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Can Music Communicate Faith?

Can Music Communicate Faith?

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I’m always amazed when I read this:

“Bach’s art and his religion are but one and the same. … Bach…uses music as a medium to present the Lutheran doctrines of Christianity. His music thus leads to the Gospel.”—Gerhard Herz

That statement is from the mid-twentieth-century, but plenty of present-day scholars make similar arguments. For example, Eric Chafe argues that J. S. Bach’s cantatas reflect Lutheran beliefs through their melodies, style, instrumentation, and overall tonal design.

Many non-scholars share this perspective on Bach’s music. At a church service the other day, the liturgist followed up my prelude (a Bach chorale prelude) by commenting on Bach’s faith—essentially saying there is something particularly meaningful in Bach’s music because he was a devout Christian.

So, can you really hear Bach’s faith in his music? Can you hear specifically Lutheran beliefs in his music? Or, if you can’t, could his contemporary listeners?

The answers to these questions matter because if you think a composer can communicate their beliefs through their music, then you are more likely to think that church music should be written only by Christians.

This also holds true for musicians. If you think that musicians can communicate their faith in ways that listeners can understand, then you might believe that church musicians should always be Christians.

Here’s what I think: composers usually can’t communicate specific beliefs in their music. But in certain scenarios, performers definitely can and do. That’s why it can be helpful for church musicians to be Christians but a composer’s beliefs are irrelevant in this context.

Communicating general beliefs

Just because composers don’t usually communicate specific beliefs in ways that listeners can readily understand, doesn’t mean that they can’t communicate beliefs more generally.

For example, many denominations teach that instrumental music is allowed in their church services, and composers then write instrumental music for these services.

But do listeners actually notice that belief? Would a listener really think, “Why yes, that music is affirming the ability of instrumental music to glorify God”?

It seems more likely that the very generality of the belief makes it unremarkable.

Communicating specific religious beliefs

When people reference Bach’s faith as something especially meaningful to listeners, they are talking about specific beliefs, especially Lutheran doctrines.

For sure, Bach sometimes used text painting to communicate a belief.

But did he have to be a Christian to do that? No. 

So at the end of the day, does it matter to our current experiences of his music that he was a Christian? Probably not.

(Curious what Bach's listeners in Leipzig heard? Check this out.)

Inspiration is different from communication

Some point to the composer Arvo Pärt as an example of someone who clearly expresses his faith through his compositions. But when you look closer, it’s actually Pärt’s inspirations that we’re talking about, not what he’s communicating in his music.

Many scholars write about the Eastern Orthodox influences on Pärt’s style, especially hesychasm (a form of contemplative prayer practiced by Orthodox ascetics), liturgical singing, and iconography. Paul Hillier connects Pärt’s music with the “stillness, silence, tranquility, and also stability” of hesychasm, and compares its repetition with hesychasm’s repetition of the Jesus Prayer. Ivan Moody links what he sees as non-expressivity in Pärt’s music (particularly the 1982 Passio) with liturgical texts chanted non-expressively so that can words predominate in the delivery. Hillier sees icon’s impersonality and intentional lack of self-expression as characteristics reflected in Pärt’s music, while Robert Sholl compares the form of Pärt’s style, a seeming stasis that slowly unfolds, with the “gradual but increasing absorption into an icon” that an Orthodox Christian like Pärt might experience.

What I see in their arguments is an argument for inspiration—an argument that Pärt’s style has elements that can be traced to spiritual practices and beliefs. 

But what I don’t see is an argument that Pärt’s music conveys specific beliefs in any explicit way to listeners, or even that he’s doing something that requires personal belief on his part.

So, does his faith matter when you’re selecting music for your choir to sing?

Probably not.

But musicians’ faith can help them do their job

Unlike composers, musicians can convey their faith in ways that listeners can understand, especially as they select music that is particular resonant for their own communities. And for vocalists in some churches, their performance practices (how a person sings, not what piece they sing) can convey a truthful account of their own faith. (Read more about vocalists and “authenticity”.)

But what’s really important here is that musicians support the ministry of their church by being actively involved in the community.

The relationships and reputation that church musicians build in their churches strengthen the work they do in the services.

For example, a music director encourages openhearted listening and congregational singing by having a reputation for choosing music that supports the spiritual themes of a service. A vocalist who has relationships of trust and respect with congregants encourages their focused attention.

However, supporting a church’s mission and becoming involved in the wider life of the church doesn’t always require shared doctrinal beliefs. In churches with broader missions, a non-Christian musician might find that their personal values largely align with their church’s. They can engage fully with the church community through those shared values. Churches on the other end of the spectrum may only hire musicians who are members of their denomination. They might even require that musicians be members of the church in which they work. 

What matters at the end of the day is a musician's support for ministry and their active engagement with the church community. Having a shared faith makes that more likely to happen.

What do you think? Can music communicate faith? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter!

References (in order of appearance):

  • Herz, Gerhard. “Bach’s Religion.” Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Music 1, no. 2 (1946): 124–38.
  • Chafe, Eric. Analyzing Bach Cantatas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. (Also check out his books: Tears into Wine: J. S. Bach’s Cantata 21 in Its Musical and Theological Contexts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; and J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology: The St. John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.)
  • If you’d like a counter-example on Bach and faith, check out: Varwig, Bettina. “Death and Life in J. S. Bach’s Canata Ich habe genug (BWV 82).” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135, no. 2 (2010): 315–56.
  • Hillier, Paul. Arvo Pärt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Moody, Ivan. “The Mind and the Heart: Mysticism and Music in the Experience of Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Composers.” Contemporary Music Review 14, no. 3 (1996): 65–79.
  • Sholl, Robert. “Arvo Pärt and Spirituality.” In The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, edited by Andrew Shenton, 140–58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
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