CONVERSATION
Secularity and the Problem of Church Music

There seems to be an intractable problem that faces liturgy and music in the modern American church. It is a tension between what I will call vernacularism and traditionalism and it seems impossible to resolve. But why is it so hard? It is easy enough to find prooftexts in Scripture for both sides of the binary between vernacularism and traditionalism. More disconcerting is the fact that other eras of the church’s history have been able to grasp both of these things simultaneously without compromising either. There have been plenty of moments when Christian music and liturgy were both immediate and authoritative in their idiom, both traditional and vernacular. (For the moment, I am assuming this, but I will dwell on these specific moments of history in what follows.)

If this is the case, then why is it that, in 2020, we must choose between vernacularism and traditionalism and, if such a dichotomy ought itself to be rejected, what can we do to create liturgies and music that are both? In what follows, I will try to show that contemporary and traditional have not been mutually exclusive categories in the past, but they seem inevitably so now. I will try to diagnose why we can’t have both and then suggest what we can do about it.

The Anti-Traditionalist Tradition of Church Music

To illustrate all this, I would like to take a look at a very familiar piece of music, Bach’s chorale prelude based on Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. It tends to strike us as a stately, solemn strain, used often at weddings. It might have even sounded a little humorous to Bach’s original audience, with its abrupt phrases and sudden stops. The organist is really playing three separate melodies, one in each hand and one with his feet. The two outer melodies, which would be the organist’s right hand and feet, are engaged in some music Bach has composed, but the inner melody is not original. Bach has stolen it, as he frequently does, from a hymn or “chorale” in the Lutheran tradition, which many Christians sing to this day in Advent as “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” Here we have a very literal juxtaposition of tradition and contemporaneity. They are on top of each other, being heard simultaneously.

If it was not humorous, then at least it must certainly have been delightful, arresting, fresh to hear the old tune put in such a context. A German congregation in the 18th century, listening to Bach’s composition for the first time, hears completely new music, and really pretty strange music, for about 30 or 45 seconds—then, suddenly, they hear the hymn Wachet auf. Surely they’ve sung that tired old tune countless times in their lives. In this moment of recognition, a strange counterpoint between old and new occurs, and regardless of their level of education, musical background, or understanding of Bach’s idiom, they have suddenly been invited into the polyphony, hearing and attending to two melodies simultaneously. What was, at first, Bach’s personal, cerebral imaginings has suddenly become the property of the community. Polyphony is, of course, a hard thing to listen to, but it is made much easier if you know one of the melodies ahead of time. So, in a way, to listen to Wachet auf, for its original audience, was to hear a kind of music that taught you about how to listen to itself as you listened to it.

At least, it might have been so, if you were an 18th-century German Lutheran. But there is an unsettling component to this example of Bach’s Wachet auf. It was essential to the experience of an 18th-century congregation that Bach’s Wachet auf was an unfamiliar composition enclosed around an overly familiar hymn tune. But it is closer to the opposite for us. Likely as not, we 21st-century listeners of Wachet auf know the hymn tune as much from this organ piece by Bach as we do from singing it in a hymnal. Even if we do sing it in a hymnal, it is one among many hundreds, and even were it not, hymns such as these are only a fraction of our musical experience day-to-day.

In other words, we can never hear Bach’s Wachet auf in the way that a Lutheran congregation in the 18th century could. Such a congregation had fewer hymns that they would sing more often, in and out of church, and they had never heard Bach’s organ piece because he had not written it until just before they did hear it. The hymn tune can never be as familiar to us as it was to them and, much more catastrophically, Bach’s composition around that tune can never be so new to us as it was to them. This reveals a fundamental problem: if we want church music like Bach’s, we must first of all rule out Bach’s own church music. It was effective precisely because it was a product of its time, aimed at its unique audience. This is captured in the old Lutheran idea of music as a sermon in notes. Such a sermon communicated. It used music that was semantically meaningful in its own time in specific ways (like the hymn tune Wachet auf). If we want something similar, we must somehow manage to make old music familiar to us and yet create new music that is unfamiliar. How do we solve such a paradox?

I’m far from the first person to point out this problem. It is easy enough to demonstrate that “traditionalism” is most at odds with the tradition of Western church music itself. Johannes Tinctoris, for instance, writes in the fifteenth century that “there is no composition written over forty years ago which is thought by the learned as worthy of performance,” summarily sweeping aside centuries of tropes and sequences, the organum of Notre Dame, and the motets of Guillaume de Machaut. Tinctoris instead lifts up Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, both contemporaries, as his ideal models.[1]

Ironically, Adrian Petit Coclico, 75 years after Tinctoris, will lift up the much more recent Jacob Obrecht and Josquin des Prez as the ideal model, declaring that earlier Dufay and Binchois “specialized excessively” and “introduced many difficulties.”[2] Something comparable will happen in the following generation which replaces Josquin with Willaert, and then Willaert with Palestrina.

Centuries later, J. S. Bach might have had a shady knowledge of these names: Christoph Wolff mentions some collections that include sixteenth-century music that Bach must have used for study and occasional use, including a bit by Obrecht and a bit by Josquin.[3] It is doubtful Bach even knew of a Dufay or Binchois. As it turns out, the greatest composers of church music seem to have had much foggier notions of what came before them than we do. After all, manuscripts get burnt or used for wrapping paper; notational styles change; Tallis and Buxtehude did not have IMSLP.org as we do. But even when composers did know of the music of their own past, they seemed oftentimes uninterested and even a little repulsed. If not, they employed the music for the purposes of study and emulation, seldom for daily use.

