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

[This is the concluding post for this series:  click on the links for Part I and Part II].

Lastly, turning to a section entitled, “Anticipating,” (chapter 10), I highlight some of the more constructive ways in which Christians might re-sound God’s truth.  Having just discussed how the cross of Christ alone is able to meet three very legitimate postmodern suspicions-escapisms of various flavors, a naïve optimism in human nature, and violent domination-Begbie helps us to see how music can express and embody an already-not-yet, authentic Christian hope.  The hope that Begbie envisages is decidedly not a future only, other-worldly nay-saying hope, but hope “of a future tasted now:  the remaking of this world and of our own humanity, previewed in the raising of Jesus from the dead, and to be enjoyed now through the Spirit” (263).  Following the lead of Russian theologians such as Berdyaev and Bulgakov, Begbie contends that the arts possess the ability to make manifest a proleptic taste of a fully redeemed, re-created cosmos.  Here the picture is not of music transporting us to a world wholly unrelated to our present world, but of music functioning iconic-ly, enabling us to experience now something of the beauty and harmony of the new creation.  There are of course countless possibilities as to how music might grant us such a foretaste.  The very structure of a piece is, for example, one such possibility.  As Begbie explains, “[t]he phenomenon of a future anticipated can also sometimes be found in the way a piece is structured, creating a sort of parable in sound of Christian hope-as when, for example, an ending comes ‘too soon'” (266).  Just as Jesus’s resurrection is a proleptic picture of the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of the present age (wherein the future irrupts into the present), so too music can reflect this “ending-in-the-middle” aspect of the Christian narrative.   For example, in the third movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony no. 41 in C major, we find a “perfect cadence,” which is typically a signal for closure, after the end of the minuet section (266).  However, the piece continues and the presumed ending functions as a transition to something new, to the trio section.   By structuring his piece with a surprise perfect cadence, whose ending turns out to be a new beginning, Mozart communicates the basis of an authentic, Christian hope:  “[t]he resurrection of Jesus is the ending, but found in the midst of history, generating a new beginning” (267).

In sum, my overall impression of Begbie’s book is extremely positive, and I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in engaging theology and music in a refreshing, imaginative way.  Although one might have hoped for more space given to non-Western music, Begbie shows sensitivity to such concerns and is careful not to exalt Western tonal music as the standard for Christian music or music in general.   Begbie has helped us to see the fruitfulness of bringing music into conversation with theology, and we are thankful for his fresh reflections, which have, no doubt, stirred our imaginations “by setting every aspect of music in the context of the breathtaking vision of reality opened up by the gospel of Jesus Christ” (308).

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).

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).