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Christianity & Culture Series: Classical Music and Christianity

Christianity & Culture Series: Classical Music and Christianity

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"I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin." – Albert Einstein


Essay dedicated to
Katie Keen
Royal College of Music


The Power of Music

Music has the ability to touch the hearts and souls of people in a way that words often fail to do. The poet and Harvard Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said: “Music is the universal language of mankind.”1 It is hard to argue with this. Music accompanies us throughout all the experiences of life. Music is used to celebrate and to mourn, to bring joy and express sorrow, to forget and to remember, to relax and motivate, to entertain and to captivate. The impact of music on this world cannot really be calculated. Its capacity to inspire is clearly seen in the arts. The novelist Jane Austen once said, “Without music, life would be a blank to me.”2

Humanity has always been drawn to music; this is a curious thing. The implications seem to point us beyond a world of random chance and evolution. A recent scientific study has discovered that our brains are quite literally made for music – that is, there is an ingrained longing and appreciation for music that is a foundational aspect of humanity.3 In fact, the very beauty of music, its power to stir the emotions and evoke such passion seems to be hardwired into our very being. This speaks to us about the origin of music – something that can only be properly explained within the Christian worldview.

The Origin of Music

The Bible declares that music existed even before the creation of the world. Music comes from God; it was heard when the foundations of the earth were laid and “the morning stars sang together” (Job 38:7). The throne room of God is full of angelic choirs and the sounds of songs from the heavenly hosts (Revelation 14:2-3). Just as the angelic hosts sang when Christ was born, we too are exhorted to “sing for joy to the Lord” (Psalm 95:1) and “to make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). Music is a gift from God, one that is an overflow of His nature, and a beautiful way for us to praise Him. It testifies to the fact that God is Himself beautiful. Musical instruments and songs feature heavily throughout the pages of Scripture in conjunction with the worship of God.

This explains why Christianity has given rise to such an amazing array of musical creativity throughout history. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than with the classical composers of the Baroque period (1600-1750). This period gave rise to new styles such as the oratorio, the concerto and the sonata. Composers such as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi gave us some of the most beautiful music the world has ever heard. People have often made the connection between classical music and the spiritual, which is not surprising given the ecclesiastical origins of such music. There is an old saying, reportedly from the outside of a German opera house:

"Bach gave us God’s Word; Mozart gave us God’s laughter; Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words."

Whose spirit cannot be stirred by listening to J.S. Bach’s "Passion of St. Matthew," as he skillfully uses music to take the listener on an emotional journey through the Gospel story. There is a reason why Classic FM lists this as the number one piece that will change your life.4 Or what about the great "Hallelujah Chorus" of Handel’s "Messiah Oratorio," that once brought a king to his feet and still captivates audiences 250 years after his death. Or Mozart’s "Requiem," written on his deathbed, a composition with such intensity that it seems to transport the listener to the impending death of its author.

The Two Witnesses

Perhaps the two greatest composers of the Baroque period, arguably of all time, were Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric5 Handel. They lived at the same time, in the same country, yet their lives never crossed. They did not simply create music that could be spoken metaphorically as being spiritual; their music was actually written from a deep devotion to Jesus Christ and a desire to give Him glory. Bach was a keen Bible reader and amassed a good collection of theological works. Bach once wrote a marginal note in his Bible next to 1 Chronicles 25, which is where King David organizes the musicians for temple worship. Bach commented: “This chapter is the true foundation for all God-pleasing music.” At the end of the chapter, he wrote, “Splendid proof that…music was instituted by the Spirit of God through David.”6 Bach’s skill for weaving together his faith and his music is even seen in the structure of his compositions. Often, they would contain chiastic structures, such as ABCDEDCBA – the visual equivalent of the resulting musical form appears as a cross. Bach would often initial his manuscripts, “J.J” (Jesu Juva – "Help me Jesus"), or “I.N.J” (In Nomine Jesu – "In Jesus name." He finished his manuscripts with “S.D.G” (Soli Deo Gloria – "To God alone, the Glory"). The final work he composed, dictated from his bed, was a chorale called, "Before Thy Throne I Come." Bach’s musical legacy cannot be overstated:

“Bach is regarded as one of the greatest geniuses in the history of music. He demonstrated a standard approach to harmony that dominated music until the late 19th century.”7

His counterpart George F. Handel is equally as impressive. Although his orchestral piece "Royal Fireworks Music," and his "Eight Sonatas for Violin" are classics, he is perhaps best known for his sacred oratorios. These included "Israel in Egypt," "Judas Maccabaeus," "Esther," and the most famous of all "Messiah." His career suffered setbacks, but "Messiah" has forever secured his place as one of the greatest composers of all time. Ludwig van Beethoven once described him as the “greatest composer that ever lived.”8 Composer F.J. Haydn wept like a child when he heard the “Hallelujah Chorus” and exclaimed, “He is the master of us all.”9

Deeply depressed and swimming in debt, Handel was visited by a friend who had written a libretto about the life of Christ. He asked Handel to compose the music for it. Handel began composing "Messiah" on August 22, 1741. In all, it took him just 24 days to compose over 260 pages of manuscripts. Perhaps the greatest feat in the whole of musical composition. Barely leaving his apartment or touching his food, at one point he burst from his study with tears streaming down his face and declared, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” He had just finished writing the "Hallelujah Chorus."

Handel died on April 14, 1759, shortly after his final performance where he had conducted "Messiah." Over 3,000 people attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey. There now stands a statue in the Abbey which shows Handel holding the manuscript to Messiah with the words, “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

The Chief Musician

Until just this past September 2019, the world record for the largest orchestra was 8,076 musicians, achieved by Christian Television System and Music Home Orchestra, at Gocheok Skydome, Seoul, South Korea, on December 16, 2017.10 No matter how large the orchestra, it still needs a conductor to direct the music. It is the conductor’s job to bring to life the composer’s vision. Without him, there is no harmony to the music.

Life can be a little like this. Often we like to be our own conductors, yet this path often leads to chaos, not harmony. King David repeatedly addressed his Psalms to the chief musician. A prophetic picture of Jesus Christ who is the chief conductor, orchestrating the countless members of the body of Christ around the world into a beautiful harmony as He brings to life the Father's will on earth.

Who is your conductor today?

Read more from this series.

NOTES:

1 Peter Reuell. "Songs in the Key of Humanity". The Harvard Gazette, January 26, 2018. Accessed.
2
Jane Austen. Emma (Wordsworth Classics). Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994. p. 220.
3
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Catalyst TV episode "Music on the Brain". Youtube.com.
4 "10 Pieces of Classical Music That Will 100% Change Your Life." Discover Music, Classic FM. April 2018. Accessed.
5
Multiple spelling variations exist for the anglicized version of his name.
6
“Johann Sebastian Bach.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. Christianity Today, March 31, 2016.
7
Discover Music. Classic FM. Accessed.
8
Jonathan Kandell. "The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah." Smithsonian Magazine, December 2009. Accessed.
9
Patrick Kavanaugh. The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers. Tennessee: Sparrow Press, 1992, P 6.
10
"Largest Orchestra." Guinness World Records. Accessed.