There is one repertory that is exceptional in this respect, at least in the Western church. Gregorian chant, as it became known in Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries, has been a relatively stable feature of church music, even amongst magisterial Protestant churches. Of course, often Gregorian chant was employed in its serene, monophonic capacity, but it was also frequently employed as the cantus firmus (the “fixed melody”) of a new composition—the same relationship between the hymn “Wachet auf” and Bach’s Wachet auf composition. Here, again, contemporary and traditional seem to coexist in strange ways.

There was, in a way, no “traditionalism” at all, not in our sense of the word, until recently. The luxury of traditionalism is modern: it relies on the proliferation of music scores through movable type, a massive scholarly apparatus that can interpret ancient notation (whence the original discipline of musicology arose), and, perhaps most importantly, a Romantic Zeitgeist interested in the task of recreating music long-since out of use. It was not until the 19th century that this confluence really took place, famously, for instance, in Mendelssohn’s re-creations of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. But it is not until the next century that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion could find its way cheaply into the ears of an average curious American, via the magic of recording technology. No doubt all these things would have struck Bach as curious, and so they should strike us that way too.

 Modernist Traditionalism

None of these observations are new, and yet their frank recognition amongst traditional church musicians never seems to take. Shouldn’t we too be creating great church music like the past we so admire? But the suggestion is almost laughable to many of us. And it is this reaction that has me curious: why is it that we seem so incapable of doing something that was just assumed by many past centuries of church music? The answer, I suspect, lies in what I wrote above, that traditionalism is a modernist project. The apparent tension between the contemporary and traditional sides of the music debate just distracts from the immense common ground they share.

Something about modernity makes it so that we cannot both grasp onto authority and real-world purchase in our liturgical music. The instant we want our liturgies to speak in a language that has direct reference to the world outside us as we experience it, we seem to lack any authority in this language. And, conversely, if we want a language that speaks with a moral authority so typically absent in our age, we cannot help but reach back to archaism, to some language that exerted authority in the past.

A timely example would be one I regularly experience around this time of year, on Ash Wednesday. Although I might go to a mainline Protestant service that has otherwise flattened the language and rid it of its archaisms, the priest will often revert to archaism at this crucial moment: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It’s obvious why: to say something like “You are dust and you will return to dust” lacks the beauty and terror of the timeless archaism. Yet that beauty and terror is also a danger. “Everything we encounter in life,” Peter Leithart reminds us, “is temporal.” Recourse to “timeless” language “ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.” This is generally true of archaism in liturgy—if we become too attracted to the timelessness of a particular formulation, it insulates it from doing what words are meant to do, which is to signify beyond themselves out into the world.[4]

So the “contemporary” and the “traditional” are both impulses reacting to the same problem. One wants to artificially import language of authority from an era that had it, and the other wants to adopt a language that has modern purchase but lacks the metaphysical and ontic commitments that give traditional liturgy its muscle.

Thankfully Christians are not alone in this dilemma. It is one of the fundamental dilemmas of the secular age, according to the philosopher Charles Taylor, that individuals are “buffered,” disconnected or distant from the Great Chain of Being that used to bring together humans, God, animals and angels into a single community. But for the secular age, “the increasing unavailability of the earlier languages of objective reference, connected to sacred history, the correspondences, the Great Chain, is the ineluctable consequence of disenchantment, the recession of the cosmos before a universe to be understood in mechanistic terms.”[5]

Taylor’s phrasing is particularly useful for this discussion, since he notes that older forms of language have stopped meaning, stopped signifying outside themselves. After all, the world of transcendence has become attenuated or has evaporated altogether, and it is this transcendent world to which our worship refers. This means that, even if I personally believe in a rich liturgical theology that the secular age doesn’t, I have trouble accessing any kind of language to voice the implications of that theology without reaching back into some other era that had a more vibrant, “enchanted” language.

It is easy to see how this has happened with certain words whose original meanings assumed a “Great Chain of Being” but which now are impoverished. One such word is “harmony,” which now means little more than “chords” but once explained the very movement of the planets and stars. As it happens, “enchantment” (and its twin “disenchantment”) also have experienced an impoverishment of lexical richness in the modern period. More crucial than its background in magic (“enchant”) is its background in singing (“chant”), two practices not always so separate as they are now. Daniel Chua, discussing the musical theology behind this pre-modern vision of the world, notes that “what held this magical universe together was music. The ancient cosmos was literally enchanted—it sang.”[6] In some important sense, the pre-modern era was not “enchanted” by virtue of their belief in fairies or transubstantiation or the horoscope, but by virtue of the fact that music imbued everything.

So what has happened to music specifically in the modern period that is different from the pre-modern? The answer uncannily correlates with the narratives of secularization Charles Taylor is telling. It is not a coincidence that, in an era when industrialism and urbanism have made our social harmony flounder, we also have less literal harmony. We do not sing as much as previous generations did. This is, of course, not to say that we do not have as much music in our lives. Actually we very likely have much more; we are unnaturally saturated by it. But we aren’t its authors. We have been almost totally alienated from the production of any kind of music. Thanks in large part to the 18th and 19th centuries of western Classical music, the making of music has passed almost entirely to professionals.

