Skip to main content

Reilly – Is Music Sacred?

Robert Reilly,
Music Critic, Crisis Magazine

"Is Music
Sacred?"

The Philadelphia
Society

National
Meeting, Chicago, April 30, 2000


*These remarks are a revised version of the
oral delivery.

As the most immaterial art,
music is often thought to be the most spiritual.
By its nature, is music sacred? If
so, what is sacred about it? These
might seem strange questions to ask in a secular age, but the presumption that
there is something special about music pervades even our culture.
Consider the poster on the side of a D.C. Metro bus earlier this year,
which advertised the benefits of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program.
It announced that the happy children shown with their orchestral
instruments “are playing their way to a bright future.”
Why should that be? Does
playing music make you be a better person? A recent review of a performance of
Shostakovich’s piano music said that the C
Major Prelude
“immediately takes us into the pure, sane world that
betokens the composer’s escape from mundaneness into the higher reality of
music.” What is “higher”
and more “pure” about the reality of music, and how does the composer
reach this reality?

In order to answer these
questions, one must journey back to ancient Greece to the first writings about
music and reflections upon its meaning. This
starts with Pythagoras, who is said to have discovered the arithmetical
relationships between harmonic intervals. He found a fascinating array of
proportional intervals between tones, mathematical relationships that inhere
in the very structure of sound. Pythagoras wondered about the relationship of
these ratios to the larger world. (The Greek word for ratio is logos,
which also means word or reason.) He construed that the harmonious sounds that
men could make, either with their instruments or their singing, were an
approximation of a larger harmony that existed in the universe, also expressed
by numbers, that was exemplified in "the music of the spheres." As
Aristotle explained in the Metaphysics,
the Pythagoreans “supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all
things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.”
This was meant literally. The heavenly spheres and their rotations
through the sky produced tones at various levels, and in concert these tones
made a harmonious sound that man’s music, at its best, could replicate. Music
was number made audible. Music was man’s participation in the harmony of the
universe.

This discovery was fraught
with ethical significance. By participating in heavenly harmony, music could
induce spiritual harmony in the soul. Following Pythagoras, Plato taught that
“rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on
which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is
rightly educated graceful.” In the Republic,
Plato showed the political import of music’s power by invoking Damon of
Athens as his musical authority. Damon said that he would rather control the
modes of music in a city than its laws, because the modes of music have a more
decisive effect on the formation of the character of citizens.
The ancient Greeks were also wary of music’s power because
they understood that, just as there was harmony, there was disharmony.
Musical discord could distort the spirit, just as musical concord could
properly dispose it.

This idea of “the music of
the spheres” runs through the history of Western civilization with an
extraordinary consistency, even up to the 20th century. At first, it was meant
literally, later, poetically. Either way, music was seen as almost more a
discovery than a creation, because it relied on pre-existing principles of
order in nature for its operation. It would be instructive to look at the
reiteration of this teaching in the writings of several major thinkers to
appreciate its enduring significance and also the radical nature of the
challenge to it in our own time.

In the 1st century B.C.,
Cicero spelled out Plato’s teaching in the last chapter of his
De Republica
. In “Scipio’s Dream,” Cicero has Scipio Africanus
asking the question, "what is that great and pleasing sound?”
The answer comes, “That is the concord of tones separated by unequal
but nevertheless carefully proportional intervals, caused by the rapid motion
of the spheres themselves.
The high and low tones blended together provide different
harmonies.” Cicero explains in
great detail the various movements of the spheres, and which tones they
produce, ending with “the other eight spheres, two of which move at the same
speed, producing] seven tones. This
number being, one might say, the key to the universe. Skilled men imitating
this harmony on stringed instruments and in singing have gained for themselves
a return to this region, as have those who have cultivated their exceptional
abilities to search for divine truths.” Cicero explicitly presents the case
that the right kind of music is divine and can return man to a paradise lost.
It is a form of communion with divine truth.

