I suppose many of us succumb to repetitiveness by airing time and again matters which concern us, or about which we have strong views. Topics that are important to us keep recurring in our conversations. Maybe they are what others rather dismissively call “Bees in the Bonnet”. I am, unashamedly, a repeater. Therefore it will come as no surprise to the congregation I suspect, if my theme this morning is one I have spoken about before – the joys of music.
Our family calendar in the nineteen thirties contained a number of fixed dates centred upon chapel and Sunday school. There were the religious festivals, Christmas, watch-night service, Easter and so on; the anniversaries, separate ones for Sunday School and Church for the church had been built a few years after the Sunday school was established. I mustn’t forget the annual fund-raising bazaar, the Christmas pantomime, various social events, including a weekly whist drive and dance, or overlook the Whitsuntide walk in which the whole town participated. The two bass singers in the church choir, Herbert Hall and Tom Whitehead, headed our procession, proudly holding the banner aloft.
Twenty-two churches and chapels participated as the processions, each one preceded by a brass band, converged on the market ground for a united service, with hymns accompanied by our two local bands, the Town Band and the Borough Band. Some churches included additional musical groups in their procession, with drums and bugles played by scout groups or Boys’ Brigade. Music and rhythmical beats are essential ingredients making up a splendid procession, be in a Whitsuntide gathering, a protest march, a floral dance or a Lord Mayor’s parade. In all these church events, music had a part. It unified; it brought people together.
Music, in one form or another, is found in every community throughout the world. In Africa, Asia, South America, among the dwellers in the jungle, round the prairie camp fire, in the villages of the Indian sub-continent, people express their joy or their grief, their frustrations or their contentment, in rhythmic sounds, made by instrument or vocal chord. Be it the excitement of the disco, the stately minuet, the frenzy of the rain-dance, people are compelled to dance as the drum beats thump and strings vibrate.
For all races and nationalities, and as far as one can tell this has been so from earliest time, music was and is an integral part of one’s being. This is so, right throughout our life span. The babe is lulled to sleep to the sound of the lullaby; the couple are married leaving the ceremony to the accompaniment of joyous and triumphal sound; solemn tunes and dirges may attend the ceremonies marking the end of life. Be the occasion hatch, match or despatch; be sure a suitable melody can be found to suit.
Music, frequently combined with movement, with dance, with marching or with tapping feet, being such an essential ingredient of human life, it is no surprise to find that music is included in many forms of religious worship.
The organ swells to the magnificent works of Bach, the voice of the solo choir boy sends tingles down the spine, the Halleluiah Chorus, sung with full voice, threatens the roof timbers, the plainsong chant bathes the listener in peace, and so one could go on. “Praise him with the sound of trumpet; Praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: Praise him with stringed instruments and the pipe”, sang the psalmist.
As children in Sunday school we left part way through the adult service and concluded our own assembly as we sang
“If I were a blackbird, and lived in a wood
I’d make it the happiest place that I could
I’d whistle and warble and carol all day
‘’Til all the world’s troubles I’d warbled away.”
Meanwhile our elders, not necessarily our betters, who stayed in church for the remainder of the service, chanted the Te Deum:
“We praise Thee O God,
We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord”
The words and tunes were different in Chapel and Sunday school, but the messages had this in common. Religion and worship are a matter for celebration. God’s creation is wonderful. It behoves us to marvel, and to sing of it with joy.
Music vocabulary spills over into life in general. Discords resolve and harmony is restored; chords find an expression in a sympathetic response, as in “striking the right chord”; to hit the right note is to set up a good relationship; our affections are cemented as we are in tune with one another, and so it goes on.
Central to Christian philosophy is the concept of love. The two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbour – are foundations of Christian thought. We who profess the faith attempt to build the framework in which we live our daily lives upon that solid rock.
“If music be the food of love
Play on, give me excess of it
That surfeiting, my appetite,
May sicken, and so die.”