“Suppose,” quips C. S. Lewis, “you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”[7] Of course Lewis is talking about sexual appetite gone wrong—he suggests that there is something similarly disordered in the voyeurism of the strip-tease, that rather than enjoying the thing itself we enjoy the tantalizing prospect of enjoying the thing. But what’s deeply disconcerting is that we are that strange country with respect to music. We find ourselves in a unique cultural moment—perhaps unprecedented. Where our ancestors enjoyed music by doing it, we enjoy music by listening to others do it. This is not a problem of church music, but a problem of all music in every part of our lives.

I don’t mean to imply that there is always something wrong with passively listening to music without participating in it. Nor do I deny that passively listening to music frequently occurred in the past. But I do think that we passively enjoy music dramatically more than has been the case ever before. We can compare our assumptions, for instance, with Aristotle’s brief consideration in Politics that young men should learn music, not in order to “learn this accomplishment themselves” but instead “like the Persian Median kings, participate in the pleasure and the education of music by means of others performing it.”[8] Aristotle’s awkward language here describes a situation foreign to him and other Greeks; his assumption, and eventually his conclusion, is that normal people experience music by doing it themselves, not by experiencing the pleasure of other people doing it for them.

This should not be surprising: until quite recently, it was only the very rich who could afford to listen to music and not be involved in its making. In quite a different historical moment, a Flemish etiquette book from around 1540 portrays a scene of a bourgeois family entertaining themselves one evening by sight-reading a complex motet by Nicholas Gombert. “Have you studied the song?” asks the father of his youngest child. “Yes, father.” “And you, have you learned it?” he asks of the older brother. “No, father, but we’ll be able to do it all right.”[9]

Of course it will be objected that there have been plenty of times when music has been professionalized by elites out of the mouths of the average person, and never so prominently as in the Middle Ages. There is some truth to this. It’s certainly the case that the masses of Josquin des Prez were not sung in the Sistine Chapel by the congregation, nor even the Gregorian chants.

But there are two crucial differences between this professionalization and our own. First, much of the church music handed down to us from the later Middle Ages was written under the patronage of specific chapels or for specific monastic liturgies in which an average parish would have played no role anyways. It remains the case that, for an average Medieval, the only way he or she would likely hear music is in a context where he or she was creating the music, or adjacent to other peers creating the music.

Second, a mass or motet by Josquin was understood to be a representation, a reflection, of the singing of the church. It was not simply a pretty piece of music for the laity to meditate upon, but a sacrifice of praise which represented all of them. Johannes Tinctoris puts this well: music both “stirs the feelings to devotion” but also it “makes the Church Militant like the Church Triumphant.” He quotes Augustine in support: “the logical and controlled harmony of different sounds conveys the unity of God’s well-ordered city, blended in consonant diversity.”[10] To put it simply, professionalized music in a pre-modern context is a metaphor for non-professionalized, communal music making, whereas communal music making today is a unicorn. It’s just a luxury commodity or an atavistic gesture, like a folk rock concert or sing-along Messiah. It is certainly not the norm.

Music-making is an essential, not an incidental, part of being human. Peter Leithart makes a strong case supporting the notion that one of the central fulfillments of Levitical sacrifice in the New Testament, anticipated by Davidic psalms, is music—it is a sacrifice of praise ascending to Yahweh, where the worshipper has become the sacrificed animal.[11] It shouldn’t be coincidental, then, that this priestly task is one Martin Luther encourages all believers to take up: “It was not without reason that our fathers and prophets wanted music to always be in the church in the form of many songs and Psalms.”[12] In neither case can we say that this is merely recommending music’s presence in worship—this is believers themselves making the music. The degree to which modern recording technologies deprive us of a natural, God-given human capacity is dramatic.

Jonathan Sterne, in his history of recording technology, The Audible Past, points out that sound reproduction to this day depends on the “tympanic” impulse, which models the functions of the human ear both in order to record and to reproduce sound. In the earliest recording devices of the late nineteenth century, actual human ears were employed in devices to make the technology work.[13] The modern technology, although a metaphoric abstraction of this literal ear, is no less invasive in our humanity. If I went to a Taylor Swift concert, for instance, and I sang along with her, I would not hear my own voice, no matter how loud I sing. I would instead hear Taylor Swift’s unnaturally amplified voice, so loud that I couldn’t hear myself. The result is a bit of post-modern magic: I get the physiological sensation of singing but the sound that comes back is air-brushed and perfect. I get a simulation of communal singing but the benefits of high-production value. Music perfectly mirrors the social disintegration of modern society: at live concerts, says Charles Taylor, “a host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication.”[14]

We’ve travelled far afield from the question of church music. But this is my point: discussions which focus on issues of content and form in church music are in some sense premature. We first have to deal with the debilitating conditions of possibility in which American church music exist. We are a culture of music consumers. We have been alienated from music production, both in our art music and our popular music. Yet I am arguing here that Scripture mandates some degree of unmediated music-making by Christians themselves: we are told to “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody,” (Eph. 5:18ff). And—more persuasive than me believing it—Luther points out that the church throughout the ages believed Scripture mandated this too. So it is the entire way that modern Americans are musical that a robust Christian tradition of music challenges.

Reforming Church Music

How are we to proceed, if what I’m saying is true? I would suggest a few avenues through the problem. First, I would be remiss if I did not give the answer that Paul and the Church Fathers give: if we want to become the sorts of people who “speak to one another” with music, we might begin with the music Paul recommends to us (Eph. 5:18, Col. 3:16).