In the late 2nd century A.D.,
St. Clement of Alexandria baptized the classical Greek understanding of music
in his Exhortation to the Greeks.
The transcendent God of Christianity gave new and somewhat different
meanings to the “music of the spheres.”
Using Old Testament imagery
from the Psalms, St. Clement said that there is a “New Song,” far superior
to the Orphic myths of the pagans. The “New Song” is Christ, logos
Himself: “it is this [“New Song”] that composed the entire creation into
melodious order, and tuned into concert the discord of the elements, that the
whole universe may be in harmony with it.” It is Christ who “arranged in
harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man, body and
soul together; and on this many-voiced instrument he makes music to God and
sings to [the accompaniment of] the human instrument.” By appropriating the
classical view, St. Clement was able to show that music participated in the
divine by praising God and partaking in the harmonious order of which He was
the composer. But music’s goal was even higher because Christ is higher.
Cicero had spoken of the divine region to which music is supposed to transport
man.
That region was literally within the heavens. With
Christianity the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos
is Christ. The new goal of music is to make the transcendent perceptible.

The early 6th century A.D. had
two especially distinguished Roman proponents of the classical view of music,
both of whom served at various times in high offices to the Ostrogoth king,
Theodoric. Cassiodorus was secretary to Theodoric. He wrote a massive work
called Institutiones, which echoes
Plato’s teaching on the ethical content of music, as well as Pythagoras’s on
the power of number. Cassiodorus taught that "music indeed is the
knowledge of apt modulation. If
we live virtuously, we are constantly proved to be under its discipline, but
when we sin, we are without music. The
heavens and the earth and indeed all things in them which are directed by a
higher power share in the discipline of music, for Pythagoras attests that
this universe was founded by and can be governed by music."

Boethius served as consul to
Theodoric in 510 A.D. He wrote The
Principles of Music
, a book that had enormous influence through the Middle
Ages and beyond. Boethius said
that "music is related not only to speculation, but to morality as well,
for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet
modes and disturbed by their opposites. Thus
we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato, which holds that the
whole of the universe is united by a musical concord.
For when we compare that which is coherently and harmonious
joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and
harmoniously joined together in sound — that is, that which gives us pleasure
— so we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to the same
principle of similarity.”

It is not necessary to cite
further examples after Boethius because The
Principles of Music
was so influential that it held sway as the standard
music theory text at Oxford until 1856. Until this century, it was generally
accepted that music approximates a heavenly concord, that it should attempt to
make the transcendent perceptible and, in so doing, exercise a formative
ethical impact on those who listen to it. Even in this century the notion was
not entirely lost. Three short examples should suffice. Early in the century,
Ferruccio Busoni said, "Our Tonal System is nothing more than a set of
signs. An ingenious device to
grasp somewhat of the eternal harmony.” The great Jean Sibelius, anything
but an orthodox Christian, nonetheless harkened back to St. Clement when he
wrote that "the essence of man’s being is his striving after God. It [the
composition of music] is brought to life by means of the logos,
the divine in art. That is the only thing that has significance."
When writing his Fifth Symphony, Sibelius also demonstrated the
continuing power of Plato’s thought in the analogy he offered to explain the
source of his inspiration: "it was as if God the Father had thrown down
pieces of mosaic out of the heaven’s floor and asked me to solve how the
picture once looked." Igor
Stravinsky had this to say about music: "the profound meaning of music
and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his
fellow man and with the Supreme Being."

The hieratic role of music was
lost for most of this century because the belief on which it was based was
lost. Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon
composers and what they do. John Adams, one of the most popular American
composers, said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere
around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” The
connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the
intelligible order in creation. A world without God is literally unnatural. If
there is no God, Nature no longer serves as a reflection of its Creator. If
you lose the Logos of St. Clement,
you also lose the ratio (logos) of
Pythagoras. Nature is stripped of
its normative power. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for
philosophy. Tonality, as the pre-existing principle of order in the world of
sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order. So how does one
organize the mess that is left once God departs? If there is no pre-existing
intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what
lies beyond it — which is the Creator — what then is music supposed to
express?
If external order does not exist, then music turns inward. It
collapses in on itself and becomes an obsession with techniques. Any ordering
of things, musical or otherwise, becomes simply the whim of man’s will.

In the 1970s, English
conductor Colin Davis expressed this dilemma as follows: “Have you read the Sleepwalkers
by Herman Broch? In it, Broch
analyzes the disintegration of Western values from the Middle Ages onward.
After man abandoned the idea that his nature was in part divine, the
logical mind assumed control and began to try to deduce the first principles
of man’s nature through rational analysis.
The arts followed a similar course.
Each art turned in upon itself and reduced itself further and further
by logical analysis, until today, they have all just about analyzed themselves
out of existence.”

