Part I: Begbie on Re-Sounding God’s Truth in the World of Music

I recently read yet another excellent book by Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth:  Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.  Once again Begbie brings music into conversation with theology-a conversation that continues to yield fresh insights.  One of the goals of Begbie’s book is to explore how Christians might “re-sound” God’s truth in the world of music, as well as to help us “re-think” our own pre-conceived views of music. The book as a whole is divided into three parts.  Part one provides an overview of the way music is practiced in Western culture and attempts to clarify the meaning of the term, “music.” In this section of the book, Begbie considers the ways that marketing and selling shape how we understand and practice music and how innovations in sound technology have distanced music from its “physical roots” (56)-topics particularly relevant to contemporary discussions in the sociology of music.  Likewise, Begbie argues against the trend to focus exclusively on (static) works-an approach that has characterized musicology in the West.  Instead, “it is best to think of music primarily as an art of actions,” the two chief actions being music making and music hearing, both of which are “socially and culturally embedded” (57).  Yet, Begbie also stresses that “music is embedded in a sonic order-it involves the integrity of the materials that produce sound and of sound waves, the integrities of the human body, and the integrity of time” (57).  In other words, though he gives full weight to the constructive and culturally conditioned aspects of music, Begbie likewise wants to do justice to the givens of music, or as he puts it, to “music’s embeddedness in a cosmos created out of the inexhaustible abundance of the Triune god” (58).

In part two, Begbie examines how music was understood and practiced by representatives of the “Great Tradition” (e.g., Pythagoras, Plato, Augustine, and Boethius), selected Reformation thinkers (Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli), and three modern Protestant theologians (Schleiermacher, Barth, and Bonhoeffer).  The final chapter of part two concentrates on the lives of two contemporary Roman Catholic “theological musicians,” Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) and James MacMillan (1959-). Begbie’s analyses of these two musicians are particularly helpful, as his explications and musical examples enable us to see how bringing music into dialogue with theology opens up “new spaces” for re-sounding God’s inexhaustible truth in a polyphonic mode.

Turning first to Messiaen, Begbie focuses on his treatment of time and eternity.  In contrast with the harmonic structures that characterize and dominate traditional Western music, structures that constantly move from tension to resolution and create a “dynamic of desire,” Messiaen’s music is permeated with harmonic sequences that remain unresolved for several passages (e.g., a long series of dominant seventh chords which fail to reach an expected tonic chord).  In combination with his atypical harmonic choices, Messiaen also employs innovative rhythmic techniques in order to create a musical impression of eternity.  For example, by using nonretrogradable rhythms, that is, “rhythms that sound or play the same backward as they do forward,” Messiaen’s music has a circular feel rather than a sense of linear, forward movement (however paradoxical that may seem in light of the temporal nature of music).  As Begbie explains, “[j]ust because they do not sound different when reversed, they present a kind of fusion of past, present, and future in which beginning and end fold into each other” (170).  Of course, Messiaen’s music does not completely lack traditional harmonic and rhythmic elements; however, when joined with his non-standard harmonic and rhythmic practices, a mysterious, bewitching effect is produced, which he believed particularly fitting for “embodying the truths of the Catholic faith and above all the truths of eternity” (170).   Though at times, Messiaen appears to overemphasize eternity to the detriment of created time, Begbie provides several examples to assuage such concerns.  For instance, Begbie highlights Messiaen’s view that our future life with God will not be a static existence but will involve movement of some sort.  In other words, when temporal creatures, as it were, enter into eternity, this should not be understood as “time’s destruction and the end of all movement and dynamism but the fulfillment of time, a kind of time in which past, present, and future can no longer be separated” (174).   Here Begbie distinguishes between temporality characterized by “transience and decay” and a more positive sense of dynamic, eternal existence-the latter set in sharp contrast with any idea of eternity as “nothing but pure stillness” (174).

Turning next to MacMillan, we find a composer, who unlike Messiaen, does not sense the need to abandon or subvert the traditional tension/resolution harmonic patterns of Western tonal music.  Instead, for MacMillan, such techniques “are a compelling means of keeping a composer in touch with a world that, though created good, has been so severely marred and disfigured” (176).  Conflict and struggle characterize MacMillan’s music, as his theological vision takes seriously the harsh realities and injustices so prevalent in the world.  A severe critic of the “modernist myth of progress,” MacMillan embraces extremes and is not afraid to give expression in his music to the messiness of embodied existence (178).  Rather than reproduce the saccharine sentimentality present in much Christian music today, MacMillan’s “pieces frequently display the dialectics and juxtaposition of extreme violence and extreme tranquility, the confrontation of dissonance and consonance” (179).  As Begbie notes, what seems to motivate MacMillan’s opposition to “monodimensional” (music lacking the conflict and struggle of reality) and overly sentimental expressions of music, is his embrace of our embodied existence and specifically, Jesus’s “flesh-involved engagement with the world in its fallenness” (180).  In other words, MacMillan is not driven by a nostalgic conservative impulse to return to a perceived Golden Age of music; rather, his desire to continue and expand the tension/resolution patterns of the Western tradition comes from his deep ties to the Christian narrative-a narrative whose center involves the crucifixion and resurrection of a God made flesh.  In short, although both Messiaen and MacMillan are committed to the same Christian story, each has a different “center of gravity.”   “[F]or MacMillan it is God’s cross-shaped involvement with this world of time, for Messiaen it is the joyful eternity that the timeless God has promised and secured for us” (180).

8 thoughts on “Part I: Begbie on Re-Sounding God’s Truth in the World of Music”

  1. Hi Cynthia,
    I appreciate your summary of Begbie’s book. There was quite a negative review of it in Books and Culture. Begbie replied to it, but as a non-musician I wasn’t able to judge who was in the right. If you could comment on the dispute, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to benefit from your take.

  2. Hi Patrick,

    I read Linton’s review briefly, and only have time to offer a few comments. I disagree with his first two points of criticism, but I thought that what he says at the end (page 3) was extremely interesting and worth pursuing—though I disagree with his claim that music is simply a human construction and no more, thus siding with Begbie.

    Linton seems unconvinced that music has a strong affect on individuals and cultures. Plato of course would disagree, as he, in the Republic, through the character of Socrates stresses the power that music has to make such strong impressions on a person that one could become habituated music to believe that things like disobedience to authority and disrespect for the laws of city are not only acceptable but desirable. Contemporary studies on the effects of heavy metal and rap music in connection with violence and drug abuse among teens suggest that Socrates’ concerns are not unwarranted. So, I don’t find Bebgie’s claims here hard to believe, missteps, or overstatements. Consider as well the powerful role that Wagner’s music played in Hilter’s strategies or the ways in which music is used in religious cults to arouse certain emotions and actions. (On Wagner/Hilter, see Michael H. Kater. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

    Secondly, Linton points out that the harmonic series does not “naturally” come to us the way that we are now accustomed to it (e.g., he writes, “Instead of an F, we find an ‘out of tune’ F sharp at the eleventh partial, flat from an equally tempered F sharp by almost a quartertone. In order for the pitches of the overtone series to be musically useful in tonal music, at least one very important pitch must be altered according to purely culturally derived aesthetic criteria. We have to flatten that eleventh partial”. Begbie doesn’t in the least deny this—he admits it and claims that it is an example of how certain givens and certain structures interact with convention and are thus changed and altered through time in various ways according to various cultural tastes.

    Best wishes,

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