I probably don’t need to rehearse the case for psalm-singing here, other than to say this: I applaud and admire any Christian community trying to enthusiastically recover Psalm singing. But it often strikes me that this enthusiasm eventually dwindles, usually for lack of any coherent strategy and approach. I think we should prioritize having, for the time being, low standards on the musical aspect—that is, what settings of the psalms are being sung is less important than that the psalms are being sung—but I think it would be wise to heed the manner of psalm singing that has been in use since the earliest centuries of the church, both in laity and the clergy. That is, of course, some abbreviated form of the daily office. This need not be anything Benedictine in proportion, but a modest, lay morning and evening prayer in communion with other Christians. Lest some hot-blooded Protestant be afraid this sounds too Papist, it is worth pointing out that encouragement to morning and evening psalm-singing, throughout the week, whether at a church service or in a more private setting, is a heritage of many branches of the magisterial Reformation. Such a long-standing strategic approach to psalm singing oughtn’t to be summarily dismissed.

Second, in order to change the conditions of possibility in how we are musical, we must change at several levels of daily life. I can illustrate the point with a fascinating historical example. David McKay and Richard Crawford, in William Billings of Boston, have painted a picture of church music in colonial America in the early eighteenth-century. It is a bizarre picture, to say the least. The music survives only in verbal description, since it was all improvised orally, but contemporary accounts describe hymn tunes slowed down past the point of recognition, while any random congregant might noodle around the tune. “Some affect a Quavering Flourish on one note,” describes a contemporary account, “and others upon another which...they account a Grace to the Tune; and while some affect a quicker Motion, others affect a slower, and drawl out their notes beyond all Reason; hence in Congregations ensue Jarrs and discords, which make the Singing (rather) resemble Howling.”[15]

To me this sounds somewhat exciting, but I can easily see why many pastors and continental visitors found the practice unhealthy. Yet the reformists faced an implacable problem in convincing their congregations to adopt a different style of music. Their parishioners were never going to visit Europe; they could not read music; they could not hear recordings of other music. They had only ever known the way music was in the colonies. Presenting a vision for how the music could be different was almost impossible.

The proponents of reform employed a fascinating strategy: they entirely gave up as lost the generation of adults and instead started singing schools so that children of any background could learn to sing music. Within a generation or two, there was a flourishing of young composers making music in the new, reformed style. It was written in four parts and was generally sight-readable by a well-educated New England populace. This dramatic transformation is at a much more tectonic level than, for instance, a mere essay written on a blog. It involves an entire educational infrastructure.

I can’t claim to know how such a lesson could be applied to our context, but many churches are already doing this sort of thing, in the form of choir schools, free Kodaly education for church members, music camps, and so forth. There is just simply no work more important than this, and any church wanting to raise the level of liturgical music could do no better than to budget for this sort of work.

Third, and finally, the principle of cantus firmus should always be front and center in our approach. Its beginnings, I think, are in Revelation 4 and 5, a source of inspiration for composers for centuries, when John seems to contradict himself about what music is being sung in heaven. On the one hand, we are told that the four beats “rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” (Rev. 4:8) yet later the entire company of heaven and the host on earth “sung a new song,” (Rev. 5:9). The only conclusion is that there is one melody cyclically and always-already being sung simultaneous with melodies which exist in redemptive history, in response to events.

This is not unlike Luther’s interpretation of Josquin’s motet Haec dicit dominus, about which he famoulsy said “Thus God preached the Gospel also through music.” Rob Wegman has shown how Luther understood the slow, chanted ancient melody in the middle of Josquin’s exuberant, contemporary polyphony to be a perfect picture of Law and Gospel.[16] Such a counterpoint of time is only possible through the mitigation of polyphony, a practice of singing defended by Luther precisely because the congregation could themselves be given a melody and invited into the musical texture. Centuries later, in this same tradition of composition, Bach wrote Wachet auf. This model of creating contemporary church music—a solemn and respectful plundering of the past—should be our preferred approach. In every way possible, we should try to embrace the repeated commands of the psalmist to “sing a new song to Yahweh.”


John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is a substitute organist for the Princeton University chapel on occasion. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.


[1] Johannes Tinctoris, Liber de Arte Contrapuncti (The Art of Counterpoint), tr. Albert Seay, American Institute of Musicology (1961), 14-15.

[2] Adrian Petit Coclico, Musical Compendium (Compendium Musices), tr. Albert Seay, Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press (1973), 8.

[3] Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, W. W. Norton and Company: New York, NY (2001), 83.

[4] Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity, Canon Press: Moscow, ID (2003), 49-50.

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts (2007), 356-357.

[6] In Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie, Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan (2011), 139-140.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan Publishing Company: New York (1952), 89.

[8] Aristotle, Politics, 8.1339a, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, tr. H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. (1944).

[9] In Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Wadsworth Group: Belmont CA (1984), 151-2.

[10] Egidius Carlerius and Johannes Tinctoris, On the Dignity & the Effects of Music: Two Fifteenth-Century Treatises, ed. Reinhard Strohm and J. Donald Cullington, King’s College London (1996), 54. See Augustine, De civitate Dei, XVII.14.

[11] See From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution, Canon Press: Moscow, ID (2003), 53-72.

[12] Quoted in Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications, Fortress Press: Minneapolis (2017), 79.

[13] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press: Durham & London (2003), 51ff.

[14] Taylor, 482.

[15] David P. McKay and Richard Crawford, William Billings of Boston: Eighteenth-Century Composer, Princeton University Press (1975), 10.

[16] Rob C. Wegman, “Luther’s Gospel of Music” In Luther im Kontext: Reformbestrebungen und Musik in der ersten Hälfte des 16 Jahrhunderts, Hildesheim (2016), 175-199.

