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Music and Spirituality

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The Sacred Expression of Relationship [Sep. 15th, 2005|12:46 pm]
Music and Spirituality


Polyphony is an archetype of our common life in Christ.

Let’s consider a specific style of choral music known as polyphony. The word polyphony means “many voices,” and this interweaving of many voices, equal, independent and yet in relationship, is its most notable characteristic. Polyphony was composed for the church in the 14th to 17th centuries, a time of great change in the church and therefore a time of great creativity in sacred arts.

Appreciating polyphony requires that we suspend our 21st century preconceptions about church music. In the time from which polyphony arises, there were no amateur church choirs as we know them today; ordinary people in the pew did not sing; and church music was not “performed” for the benefit of an audience. Sacred music was typically sung by a community of clergy and lay professionals, whose primary duty was to carry on daily worship. The choir was a worshiping community whose reason for being was prayer, and the collegial style of polyphony reflects the participation of all its members. Polyphony gave shape to the prayer of this community.

The collegial nature of polyphony requires us to “clean” our 21st century ears when we listen. Most people have been conditioned to hear music as having one distinct melody in the foreground, as other voices accompany in the background. But in polyphony, all voices are equal; no one voice is more important than any other. There are no soloists.

Polyphony is in this sense an archetype of our common life in Christ. The liturgical renewal of the past 30 years has sought to rediscover a more collegial approach to worship, with renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of all the baptized. We are shaking off the influence of the last four centuries in which worship often became a “show” put on by one clergyman for the benefit of a passive audience... not unlike a solo melody with accompaniment. We now understand worship as an action in which all members of the community have roles, different but equal in importance. In the same way, polyphony does not highlight one leader; all voices are equal.

Polyphony is about relationships. So is Christianity. Relationships are such an essential feature of Christianity that we believe God himself is a relationship, as expressed in the Trinity. Polyphony, by its nature, gives sacred expression to relationship.

These characteristics are most immediately apparent to musicians who sing polyphony, but with a bit of practice, you can participate actively by listening with open ears and an open soul. To “pray” polyphony, “tune in” to the different vocal melodies and notice how they interweave. Two voices might pair off briefly in an intimate musical dance. Or one voice might make a musical statement, which the other voices then pass around as if in agreement. And from time to time, all the voices will unite as one.

Even if it were wordless, this musical expression would have deep meaning. But because polyphony reached its peak during the Protestant Reformation, much of it highlights the Word as well. When you listen to polyphony, keep your ears open for “word painting”: when a composer illustrates a word musically. On the word “ascend” for instance, the voices might sing a rising tune. A special feature of late English polyphony is the “cross relation,” a striking dissonance you might hear on a word such as “pain” or “death.” You may find that certain words or phrases, thus highlighted by the music, speak to you with a certain unusual clarity.

God can speak to us through our conscious awareness of these analytical details. But as you listen attentively to the music, also simply let the beauty of the sound wash over you, whether it is intimately sensual or, in another moment, serene, or buoyant. Opening your ears and your soul in this way, you may find that suddenly you have a sense that a cosmic highlighter pen seems to have illuminated a certain moment for you. My musically enhanced prayers have been thus focused in many polyphonic works: passages of intimate beauty from Byrd’s “Ave verum” or “Civitas sanctis”... the phrase “thy Name shall be there” from Tallis’ “Hear the voice and prayer”... or any number of moments from Victoria’s motets for Holy Week, just to name a few. In these moments it was, for me, as though God reached down and touched my heart.

When you have grown accustomed to hearing and actively listening to polyphony, it won’t be long before you will notice and delight in the personalities of different composers: the exuberance of Philips; the serene purity of Palestrina; the elegant genius of Byrd; the sensuality of Victoria; the raw emotion of Weelkes; the graceful warmth of Tallis... all these will provide a space wherein you can encounter God through music.

As you listen and pray, continually offer to God not only an intellectual corner of your mind, but the wholeness of your being: your mind, and your spirit, and your heart. Open yourself to God, and with deepening quiet may come an inner awakening to the presence of God within, and the tuning of your spirit’s ear to hear his many voices.

[User Picture]From: jeff5696
2007-12-12 04:15 pm (UTC)
What you wrote was to me a beautiful and thoughtful commentary on the relationship of Christianity and music. I look forward to reading more of your posts.
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