Without a “music of the
spheres” to approximate, modern music, like the other arts, began to
unravel. Music’s
self-destruction became logically imperative once it undermined its own
foundation. In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg unleashed the centrifugal forces
of disintegration in music
through his denial of tonality. Schoenberg contended that tonality does not
exist in Nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras claimed,
but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was
not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of
sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature.
Schoenberg was irritated that “tonality does not serve, [but rather]
must be served.” He preferred
to command. As he said, “I can
provide rules for almost anything.”

Schoenberg proposed to erase
the distinction between tonality and atonality by immersing man in atonal
music until, through habituation, it became the new convention. Then discords
would be heard as concords. As he
wrote: “The emancipation of dissonance is at present accomplished and
twelve-tone music in the near future will no longer be rejected because of
√ędiscords.'” Schoenberg took the twelve equal semi-tones from the
chromatic scale and declared that music must be written in such a way that
each of these twelve semi-tones has to be used before repeating anyone of
them. If one of these semi-tones
was repeated before all eleven others were sounded, it might create an anchor
for the ear which could recognize what is going on in the music harmonically.
The twelve-tone system guarantees the listener’s disorientation. [It can
also cause worse problems. Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi spent a lengthy
period in a mental institution with a condition he associated with a temporary
immersion in twelve-tone technique. He healed himself by sitting at the piano
and repeatedly striking a single note and then letting it fade away. Was he
the first minimalist?]

Of his achievement, Schoenberg
said, “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.”
In fact, he declared himself “cured of the delusion that the
artist’s aim is to create beauty.” This statement is terrifying in its
implications when one considers what is at stake in beauty. Simone Weil wrote
that “we love the beauty of the world because we sense behind it the
presence of something akin to that wisdom we should like to possess to slake
our thirst for good.” All beauty is reflected beauty. Smudge out the
reflection and not only is the mirror useless, but the path to the source of
beauty is barred. Ugliness, the aesthetic analogue to evil, becomes the new
norm. Schoenberg’s remark represents a total rupture with Western musical
tradition.

The loss of tonality was also
devastating at the practical level of composition because tonality is the key
structure of music. Tonality is
what allows music to express movement, away from or towards a state of tension
or relaxation, a sense of motion through a series of crises and conflicts,
which can then come to resolution. Without it, music loses harmony and melody.
Its structural force collapses. Gutting music of tonality, as Schoenberg did,
is like removing grapes from wine. You
can go through all the motions of making wine without grapes but there will be
no wine at the end of the process. Similarly, if you deliberately and
systematically remove all audible overtone relationships from music, you can
go though the process of composition, but the end product will not be
comprehensible as music. This is
not a change in technique; it is the replacement of art by an ideology of
organized noise. In an amusing encounter in Hollywood, Schoenberg tried to
convince composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold of the merits of his system. Holding
up a pencil, he asked Korngold what it was. Korngold said, “it’s obvious,
it√ęs a pencil.” Then
Schoenberg held the pencil upside down and said, “now what is it?”
Korngold replied, “It’s still a pencil, but now you can’t write with
it.”

Schoenberg’s disciples
applauded the emancipation of dissonance, but soon preferred to follow the
centrifugal forces that Schoenberg had unleashed beyond their master’s
rules. Pierre Boulez thought that
it was not enough to systematize dissonance in twelve-tone rows. If you have a
system, why not systematize everything? He applied the same principle of the
tone-row to pitch, duration, tone production, intensity and timber, every
element of music. In 1952, Boulez announced that “every musician who has not
felt — we do not say understood but felt — the necessity of the serial
language is USELESS.” [American composer Philip Glass, speaking of the Paris
music scene in the 1960s, ruled over by Boulez, said that it was “a
wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps who were trying to make
everyone write this crazy, creepy music.”] Boulez also proclaimed, “once
the past has been got out of the way, one need think only of oneself.”
Here is the narcissistic antithesis of the classical view of music, the
whole point of which was to catch a person up into something larger than
himself.

