Sunday Sermon – 24 February 2019

Music, Music, Music

Possibly only those of us the young disrespectfully refer to as blue rinses, grey-beards, bald heads, or describe as having creaking bones and rheumy eyes, remember listening on the wireless – was it still the wireless or had it already become the radio? – listening to the weekly comedy show, “Take it from Here”. The format of this show, indeed of most radio half hour comedy shows of the immediate post-war period, called for a break roughly half-way through the programme, before the concluding sketch, for a musical item.

During one week’s performance, I recall the musical interlude consisted of a rendering of a then popular song,

“Put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon…”

The songstress, Joy Nicholls, went on to observe in conclusion that

“All I want is Music, Music, Music”

Perhaps I ought to explain for the benefit of younger members of the congregation, familiar only with compact discs, Ipods, down-loads on the computer and music centres, that a nickelodeon was an early form of American jukebox, found in hostelries and other public places. Insert a five cent piece (a nickel) and music burst forth.

For all races and nationalities, and as far as one can tell, this has been so since earliest times, music is an integral part of one’s being. This is true, right throughout our life span. The babe is lulled to sleep to the sound of the lullaby; the couple are married with an accompaniment of joyous and triumphal sound; solemn tunes and dirges 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.

Background music in home or restaurant, public place or private residence, is often described as mood music. In truth, all music is mood music. It may excite, it may soothe. It may be reflective or ceremonial. It may set feet a-tapping and hips a-swaying. It may send us to sleep or set teeth on edge. Life without music is hardly conceivable. As the saying has it, if it wasn’t a part of life already, some-one would have to invent it.

As music is so much a part of our lives, it is no surprise that the links with religion and worship are close. It is not merely the singing of hymns and chanting of psalms. Many of the most famous composers have written some of their greatest music within the Christian tradition. Handel’s Messiah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Bach’s choral music, are illustrative examples of a great tradition, whereby classical composers are inspired by biblical accounts, and enthused with the mystical trappings which form a part of Christian worship.

The plainsong chanting of monks, or the singing of Christmas carols are further examples of how religion and music come together.

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, if not 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 expresses our deepest emotions, awakes our desires, stimulates us into activity, uplifts our spirits. “Whistle while you work” is an injunction to enjoy life. The psalmist demanded, “Sing a joyful song unto the Lord”.

The religious custom of singing songs in recognition of, and as a tribute to, the Almighty may not be invariably an expression of joy. Sometimes sorrow, tinged with hope, inspires both the melody and the words. The slaves in the American south sang their spirituals as they toiled; long before that, slaves from Israel labouring in captivity asked plaintively, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Music brings peace to the fevered mind, as it did to Saul when young David played upon his harp. Today, calming music on the car radio is said to reduce tension, as one counts the minutes as they slip by, when stuck in a traffic jam which stretches to the distant horizon.

But surely one of the greatest attributes of music is its ability to unify. If you doubt that, sit on a coach full of OAPs returning from a day at the sea-side, as they sing communally the music hall songs of yesterday. Those who huddled in bomb shelters during the last war felt at one with neighbour, when they joined in, “We’ll meet again”, “When the lights come on again” or “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

Sports teams, in the modern parlance, bond, as they sing their ribald songs. Audience and cast at the end of the pantomime join together as they “Sing as we go”. The link grows stronger between parent and child as, in duet, they chorus a familiar nursery rhyme.

Yet more serious examples may be found. To sing in a choir with the harmonies billowing round one, is to abrogate self and experience the joy of community. To play an instrument in an orchestra or group, is not only to be subject to the discipline of working with others to a common end, but to feel a unique satisfaction, which comes from being amalgamated into a single unit – a society which is greater than the sum of the parts.

A concert audience, be it for pop, rock, classical or sacred music, will listen as one, react as one, be moved as one, even though members of audience are from different backgrounds, cultures, age groups, and are strangers one to the other.

On those occasions, perhaps nowadays too rare, when chapel or church is packed, the hymn well-chosen, and the members are in full voice, who has not felt the unifying power of music. We may not all be emitting exactly the same sound at precisely the same moment; we may individually chose our own key, changing it as we go along, so that the notes fall within our vocal range; but my goodness, the effect still is electrifying. The rafters shake, and the windows rattle; we are for a few moments not separate individuals, but one community. From a disparate, dare I say, yes, why not?, from a disparate rabble, we are transformed into a congregation.

Another feature of music, linked with its ability to unify, is that it is commonly understood, regardless of cultural differences or language barriers.

Music notation is a common language. The Russian violinist, the Swedish trombonist, the Italian flautist, the Hungarian percussionist, the English clarinettist sit in the orchestra before a common musical score, which each can read and understand. Though their spoken tongues are diverse, they make music in a single language.

And the music produced speaks in a language understood by citizens of all lands. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart transcends the ordinary barriers which divide people. Elton John singing “Candle in the Wind” brought tears to the eyes of those whose mother tongue was not English. Words were secondary to an emotion that was palpable.

Young people sway and gyrate together on the dance floor to the beat of music, though they may know little or nothing of the other participants to the dance. The rhythm compels, the reaction is synchronised.

The story of Pentecost tells of acquiring the gift of tongues. The message shall be understood by all peoples. With music, the gift of tongues is universally established.

Music may not only bring us together, it enables us to share common fears and hopes, tears and laughter, joy and exhilaration. Relating and sharing experiences is not constrained by the barrier of language.

“All I want is Music, Music, Music” went the refrain.

First music, for it unites me with others. Not only is it a shared experience, but much more, a coming together in sympathy and harmony.

Second music, for it is a true gift of tongues. No translation is needed, for the language is common. My neighbour and I may speak as one, be moved as one, be uplifted as one, share tears and laughter as one.

And the third music? For the word was thrice repeated.

One phrase, the line of a hymn, “Singing songs of expectation”, comes to mind. Worship is about many things, but surely included on the list, is expectation. All good music is exhilarating. The world is a better place whilst the music absorbs us. It fulfils an expectation.

The fact that music plays such an important part in worship is not accidental. It is not just so the congregation can stretch their legs from time to time, as they stand up and try and fit words to melody. It is not merely to disguise the sound of coins, or the rustle of notes, dropping into the collecting box.

It is not simply there to allow the preacher time to draw breath, count how many are in the congregation, and take a sip of water. The music is rightly a central part of our services. To my mind a service without music is like toast without marmalade – palatable but lacking.

The music at its best draws us in, brings us together. The power of music to hearten and transport is its greatest asset of all.

Out of the horror of trench warfare in the first World War came much poetry, including verses by Siegfried Sassoon. Amid the misery of mud and barbed wire, with the stink of death around, and the dread of what the next hour might bring, he wrote of a moment of joy, when humanity obliterated the terror of the present.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears, and horror
Drifted away… O, but everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

The Psalmist implored, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. Joy Nicholls sang, “All I want is Music, Music, Music”. Millennium apart, they sang from the same song sheet.

C.J. Rosling 28 October 1997

Hucklow 2 November 1997; 4 November 2001

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