Welcome to Cantica Sacra, an on-line resource designed to enrich the musical life of the parish of All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia, just outside Charlottesville. We’re happy to share our experience and exploration of sacred choral music with the world in general.
In churches that retain the regular singing of the Sanctus, worshippers are reminded that their song of adoration — “Holy, holy, holy” — is sung with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. Our earthly worship echoes the harmonious praise of a heavenly host. In Christian theology, not just formal worship but the whole of creation has often been understood as a musical expression with heavenly sources. David Bentley Hart has observed that
According to Gregory of Nyssa, creation is a wonderfully wrought hymn to the power of the Almighty: the order of the universe is a kind of musical harmony, richly and multifariously toned, guided by an inward rhythm and accord, pervaded by an essential ‘symphony’; the melody and cadence of the cosmic elements in their intermingling sing of God’s glory, as does the interrelation of motion and rest within created things; and in this sympathy of all things one with the other, music in its truest and most perfect form is bodied forth.
Readers of C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion will remember accounts of the origins of all things in which heavenly music is depicted as an agency of Creation. In such accounts, Lewis and Tolkien are echoing Christian poets such as John Dryden; his “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687” begins: “From harmony, from heavenly harmony, This universal frame began . . . .”
While premodern Christians (and pagans) regarded music as having and making transcendent connections, modern culture has promoted the idea that music’s meaning is purely subjective, beginning and ending in a merely material world of autonomous individuals. This is an aspect of modernity that has received far too little notice by Christians.
As parish music director, my weekly duties involve working with the choir and selecting hymns to be sung at each service. From this position I have also attempted to encourage a greater musical literacy within the parish. Listening to the music sung in each service should be a mode of active and intelligent participation. I concur with Pope Benedict XVI, who asserted in an essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music” that “listening, the receptive employment of the senses and the mind, spiritual participation,” can be as active as speaking or singing.
Since 1993 my “day job” with Mars Hill Audio has given me the opportunity to read and converse with hundreds of brilliant scholars about the various disorders of modern culture. That experience has convinced me that one of the principal challenges of faithfulness in a culture of unbelief is the cultivation of a deeply Christian imagination. While many thinkers and writers have addressed the formation of imagination in engagement with literature and the visual arts, music is typically regarded as an experience that should not be treated in a disciplined way. Thoughtful criticism of sentimentality in literature and kitsch in the visual arts is widely available, but any criticism of careless musical habits is regarded as the height of arrogance and elitism. The common assumption that all musical preferences are self-authenticating and beyond criticism reflects one of the deep disorders of modern culture.
In selecting music for our choir and congregation to sing, I am continually awed by the great treasure-house of music in the Church’s history that is entirely unknown to most otherwise well-educated parishioners (and even to a lot of musicians, amateur and professional). Cantica sacra is an effort to familiarize our community with the musical riches that express our faith and enable us to participate more deeply in the goodness of Creation.
I hope your engagement with this resource deepens your understanding and love for musical expressions of beauty that are far too neglected in our distracted and confused times.
All Saints Anglican Church