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

Part three of Begbie’s book, Resounding Truth:  Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, is devoted to setting music within what Begbie calls a Christian “ecology,” that is, “the basic patterns of beliefs that give the gospel its coherence,” with special attention given to the doctrine of creation (25, 305).  Chapter eight, which bears the title, “A Christian Ecology,” sets forth three central questions, which then organize and direct Begbie’s discussions through chapter ten:  “What kind of Creator creates?  What kind of cosmos does the Creator create and relate to?  And what kind of calling do we have in this cosmos?” (305)  Since Begbie’s overall aim is to cultivate “a Christian wisdom about music, that is, to generate godly habits of judgment that can form, inform, and re-form the practicalities of making and hearing music,” (305) I shall devote a significant amount of space to themes covered in chapter nine (“Music in God’s World”) and chapter ten (“Music in God’s Calling”).

In chapter nine, Begbie underscores the Christian understanding of the created cosmos as an expression of God’s love, in which he freely bestows existence to the created realm, which of course, includes human beings.   Thus, for the Christian both human beings and the cosmos itself are givens in the richest sense of the word, as we (nor it) had to be.  To understand sound waves, the human body, and the wood from which certain instruments are crafted as gifts arising from God’s ordo amoris has a profound impact on the way that a Christian ultimately views music.  The Christian’s most basic response toward music will be gratitude, that is, an attitude of thankfulness for “the very possibility of music” (213).  As Begbie so aptly explains, “[i]t will mean regularly allowing a piece of music to stop us in our tracks and make us grateful that there is a world where music can occur, that there is rhythm built into the fabric of the world, that there is the miracle of the human body, which can receive and process sequences of tones” (213).  Thus, a habit of thankfulness is crucial to cultivating a Christian wisdom about music.

Because creation is birthed from God’s freely given love and reflects his character, creation itself is good, even creation in its postlapsarian manifestation.  However, Christianity in its varied expressions has in many ways struggled to fully affirm the goodness of physical creation and our embodied nature.  This inconsistent attitude toward physicality in general has affected how Christians through the ages have conceived music.  Augustine, particularly in his early writings, was heavily influenced by a Platonic understanding of music in which the materiality of music is not valued for its inherent goodness but rather serves as a vehicle to reach the static, unchanging reality of forms.  This is not to suggest that Augustine denied the goodness of the created order;   however, it is to claim that his writings reveal a “marked ambivalence about physical beauty and the materiality of music” (214).  This ambivalence can also be seen in a number of medieval (Boethius) and Reformation theologians (Zwingli).  The de-valuing of the physical qua physical continued in the modern period but in a distinctively modern key.  That is, instead of an emphasis on a separate realm of eternal forms, we have a turn to the interior life of the individual, whether expressed with a Romantic, emotional emphasis (Schleiermacher) or a more thoroughgoing intellectualist bent (Kandinsky, Schoenberg) (214).  For example, the great modern composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), believed the enjoyment music gives should be “primarily intellectual,” as in his view the question of whether music sounds pleasant to the ear is “irrelevant to the question of artistic significance” (216).   In sum, for Schoenberg, the “enduring significance and value of music lies not at the level of the physical; [rather] we must learn to rise from the mere materiality of sounds” (216).    In response to these modern attitudes, Begbie encourages the Christian to embrace “music’s embeddedness in materiality,” as the physicality inherent to music and music making-the air pushed from our lungs through our vocal cords, the plucking of steel strings, the beating of drums made from animal skins, the vibrating sound waves-are all part and parcel of God’s good creation (216).

In chapter ten, Begbie explores music as part of our human calling.  Before highlighting some of the constructive ways in which Christians might “voice creation’s praise,” I shall begin by discussing two incredibly interesting yet ultimately misdirected paths pursued by the French composer, Pierre Boulez (1925-), and the American composer, John Cage (1912-1992).  Boulez, who was heavily influenced by Schoenberg’s intellectualist approach to music, developed a compositional style now known as “total serialism.”  As Begbie explains, “total serialism depended on the rigorous organization of music through the use of strict mathematical patterns” (246).  Unlike Schoenberg and his student Webern, whose projects focused mainly on the organization of pitch, Boulez applied his mathematical scheme to every aspect of a musical piece.  The rhythm, timbre, note duration, and so on must be rigorously calculated in order to prohibit the possibility of musical memory both of the past and even within a single piece.  Thus, Boulez aims at motif-less music, music lacking any sense of direction or gravitational pull (247).  Interestingly, Boulez himself became acutely aware of the pitfalls of his own project, viz., the utter dullness of his music.  “With every element in a constant state of variation, no repetition, no theme or any sense of development, it quickly generates a debilitating sense of boredom in the listener” (247).  In addition, the music sounds completely chaotic and disordered.