Next Conversation
Catholic Music
Peter Leithart

There seems to be an intractable problem that faces liturgy and music in the modern American church. It is a tension between what I will call vernacularism and traditionalism and it seems impossible to resolve. But why is it so hard? It is easy enough to find prooftexts in Scripture for both sides of the binary between vernacularism and traditionalism. More disconcerting is the fact that other eras of the church’s history have been able to grasp both of these things simultaneously without compromising either. There have been plenty of moments when Christian music and liturgy were both immediate and authoritative in their idiom, both traditional and vernacular. (For the moment, I am assuming this, but I will dwell on these specific moments of history in what follows.)

If this is the case, then why is it that, in 2020, we must choose between vernacularism and traditionalism and, if such a dichotomy ought itself to be rejected, what can we do to create liturgies and music that are both? In what follows, I will try to show that contemporary and traditional have not been mutually exclusive categories in the past, but they seem inevitably so now. I will try to diagnose why we can’t have both and then suggest what we can do about it.

The Anti-Traditionalist Tradition of Church Music

To illustrate all this, I would like to take a look at a very familiar piece of music, Bach’s chorale prelude based on Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. It tends to strike us as a stately, solemn strain, used often at weddings. It might have even sounded a little humorous to Bach’s original audience, with its abrupt phrases and sudden stops. The organist is really playing three separate melodies, one in each hand and one with his feet. The two outer melodies, which would be the organist’s right hand and feet, are engaged in some music Bach has composed, but the inner melody is not original. Bach has stolen it, as he frequently does, from a hymn or “chorale” in the Lutheran tradition, which many Christians sing to this day in Advent as “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” Here we have a very literal juxtaposition of tradition and contemporaneity. They are on top of each other, being heard simultaneously.

If it was not humorous, then at least it must certainly have been delightful, arresting, fresh to hear the old tune put in such a context. A German congregation in the 18th century, listening to Bach’s composition for the first time, hears completely new music, and really pretty strange music, for about 30 or 45 seconds—then, suddenly, they hear the hymn Wachet auf. Surely they’ve sung that tired old tune countless times in their lives. In this moment of recognition, a strange counterpoint between old and new occurs, and regardless of their level of education, musical background, or understanding of Bach’s idiom, they have suddenly been invited into the polyphony, hearing and attending to two melodies simultaneously. What was, at first, Bach’s personal, cerebral imaginings has suddenly become the property of the community. Polyphony is, of course, a hard thing to listen to, but it is made much easier if you know one of the melodies ahead of time. So, in a way, to listen to Wachet auf, for its original audience, was to hear a kind of music that taught you about how to listen to itself as you listened to it.

At least, it might have been so, if you were an 18th-century German Lutheran. But there is an unsettling component to this example of Bach’s Wachet auf. It was essential to the experience of an 18th-century congregation that Bach’s Wachet auf was an unfamiliar composition enclosed around an overly familiar hymn tune. But it is closer to the opposite for us. Likely as not, we 21st-century listeners of Wachet auf know the hymn tune as much from this organ piece by Bach as we do from singing it in a hymnal. Even if we do sing it in a hymnal, it is one among many hundreds, and even were it not, hymns such as these are only a fraction of our musical experience day-to-day.

In other words, we can never hear Bach’s Wachet auf in the way that a Lutheran congregation in the 18th century could. Such a congregation had fewer hymns that they would sing more often, in and out of church, and they had never heard Bach’s organ piece because he had not written it until just before they did hear it. The hymn tune can never be as familiar to us as it was to them and, much more catastrophically, Bach’s composition around that tune can never be so new to us as it was to them. This reveals a fundamental problem: if we want church music like Bach’s, we must first of all rule out Bach’s own church music. It was effective precisely because it was a product of its time, aimed at its unique audience. This is captured in the old Lutheran idea of music as a sermon in notes. Such a sermon communicated. It used music that was semantically meaningful in its own time in specific ways (like the hymn tune Wachet auf). If we want something similar, we must somehow manage to make old music familiar to us and yet create new music that is unfamiliar. How do we solve such a paradox?

I’m far from the first person to point out this problem. It is easy enough to demonstrate that “traditionalism” is most at odds with the tradition of Western church music itself. Johannes Tinctoris, for instance, writes in the fifteenth century that “there is no composition written over forty years ago which is thought by the learned as worthy of performance,” summarily sweeping aside centuries of tropes and sequences, the organum of Notre Dame, and the motets of Guillaume de Machaut. Tinctoris instead lifts up Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, both contemporaries, as his ideal models.[1]

Ironically, Adrian Petit Coclico, 75 years after Tinctoris, will lift up the much more recent Jacob Obrecht and Josquin des Prez as the ideal model, declaring that earlier Dufay and Binchois “specialized excessively” and “introduced many difficulties.”[2] Something comparable will happen in the following generation which replaces Josquin with Willaert, and then Willaert with Palestrina.

Centuries later, J. S. Bach might have had a shady knowledge of these names: Christoph Wolff mentions some collections that include sixteenth-century music that Bach must have used for study and occasional use, including a bit by Obrecht and a bit by Josquin.[3] It is doubtful Bach even knew of a Dufay or Binchois. As it turns out, the greatest composers of church music seem to have had much foggier notions of what came before them than we do. After all, manuscripts get burnt or used for wrapping paper; notational styles change; Tallis and Buxtehude did not have IMSLP.org as we do. But even when composers did know of the music of their own past, they seemed oftentimes uninterested and even a little repulsed. If not, they employed the music for the purposes of study and emulation, seldom for daily use.

