The depths of solemn grandeur

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

Many years ago, my undisguised disapproval of worship music that is inspired by contemporary pop music was (somewhat glibly) diagnosed by an acquaintance as an expression of a severely rationalist temperament. “You don’t like these new praise songs because you don’t want worship to be too emotional,” explained my interlocutor. “Actually,” I responded, “the problem with this music is that it isn’t emotional enough. It typically lacks the aesthetic resources to express the depth of joy, sorrow, gratitude, and awe that worship demands.” Well, those weren’t exactly my words at the time, but it’s what I was trying to convey. And my concern about the adequacy of musical language in worship has increased in the intervening years.

In The School of the Church: Worship and Christian Formation, Philip H. Pfatteicher writes that “worship is a demanding discipline that has to do with the most profound experiences a human being can undergo: the fear, love, and trust that commingle when mortals confront the Holy One of Israel.” That discipline requires more than correct attitudes and intentions. It requires access to a form of expression capable of capturing (if incompletely) those deep convictions.

Earlier in his book, Pfatteicher quotes the English priest and poet R. S. Thomas, who lamented the lack of sensitivity to poetic expression increasingly common among allegedly well-educated people. The modern tone-deafness to poetry within a segment of the population once capable of receiving poetic meaning intelligently has made the work of poets increasingly difficult. “We are the prisoners of an age which is at best unimaginative,” wrote Thomas in a 1966 essay in the Times Literary Supplement.

The task may well seem hopeless when the poet is confronted by this Augean stable — the gobbledygook of technologists and critics, the pompous, yet repellently servile idiom of business correspondence, the reach-me-down, utility style of most newspapers, the weird jargon concocted by civil servants, and worst of all, the hectic flush imparted to language by publicists and advertisers. The bogus floweriness of the latter, the barbarous, pretentious, or complacently drab tones of the others, are enough to make poetry despair. Poetry’s language should be a heightening of the common language; but, when so much of that language is either vile or without flavour, the poet has no sound basis from which to work.

One can only wonder what Thomas would have made of the rise of the telegraphic style common in texting, not to mention the crude crutch of emoticons. When such habits of communication become the “common language,” how might its “heightening” be achieved? And can an age suspicious of hierarchy (and hence of the very possibility of a fruitful heightening) leave room for poetry’s fulfillment of the potentials of language?

Dumbed-down musical ethos

More than a decade before Thomas’s lament, philosopher Josef Pieper offered a similar warning with regard to common practices of music, describing the dangers of seeing “the entire realm of music as ‘mere amusement.’” Pieper concurred with Plato and most of the Western tradition that habitual experience of disordered music resulted in disordered souls.

[T]hat intimate relationship between music, offered or received, and inner existential ethos all the more ominously degenerates the less a proper order is attempted. The situation commonly encountered shows that not even the awareness of the possibility of such an order is present, much less a concrete notion of such an order as the ideal.

Even in the early 1950s, Pieper was concerned with the effects of the “dumbing down” and deadening of musical expressiveness. Today, the notion that musical activity demands the recognition of certain proprieties is preposterous to most people; nothing in their experience suggests that music is anything more than self-expression.

A predominant amount of music produced and typically consumed today serves the interests of commerce, propaganda, and technologically driven concepts of progress. Those are not settings in which sorrow or remorse, joy or true hope, can find a home. They are not habitats that nurture contemplative reflection or attentive silence. Pieper saw some of the symptoms of this in the middle of the last century:

[T]he most trivial and “light” music, the “happy sound,” has become the most common and pervasive phenomenon. By its sheer banality, this music expresses quite accurately the cheap self-deception that on the inner existential level all is fine, there is “nothing to worry about,” everything is in good order, really.

In addition to the trivial and banal repertoire, Pieper also observed “crude and orgiastic music” with a “numbing beat” that he identified as a means “of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other and that equally have become a common and pervasive phenomenon.” And, further, he perceived the growing presence of “nihilistic music, a despairing parody of creation.”

A lamentable loss

At no time in the Church year is a capable emotional vocabulary in music more needed than during Holy Week. Especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, congregations need the benefit of empathetically engaging the meaning of Christ’s suffering in a mode than only music can provide; sighs too deep for words are not necessarily too deep for musical expression.

As the Church developed her liturgical rhythms, she recognized the benefits of reflecting during Holy Week on the book of Lamentations. The prophet’s contrition in the face of the destruction of Jerusalem is an analogue of the recognition on the part of every believer that (in the words of Johann Heermann) “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

In his commentary on Lamentations, R. K. Harrison noted that “divine sovereignty, justice, morality, judgment, and the hope of blessing in the distant future, are themes which emerge in solemn grandeur from the cadences of Lamentations.” It was reading that phrase “solemn grandeur” and listening to a number of sixteenth-century musical settings of texts from Lamentations that prompted the above thoughts. The composers whose works I heard (especially Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus, and the little-known Robert White) had access to a shared musical language capable of solemn grandeur. Attentive listening to their music makes that capacity obvious and welcome, if we still have ears to hear.

Even in the midst of the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet recognized that a refined mode of poetic expression was the best way to confirm and convey his (representative) raw experience of loss — and finally of hope. The scribe whose manuscript preserved the setting of Lamentations composed by Robert White (c. 1538–1574) wrote at the end of his transcription: “Not even the words of the gloomy prophet sound so sad as the sad music of my composer.” We should not be surprised that the musical vernacular of our age has dispensed with such resources for our imaginations. It is our culture’s loss, a loss the Church should lament, not imitate or embrace.

A wealth of resources about music for Passiontide is catalogued here.

This page contains a brief discussion of the history of the use of the book of Lamentations in liturgical settings during Holy Week. It also includes embedded recordings of Thomas Tallis’s setting of the text, sung by the Tenebrae Consort.

On this page, you can read about — and listen to — musical settings of Lamentations by the Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553).

One of the most notable compositions of the Tudor-era composer Robert White (c. 1538-1574) is his five-voice setting of Lamentations. It is sung here by Stile Antico.

In 2011, the Tallis Scholars recorded the Lamentations of Jeremiah composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611). Below is a recording of a live performance by the Tallis Scholars of the first group of verses traditionally sung on Maundy Thursday. The group is conducted by Peter Phillips.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) composed four settings of the Lamentations. The fourth was recorded by Pro Cantione Antiqua, conducted by Bruno Turner, and is presented below.

Orlande de Lassus (1532–1594) composed settings of Lamentations for use on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The complete set has been recorded by the Ensemble Vocal Européen, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, and selections from that recording are available to hear on YouTube, but there is not a complete presentation currently available there (which is a good incentive to purchase a recording for yourself).

Below is the music that Lassus composed for sining on Good Friday, performed by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul van Nevel.