During this period of musical output, Boulez had been corresponding with John Cage, the chief proponent of “chance music,” and was distressed at the similarity in sound between his and Cage’s music.  On one side of the musical spectrum, we have Cage making music “through random acts such as tossing coins” (247).  On the other side of the spectrum, we have Boulez’s over-determined, mathematically precise compositional techniques.  Yet, ironically, the “results of total indeterminacy and radical indeterminacy sound much the same” (247).  As Begbie sums up so well, Boulez’s approach to music is a “parable in sound of some of the most disturbing currents in modernity,” a powerful musical example “of what happens when the human will is seen as the center and active source of unity and order” (247).  Because Boulez’s imposed order rejects the given sonic order of God’s universe, it fails to enrich human beings, having lost the potential to move or transform us.  Motif-less, motion-less, and monotonous, it leaves us simply bored.

Cage’s view of composition, as alluded to above, was diametrically opposed to Boulez’s.  Rather than impose a strict mathematical order upon music, Cage wanted to let sounds manifest naturally.  Though a Christian can appreciate Cage’s desire to respect the “integrity of sounds and our own embeddedness in nature,” as Begbie brings to our attention, Cage seemly overly suspicious of the possibility that “human interaction with the natural world can be fruitful or enriching” (251).  Of course a well-formed Christian wisdom should reject and speak against violence done to the created order; however, the extreme view espoused by Cage leaves little room for the possibility of interacting with the givens in a non-violent, positive way.  Here we should keep in mind that for centuries Western tonal music has been based on an modification of the harmonic series; “pianos are not tuned precisely in accordance with the series but are tempered to enable us to enjoy playing in a variety of keys and shift from one to another” (252).  When these adjustments first occurred, many musical purists were (and some still are) distressed, as they considered it a distortion of the original, the natural.  However, a Christian view of creative activity need not take this overly pessimistic stance, “believing that is it quite possible to engage respectfully with what is given and through this engagement elaborate fresh art that is felicitous and life-enhancing” (252).

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

  1. Hi,
    interesting book review, thanks for posting.
    About total serialism though, it’s important to state that the movement only lasted about 5 years, and that Boulez and Stockhausen, its main proponents, quickly and publicly abandoned it, and went on to write beautiful and evocative music for the next forty years. Boulez is still very active and his latest pieces are thematic, and even display the odd repetition here and there. A lot of that new music wouldn’t have been possible if the experiences of the fifties hadn’t taken place, however.
    Great blog, I’ll come back to it for sure !

  2. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your comment. What are some of the later pieces that Boulez wrote, as I’d love
    to listen to them? Also, you make a good point about the new music not being possible if the experiments of the 50s had not occurred–could you elaborate more specifically on that? E.g., in what specific ways is that the case and which composers etc. do you have in mind?

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi…Interesting about Augustine but not inconsistent with my feelings about him.

    I want to suggest something that I fully believe personally but which I have rarely talked about in a public way, beyond those I have come into personal contact with.

    It is the essential, for me, connection between theologizing and music. I have for almost 40 years, following a traumatic time in my life, sang the Biblical narratives. Operating on the assumption that if I could sing them they would make sense to me. I have written song after song. When I recently worked with the Q narrative my first act was to begin singing the earliest parts of Q. To give a simple example, the song I came up with in dealing with the coat-cloak, other cheek narrative, something we can surely attribute to Jesus, has as its main “hook” ‘It’s the only way to turn this thing around — to treat them as you wished they treated you.” This had the effect of suggesting to me that these injunctions are not a summons to perfection as many are taught, as much as a highly practical means of survival.

    The height of this for me was turning Mark into songs and working with a minister names Pam Moffatt who eventually taught the songs to thousands of kids. Much of the theology I have comes from the whole panorama of music I have done. I am sure I am not alone. Charles Wesley and zillions of others have probably arrived at their understanding through music.

    I neither read nor write music but I do it still. Cheers, S

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