There is one repertory that is exceptional in this respect, at least in the Western church. Gregorian chant, as it became known in Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries, has been a relatively stable feature of church music, even amongst magisterial Protestant churches. Of course, often Gregorian chant was employed in its serene, monophonic capacity, but it was also frequently employed as the cantus firmus (the “fixed melody”) of a new composition—the same relationship between the hymn “Wachet auf” and Bach’s Wachet auf composition. Here, again, contemporary and traditional seem to coexist in strange ways.

There was, in a way, no “traditionalism” at all, not in our sense of the word, until recently. The luxury of traditionalism is modern: it relies on the proliferation of music scores through movable type, a massive scholarly apparatus that can interpret ancient notation (whence the original discipline of musicology arose), and, perhaps most importantly, a Romantic Zeitgeist interested in the task of recreating music long-since out of use. It was not until the 19th century that this confluence really took place, famously, for instance, in Mendelssohn’s re-creations of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. But it is not until the next century that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion could find its way cheaply into the ears of an average curious American, via the magic of recording technology. No doubt all these things would have struck Bach as curious, and so they should strike us that way too.

 Modernist Traditionalism

None of these observations are new, and yet their frank recognition amongst traditional church musicians never seems to take. Shouldn’t we too be creating great church music like the past we so admire? But the suggestion is almost laughable to many of us. And it is this reaction that has me curious: why is it that we seem so incapable of doing something that was just assumed by many past centuries of church music? The answer, I suspect, lies in what I wrote above, that traditionalism is a modernist project. The apparent tension between the contemporary and traditional sides of the music debate just distracts from the immense common ground they share.

Something about modernity makes it so that we cannot both grasp onto authority and real-world purchase in our liturgical music. The instant we want our liturgies to speak in a language that has direct reference to the world outside us as we experience it, we seem to lack any authority in this language. And, conversely, if we want a language that speaks with a moral authority so typically absent in our age, we cannot help but reach back to archaism, to some language that exerted authority in the past.

A timely example would be one I regularly experience around this time of year, on Ash Wednesday. Although I might go to a mainline Protestant service that has otherwise flattened the language and rid it of its archaisms, the priest will often revert to archaism at this crucial moment: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It’s obvious why: to say something like “You are dust and you will return to dust” lacks the beauty and terror of the timeless archaism. Yet that beauty and terror is also a danger. “Everything we encounter in life,” Peter Leithart reminds us, “is temporal.” Recourse to “timeless” language “ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.” This is generally true of archaism in liturgy—if we become too attracted to the timelessness of a particular formulation, it insulates it from doing what words are meant to do, which is to signify beyond themselves out into the world.[4]

So the “contemporary” and the “traditional” are both impulses reacting to the same problem. One wants to artificially import language of authority from an era that had it, and the other wants to adopt a language that has modern purchase but lacks the metaphysical and ontic commitments that give traditional liturgy its muscle.

Thankfully Christians are not alone in this dilemma. It is one of the fundamental dilemmas of the secular age, according to the philosopher Charles Taylor, that individuals are “buffered,” disconnected or distant from the Great Chain of Being that used to bring together humans, God, animals and angels into a single community. But for the secular age, “the increasing unavailability of the earlier languages of objective reference, connected to sacred history, the correspondences, the Great Chain, is the ineluctable consequence of disenchantment, the recession of the cosmos before a universe to be understood in mechanistic terms.”[5]

Taylor’s phrasing is particularly useful for this discussion, since he notes that older forms of language have stopped meaning, stopped signifying outside themselves. After all, the world of transcendence has become attenuated or has evaporated altogether, and it is this transcendent world to which our worship refers. This means that, even if I personally believe in a rich liturgical theology that the secular age doesn’t, I have trouble accessing any kind of language to voice the implications of that theology without reaching back into some other era that had a more vibrant, “enchanted” language.

It is easy to see how this has happened with certain words whose original meanings assumed a “Great Chain of Being” but which now are impoverished. One such word is “harmony,” which now means little more than “chords” but once explained the very movement of the planets and stars. As it happens, “enchantment” (and its twin “disenchantment”) also have experienced an impoverishment of lexical richness in the modern period. More crucial than its background in magic (“enchant”) is its background in singing (“chant”), two practices not always so separate as they are now. Daniel Chua, discussing the musical theology behind this pre-modern vision of the world, notes that “what held this magical universe together was music. The ancient cosmos was literally enchanted—it sang.”[6] In some important sense, the pre-modern era was not “enchanted” by virtue of their belief in fairies or transubstantiation or the horoscope, but by virtue of the fact that music imbued everything.

So what has happened to music specifically in the modern period that is different from the pre-modern? The answer uncannily correlates with the narratives of secularization Charles Taylor is telling. It is not a coincidence that, in an era when industrialism and urbanism have made our social harmony flounder, we also have less literal harmony. We do not sing as much as previous generations did. This is, of course, not to say that we do not have as much music in our lives. Actually we very likely have much more; we are unnaturally saturated by it. But we aren’t its authors. We have been almost totally alienated from the production of any kind of music. Thanks in large part to the 18th and 19th centuries of western Classical music, the making of music has passed almost entirely to professionals.

“Suppose,” quips C. S. Lewis, “you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”[7] Of course Lewis is talking about sexual appetite gone wrong—he suggests that there is something similarly disordered in the voyeurism of the strip-tease, that rather than enjoying the thing itself we enjoy the tantalizing prospect of enjoying the thing. But what’s deeply disconcerting is that we are that strange country with respect to music. We find ourselves in a unique cultural moment—perhaps unprecedented. Where our ancestors enjoyed music by doing it, we enjoy music by listening to others do it. This is not a problem of church music, but a problem of all music in every part of our lives.