Orsino was suffering from love-sickness for a lady, rather than love of the human race in general. Nor can he have been entirely serious in hoping his capacity for loving should vanish completely. But it is undeniable that music is a stimulant, a trigger that releases the deepest feelings. Music does indeed feed the emotions.
There are many words within our everyday vocabulary whose meaning we find difficult to define when asked. We know what we mean but we find it hard to explain that meaning in words. The word “love”, I suggest, falls in this category. We use it in so many ways, from explaining our appetite for cream buns at one extreme, to enveloping the profoundest emotional and spiritual experiences, at the opposite end of the scale.
The Shakespearian quotation was of sexual attraction. But music may, way beyond that, touch upon what we are trying to express by the love of God. Bach wrote his great choral mass, Handel his oratorios, Haydn his symphonies, Beethoven his mass, all of which we hear with a sense of reverence and awe, transcending mere enjoyment, out of religious conviction. They were acts of creation, reflecting faith and conviction. Love of music and glorification of the almighty are aspects of one whole.
Love of God may be difficult to define in simple words, but the great composers have in their music encompassed something of the awe, emotional ecstasy, the peaceful security, the reverence and the spiritual dependence, which fall within the definition of “love of God”. It is in creative expression – that which we call the Arts, of which music is a part – that humankind comes nearest to the expression of that love.
And love of neighbour? If love of God is about what we do in private to and for ourselves, then love of neighbour is about the way we live our daily lives. It covers all our relationships with our fellows, those private acts that nevertheless impinge on others. It is demonstrated by what we do as distinct from what we say we do.
When neighbour loves neighbour, then harmony is assured. Discords can be resolved. The melody is agreeable. We are in tune with one another’s needs. The different instruments blend sympathetically to create a balanced whole.
To sing in a choir, or to play in a band or orchestra, is to learn the discipline of co-operation. Self is important only in so much as it is a part of a much bigger whole. Even the soloist may need an accompaniment. The joy comes from a feeling that parts are blending to create an entirety that is more, much more, than a sum of the parts. Successful communal music making is a small snapshot of life where neighbour loves neighbour in order to create harmonious sounds that express a love of God.
Surely that is one of the reasons why musical sounds and rhythmical beats have become such an integral part of church worship. The hymnist pens the words, but it is the tune that many of us remember. However fine the words, the tune has to be right if we are to sing it! The organist played the wrong tune to that hymn, we complain. But the full glory of the tune comes when the parts are blended to the whole, the chords are struck and the harmonies emerge.
Some in the congregation of my generation and older, will remember that old Victorian ballad beloved of musical hall baritones, “The Lost Chord”.
“Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease”,
were the opening lines.
The song goes on to describe the accidental discovery of a chord whose mellifluous tones brought peace and contentment in the place of stress and unease. Though the ballad was toe-curlingly sentimental, it contained a truth that music can and does bring solace and peace to the fevered mind. David long ago played his harp to soothe the torments of Saul. Today’s worshippers find an inner peace as the rousing hymn or the contemplative music swirls around them.
Music is the food of love. Comfortingly it embraces our worship of the almighty, eternal creator of us all within its arms. As we lift up our voices, or blow, scrape or bang our instruments, we, often inadequately, but sincerely express our deepest thoughts. And in making music together we glimpse for a moment the Kingdom of Heaven where neighbour recognises neighbour, and harmony prevails. However poor our voice, we all can enjoy singing a good hymn together.
Silence is golden, it is said. Certainly it has a precious quality, a time for peace and reflection. But a world without birdsong, the roar of the waterfall, the lapping of waves on the shore, the rustle of leaves, the sound of the trumpet, a choir opening their voices in harmony, the child singing the nursery rhyme to herself, the workman cheerfully whistling, or the orchestral climax at the end of the symphony, would be a poor world indeed. Play on, I shall not be surfeited.
C.J. Rosling 28th October 2006
Hucklow 29th October 2006