The systematic dissection of
the language of music continued as, successively, each isolated element of
music was elevated into its own autonomous whole. Schoenberg’s disciples
agreed that tonality is simply a convention, but saw that, so too, is
twelve-tone music. If you’re going to emancipate dissonance, why organize
it? Why even have twelve-tone
themes? Why bother with pitch at all? Edgar Varese rejected the twelve-tone
system as arbitrary and restrictive. He
searched for the “bomb that would explode the musical world and allow all
sounds to come rushing into it through the resulting breach.” When he
exploded it in his piece, Ameriques,
Olin Downs, a famous New York music critic, called it “a catastrophe in a
boiler factory.” (In a parallel case, when Marcel Duchamp’s Nude
Descending a Staircase
was first shown in New York,
a critic called it “an explosion in a shingle factory.”) Still
Varese did not carry the inner logic of the “emancipation of dissonance”
through to its logical conclusion. His
noise was still formulated; it was organized. There were indications in the
score as to exactly when the boiler should explode. What was needed, according
to composers like John Cage, was
to have absolutely no organization and to strive for the non-mental. Cage
created noise through chance operations by rolling dice. He bought composition
paper and drew the notes according to the irregularities in the paper. He took
tape recordings, sliced them up, jumbled them together, pieced them together
again, and then played them as “music.”
His point was metaphysically, if not musically, potent: nature is not
normative. Form is destroyed because form is a reflection of nature.
Disfigurement is the means to systematically discredit nature.

There has been an
extraordinary recovery from the damage that was inflicted by Schoenberg and
his disciples. Almost without exception, this recovery has been undertaken by
composers who were completely immersed in Schoenberg’s system, but who
rebelled and returned to tonal music. George
Rochberg was the dean of the twelve tone school of composition in the United
States and the first to turn against it. In 1964, the death of his twenty year
old son threw Rochberg into a crisis. He came out of it saying, “I could not
continue writing so-called serial music. It was finished, hollow,
meaningless.” He found that
serialism “made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquility,
wit, energy.” In his Third
String Quartet, Rochberg recovered the world of tonality. The quartet was
accompanied by a manifesto in which he said, “The pursuit of art is much
more than achieving technical mastery of means or even a personal style; it is
a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artist’s ego.
In my time of turning, I have had to abandon the notion of originality in
which the personal style of the artist and his ego are the supreme values; the
pursuit of the one-idea, uni-dimensional work and gesture, which seems to have
dominated the aesthetics of art in the twentieth century; and the received
idea that it is necessary to divorce oneself from the past…In these ways, I
am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time
toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by
regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a
spiritual force with re-activated powers of melodic thought, rhythmic pulse
and large scale structure and as I see it, these things are only possible with
tonality.”

Since 1964, the possibility that
Rochberg foresaw has become a reality. There is not space to enumerate the many
composers of whom this is true, but one is worth mentioning as symptomatic of
the broad recovery and the reasons for it.
The before-mentioned John Adams rejected his college lessons on
Nietzsche’s “death of God” and the loss of tonality because, like
Pythagoras, he “found that tonality was not just a stylistic phenomenon that
came and went, but that it is really a natural acoustic phenomenon.” In total
repudiation of Schoenberg, Adams went on to write a stunning symphony, entitled Harmonielehre
(Theory of Harmony),
that powerfully reconnects with the great Western
musical tradition. In this work, he
wrote, “there is a sense of using key as a structural and psychological tool
in building my work.” Even more importantly, Adams, explained, “the other
shade of meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the
sense of spiritual and psychological harmony.” Adam’s description of his
symphony is explicitly in terms of spiritual health and sickness. He explains
that “the entire [second] movement is a musical scenario about impotence and
spiritual sickness;…it has to do with an existence without grace.
And then in the third movement, grace appears for no reason at
all…that’s that way grace is, the unmerited bestowal of blessing on man. The
whole piece is a kind of allegory about that quest for grace.”
It is clear from Adams that the recovery of tonality and key
structure is as closely related to spiritual recovery as its loss was related to
spiritual loss. As one of Rochberg’s former students, the late American
composer Steve Albert, put it, “it is a matter of trying to find beauty in art
again, for art is about our desire for spiritual connection.”

Cicero spoke of music as
enabling man to return to the divine
region, implying a place once lost to man. Contemporary British composer John
Tavener agrees: “My goal is to recover one simple memory from which all art
derives. The constant memory of the
paradise from which we have fallen leads to the paradise which was promised to
the repentant thief. The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises
something else. That which was once perceived as in a glass darkly, we shall see
face to face.” By Tavener, Adams,
Rochberg, Albert, and many composers like them, music has been restored to its
role of recollecting paradise and bringing us ever closer to the “New Song”
that shall resound throughout eternity. If you listen closely, you can hear some
of it now.

© The Philadelphia Society 2023 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.