I don’t mean to imply that there is always something wrong with passively listening to music without participating in it. Nor do I deny that passively listening to music frequently occurred in the past. But I do think that we passively enjoy music dramatically more than has been the case ever before. We can compare our assumptions, for instance, with Aristotle’s brief consideration in Politics that young men should learn music, not in order to “learn this accomplishment themselves” but instead “like the Persian Median kings, participate in the pleasure and the education of music by means of others performing it.”[8] Aristotle’s awkward language here describes a situation foreign to him and other Greeks; his assumption, and eventually his conclusion, is that normal people experience music by doing it themselves, not by experiencing the pleasure of other people doing it for them.

This should not be surprising: until quite recently, it was only the very rich who could afford to listen to music and not be involved in its making. In quite a different historical moment, a Flemish etiquette book from around 1540 portrays a scene of a bourgeois family entertaining themselves one evening by sight-reading a complex motet by Nicholas Gombert. “Have you studied the song?” asks the father of his youngest child. “Yes, father.” “And you, have you learned it?” he asks of the older brother. “No, father, but we’ll be able to do it all right.”[9]

Of course it will be objected that there have been plenty of times when music has been professionalized by elites out of the mouths of the average person, and never so prominently as in the Middle Ages. There is some truth to this. It’s certainly the case that the masses of Josquin des Prez were not sung in the Sistine Chapel by the congregation, nor even the Gregorian chants.

But there are two crucial differences between this professionalization and our own. First, much of the church music handed down to us from the later Middle Ages was written under the patronage of specific chapels or for specific monastic liturgies in which an average parish would have played no role anyways. It remains the case that, for an average Medieval, the only way he or she would likely hear music is in a context where he or she was creating the music, or adjacent to other peers creating the music.

Second, a mass or motet by Josquin was understood to be a representation, a reflection, of the singing of the church. It was not simply a pretty piece of music for the laity to meditate upon, but a sacrifice of praise which represented all of them. Johannes Tinctoris puts this well: music both “stirs the feelings to devotion” but also it “makes the Church Militant like the Church Triumphant.” He quotes Augustine in support: “the logical and controlled harmony of different sounds conveys the unity of God’s well-ordered city, blended in consonant diversity.”[10] To put it simply, professionalized music in a pre-modern context is a metaphor for non-professionalized, communal music making, whereas communal music making today is a unicorn. It’s just a luxury commodity or an atavistic gesture, like a folk rock concert or sing-along Messiah. It is certainly not the norm.

Music-making is an essential, not an incidental, part of being human. Peter Leithart makes a strong case supporting the notion that one of the central fulfillments of Levitical sacrifice in the New Testament, anticipated by Davidic psalms, is music—it is a sacrifice of praise ascending to Yahweh, where the worshipper has become the sacrificed animal.[11] It shouldn’t be coincidental, then, that this priestly task is one Martin Luther encourages all believers to take up: “It was not without reason that our fathers and prophets wanted music to always be in the church in the form of many songs and Psalms.”[12] In neither case can we say that this is merely recommending music’s presence in worship—this is believers themselves making the music. The degree to which modern recording technologies deprive us of a natural, God-given human capacity is dramatic.

Jonathan Sterne, in his history of recording technology, The Audible Past, points out that sound reproduction to this day depends on the “tympanic” impulse, which models the functions of the human ear both in order to record and to reproduce sound. In the earliest recording devices of the late nineteenth century, actual human ears were employed in devices to make the technology work.[13] The modern technology, although a metaphoric abstraction of this literal ear, is no less invasive in our humanity. If I went to a Taylor Swift concert, for instance, and I sang along with her, I would not hear my own voice, no matter how loud I sing. I would instead hear Taylor Swift’s unnaturally amplified voice, so loud that I couldn’t hear myself. The result is a bit of post-modern magic: I get the physiological sensation of singing but the sound that comes back is air-brushed and perfect. I get a simulation of communal singing but the benefits of high-production value. Music perfectly mirrors the social disintegration of modern society: at live concerts, says Charles Taylor, “a host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication.”[14]

We’ve travelled far afield from the question of church music. But this is my point: discussions which focus on issues of content and form in church music are in some sense premature. We first have to deal with the debilitating conditions of possibility in which American church music exist. We are a culture of music consumers. We have been alienated from music production, both in our art music and our popular music. Yet I am arguing here that Scripture mandates some degree of unmediated music-making by Christians themselves: we are told to “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody,” (Eph. 5:18ff). And—more persuasive than me believing it—Luther points out that the church throughout the ages believed Scripture mandated this too. So it is the entire way that modern Americans are musical that a robust Christian tradition of music challenges.

Reforming Church Music

How are we to proceed, if what I’m saying is true? I would suggest a few avenues through the problem. First, I would be remiss if I did not give the answer that Paul and the Church Fathers give: if we want to become the sorts of people who “speak to one another” with music, we might begin with the music Paul recommends to us (Eph. 5:18, Col. 3:16).

