Chords and Discord

Today we hear conga drums, trap sets, bongos, and other drums played not in the style of Monteverdi processions, or Masses by Haydn or Mozart. Instead we hear them just as we would hear them in a bar or dance hall.

They are used just as they are in the secular world: to keep a beat, to make the music groovy, to inspire us to kind of do a bit of a dance. That’s the association of percussion we have in our culture. It is not a sacred association. The association is entirely profane. There’s a role for that. But Church is not the place and Mass is not the time.

Jeffrey Tucker, “Five Ways to Ruin the Mass,” Crisis Magazine

Giovanni Bellini. Detail of the altarpiece Virgin and Child and Saints. S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.
Giovanni Bellini. Detail of the altarpiece Virgin and Child and Saints. S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Tucker’s reminder that a piano is a percussion instrument strikes home. I have to steel myself for the Sunday morning lounge act that poses as sacred music in a local parish. The devil, of course, is not in the instrument but in the tunes tinkled on it. The piano is blameless; the music director is not. If Glenn Gould were at the keyboard, maybe I could surrender my fantasies of pouring wet cement on the hammers.

Lucca della Robbia. Children Singing and Playing Instruments (15th C.). Relief for the Cantoria. Museo dell ‘Opera del Duomo. Florence.
Lucca della Robbia. Children Singing and Playing Instruments (15th C.). Relief for the Cantoria. Museo dell ‘Opera del Duomo. Florence.

There exists no lovelier, more compelling witness to the innocence of percussion than the Missa Luba. First sung by a choir formed by a Belgian Franciscan priest in 1958 in what was then the Belgian Congo, the Missa Luba is pure Congolese. All words are Latin but no Western instrumentation or arrangement intrudes on the music. Even now, after years of familiarity, I tremble at the Sanctus . Based on a traditional Bantu farewell song, it reaches a height of exultation all the more piercing for its brevity. It carries hearers to the limits of what can be expressed in sound. Hosanna in excelsis . Then the shock of silence.

Benozzo Gozzoli. Detail for Madonna and Child with Angels (15th C.). Fresco. S. Fortunato, Montefalco, Italy.
Benozzo Gozzoli. Detail for Madonna and Child with Angels (15th C.). Fresco. S. Fortunato, Montefalco, Italy.

Every instrument has had its struggle with religious sensibilities. What Tucker calls “sacred associations” are subject to revision. In antiquity, the flute player performed a sacred function. His playing supported the invocation that accompanied sacrifice to the gods. While the ancients summoned the gods with a flute, Christians took an opposing view. John Chrysostom declared: “Where flute players are, there Christ can never be.” Because instrumental music resided in the cults of ancient pagan culture, music was once forbidden to Christians.

Gerardus van der Leeuw, Dutch philosopher of religion and liturgist, tracks the discord between music and religion:

Whoever plays the kithara or a wind instrument must give it up, says the nomocanon of Michael of Damiate, and in the Canons of Hippolytus [an early third century manuscript] it says: “Whoever performs in the theater, or is . . . a music teacher . . . or a priest of idols, none of these may be granted entrance to a holy address until they have been purified of these unclean works. After forty days they may hear the sermon. If they prove themselves worthy, then they are baptized.”
This explains why instruments were scorned even when music blossomed in the young Christian Church: the Church accepted the heritage of the synagogue, but not of the temple. “In place of the playing of tampani, let the singing of hymns resound,” says Gregory of Nazianzus.
. . . Thus instruments were excluded from worship for centuries, and even today they are really a foreign element. Both the Gregorian and the Reformed hymns are meant to be sung without any accompaniment.

Two things suggest themselves to Van der Leeuw. First, that the centuries of cultural discord on the matter follow a pagan argument: Plato found pure instrumental music opposed to the inner worship of God. Second, where every human expression of the divine is insufficient, music can never find the just the right note to sound the holy. At its depths, religion can demand silence just as music demands rest. “When the holy girds itself to put beautiful sound to silence, it can be that the latter has already fallen dumb.”