil of the 'Second Viennese School', Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). His first real attempt at atonal composition (2nd String Quartet, slow movement), demonstrated the alien nature of this new departure when the voice of a soprano entered on the words "I feel the air of another planet". Schoenberg seems to have been aware that he was entering

    forbidden territory, for he later wrote of this moment: "Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water..... It burned not only my skin, it burned also internally".[6]

    The implications of this disintegration of tonality in music are enormous. It was not simply a question of concluding 'Three Blind Mice' on the words "Did ever you see such a thing in your life". It was actually removing the cosmos from musical expression: it was the musical equivalent of political anarchism and religious pantheism. For this change in music was not occurring in a cultural vacuum. Blavatskian theosophy, Marxist-socialism, Freudian psychodynamics and Darwinian evolutionism were all making their mark on European life at around the same time.

    The "Enlightenment" had prepared the way for this at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, when the discipline of Classicism was being overtaken by the Romantic Movement, which indulged the cult of the personality and composed music out of human sentiment rather than as an ideal of pure music. This breakdown in music represented a

    breakdown in culture, which has continued to this day, and which will culminate in the chaos at the end of this evil age.

    The very last of the old style symphonic composers was the Soviet Dimitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975). He began to go down the pathway of atonality in the 1930's but, ironically, Stalin repudiated him, decrying this development as 'chaos not music' and as 'bourgeois formalism' which would never be understood by the peasants of the proletariat. Thereafter, like a hurt child, he lampooned the dictator's demands for 'music-with-a-happy-ending' by composing grotesque and bombastic circus music for a number of his symphonic finales. Since his death there has been no composer of international stature to continue the tonal heritage which received its death-blow three quarters of a century earlier. Much of the music now being written is awkward, boring and self-consciously experimental — satisfying only the intellectual appetite of an effete musical elite. Those who attend a concert to appreciate the kosmos in music are increasingly likely to become the victims of this chaotic 'New Music' which is conspiratorially sandwiched between the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms in the vain attempt to cloak it in respectability.

    The children of the world — wiser in their own generation than the children of light — have always dominated the field of music. This is not surprising. Along with technology and pastoral husbandry, music had its original post-Fall roots in the line of Cain rather than in the godly line of Seth (Gen.4:16-21). One can, therefore, say with all confidence that music is a gift from God, although developed in the world of culture through His common grace. The fact that fallen men (who will always be inventors of evil things, Rom.1:30) pervade it with sin and pervert it in the service of self will never eclipse the enigma of its essential beauty. Music which has a heart, a centre and a sense of cosmos, is music which reflects the mind of God and His creation.

    While the unbelieving world — although seemingly unable to glorify God in any of its inventions — revels in its undeniably formidable artistic creativity, the Christian man and woman can share in its bounties and take additional comfort in the simplicity which is in Christ, letting His word indwell them richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in their hearts to the Lord.


    [1]. e.g., fragments of Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Schubert, Vaughan Williams, etc.

    [2] These are: 1) Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), one of the most neglected and brilliant composers of the baroque period who was greatly admired by Georg Phillipe Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach; 2) J.S. Bach himself (1685-1750); 3) Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who always fell to his knees in prayer before composing at the piano; and 4) Anton Brückner (1824-1896), the devotional Austrian composer of nine gloriously expansive symphonies.

    [3] Modern performances tend to reflect this posthumous understanding of Shostakovich's music by making the coda very ponderous and forced. In fact, the discerning Polish conductor Stanislaw Skrowacewski (who knew Shostakovich personally) did this as early as 1956 in his famous Mercury recording with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

    [4] Willi Apel (ed.), 'Harvard Dictionary of Music' (Heinemann, 1970), p.855.

    [5] Ibid., p.62.

    [6] Paul Griffiths, 'A Concise History of Modern Music' (Thames & Hudson, 1978), p.26.

    Copyright © 1999 Diakrisis International
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    Also see, Exposing the New Style of Worship: The Great Hymn Controversy

    This page was created on 19 December 1999
    Last updated on 19 December 1999

    Reproduced with Permission