I probably don’t need to rehearse the case for psalm-singing here, other than to say this: I applaud and admire any Christian community trying to enthusiastically recover Psalm singing. But it often strikes me that this enthusiasm eventually dwindles, usually for lack of any coherent strategy and approach. I think we should prioritize having, for the time being, low standards on the musical aspect—that is, what settings of the psalms are being sung is less important than that the psalms are being sung—but I think it would be wise to heed the manner of psalm singing that has been in use since the earliest centuries of the church, both in laity and the clergy. That is, of course, some abbreviated form of the daily office. This need not be anything Benedictine in proportion, but a modest, lay morning and evening prayer in communion with other Christians. Lest some hot-blooded Protestant be afraid this sounds too Papist, it is worth pointing out that encouragement to morning and evening psalm-singing, throughout the week, whether at a church service or in a more private setting, is a heritage of many branches of the magisterial Reformation. Such a long-standing strategic approach to psalm singing oughtn’t to be summarily dismissed.

Second, in order to change the conditions of possibility in how we are musical, we must change at several levels of daily life. I can illustrate the point with a fascinating historical example. David McKay and Richard Crawford, in William Billings of Boston, have painted a picture of church music in colonial America in the early eighteenth-century. It is a bizarre picture, to say the least. The music survives only in verbal description, since it was all improvised orally, but contemporary accounts describe hymn tunes slowed down past the point of recognition, while any random congregant might noodle around the tune. “Some affect a Quavering Flourish on one note,” describes a contemporary account, “and others upon another which...they account a Grace to the Tune; and while some affect a quicker Motion, others affect a slower, and drawl out their notes beyond all Reason; hence in Congregations ensue Jarrs and discords, which make the Singing (rather) resemble Howling.”[15]

To me this sounds somewhat exciting, but I can easily see why many pastors and continental visitors found the practice unhealthy. Yet the reformists faced an implacable problem in convincing their congregations to adopt a different style of music. Their parishioners were never going to visit Europe; they could not read music; they could not hear recordings of other music. They had only ever known the way music was in the colonies. Presenting a vision for how the music could be different was almost impossible.

The proponents of reform employed a fascinating strategy: they entirely gave up as lost the generation of adults and instead started singing schools so that children of any background could learn to sing music. Within a generation or two, there was a flourishing of young composers making music in the new, reformed style. It was written in four parts and was generally sight-readable by a well-educated New England populace. This dramatic transformation is at a much more tectonic level than, for instance, a mere essay written on a blog. It involves an entire educational infrastructure.

I can’t claim to know how such a lesson could be applied to our context, but many churches are already doing this sort of thing, in the form of choir schools, free Kodaly education for church members, music camps, and so forth. There is just simply no work more important than this, and any church wanting to raise the level of liturgical music could do no better than to budget for this sort of work.

Third, and finally, the principle of cantus firmus should always be front and center in our approach. Its beginnings, I think, are in Revelation 4 and 5, a source of inspiration for composers for centuries, when John seems to contradict himself about what music is being sung in heaven. On the one hand, we are told that the four beats “rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” (Rev. 4:8) yet later the entire company of heaven and the host on earth “sung a new song,” (Rev. 5:9). The only conclusion is that there is one melody cyclically and always-already being sung simultaneous with melodies which exist in redemptive history, in response to events.

This is not unlike Luther’s interpretation of Josquin’s motet Haec dicit dominus, about which he famoulsy said “Thus God preached the Gospel also through music.” Rob Wegman has shown how Luther understood the slow, chanted ancient melody in the middle of Josquin’s exuberant, contemporary polyphony to be a perfect picture of Law and Gospel.[16] Such a counterpoint of time is only possible through the mitigation of polyphony, a practice of singing defended by Luther precisely because the congregation could themselves be given a melody and invited into the musical texture. Centuries later, in this same tradition of composition, Bach wrote Wachet auf. This model of creating contemporary church music—a solemn and respectful plundering of the past—should be our preferred approach. In every way possible, we should try to embrace the repeated commands of the psalmist to “sing a new song to Yahweh.”


John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is a substitute organist for the Princeton University chapel on occasion. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.


[1] Johannes Tinctoris, Liber de Arte Contrapuncti (The Art of Counterpoint), tr. Albert Seay, American Institute of Musicology (1961), 14-15.

[2] Adrian Petit Coclico, Musical Compendium (Compendium Musices), tr. Albert Seay, Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press (1973), 8.

[3] Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, W. W. Norton and Company: New York, NY (2001), 83.

[4] Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity, Canon Press: Moscow, ID (2003), 49-50.

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts (2007), 356-357.

[6] In Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie, Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan (2011), 139-140.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan Publishing Company: New York (1952), 89.

[8] Aristotle, Politics, 8.1339a, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, tr. H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. (1944).

[9] In Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Wadsworth Group: Belmont CA (1984), 151-2.

[10] Egidius Carlerius and Johannes Tinctoris, On the Dignity & the Effects of Music: Two Fifteenth-Century Treatises, ed. Reinhard Strohm and J. Donald Cullington, King’s College London (1996), 54. See Augustine, De civitate Dei, XVII.14.

[11] See From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution, Canon Press: Moscow, ID (2003), 53-72.

[12] Quoted in Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications, Fortress Press: Minneapolis (2017), 79.

[13] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press: Durham & London (2003), 51ff.

[14] Taylor, 482.

[15] David P. McKay and Richard Crawford, William Billings of Boston: Eighteenth-Century Composer, Princeton University Press (1975), 10.

[16] Rob C. Wegman, “Luther’s Gospel of Music” In Luther im Kontext: Reformbestrebungen und Musik in der ersten Hälfte des 16 Jahrhunderts, Hildesheim (2016), 175-199.

-->

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.

CLOSE