If Music be the Food of Love…
I suppose it is inevitable that, during a service in which music is a predominant feature, sooner or later some-one will quote Shakespeare,
“If music be the food of love
Play on, give me excess of it
That surfeiting, my appetite,
May sicken, and so die.”,
So I will start with the quotation, getting my quote in first, using it as a peg on which to hang my later comments.
Of course I accept the passage is not perfectly apt for a sermon in church on Sunday. A love-sick swain, feeling the anguish of being in love, unrequited love moreover, was hoping, or more likely, feigning to hope, that his love could be killed, and the pain eased. But today, we are enjoying the excitement which comes from music making and the pleasure which follows from hearing it performed. Far from advocating an excess of music, we quit the table, as the recipe for healthy living demands, with an appetite not completely satisfied, and a feeling that we would welcome a little more.
All down the ages, throughout the world, with all the main religions, and many minor ones, music has been an important constituent of church worship. In Psalm 150 for example we hear of the place of music in praising the Lord – cymbals and lutes, harps and trumpets are enlisted for the task. Tinkling bells are associated with Buddhist temples, Gregorian chants with the monasteries. The waves of sing-song rhythmical sound in the Jewish temple, the organs and choirs of the great cathedrals, the quiet evening hymn in the village church, are evocative tones conjuring up thoughts of piety and praise.
Growing old is frequently the excuse for harking back. So I make no excuse as I think back to my youth and the Unitarian church I attended in a small cotton town on the Lancashire Cheshire border. Many of my recollections are to do with music and singing. Whitsuntide with brass bands, behind which we processed to gather on the centrally placed market ground, there to sing hymns along with other congregations in joint acts of worship. Anniversary Sermons with children’s choirs on raised platforms. Harvest hymns in bedecked chapels and Christmas carols sung amid twinkling lights. All occasions clearly recalled.
Then there are Armistice Day services attended by personnel from the forces led by military bands. Boys brigade, scouts and guides marching on church parade to the accompaniment of bugle and drum, are all part of a tapestry with the thread of music running through it. Sometimes sad, sometimes triumphal, full throated roar or meditatively quiet, sentimental or robust, prayerful or platitudinous, the music and the hymns matched the mood and enhanced the occasion of which they were a central part.
Occasionally at the end of a service I have conducted, a member of the congregation will say, “I enjoyed that service”, before adding the explanation, that it was because I had chosen some good hymns, and we had all had a good sing. By good hymns invariably the criteria to be met is that the tunes are familiar, the pitch is right, with no impossibly high notes attainable only by angels or professional sopranos. A good sing is an essential ingredient of a satisfying service. For many it is the touchstone by which it is judged. And why not, what better marking script.
It wasn’t until adult life that I discovered the joy of playing instrumental music alongside others. In my early days of teaching, I was allocated a recorder group to tutor. The fact that musically I was totally ignorant was ignored. Hardly one step in front of the pupils, I learnt to play, with very moderate skill indeed, first a descant recorder, and later treble, tenor and bass. Emboldened, I later joined a small group of teachers who met weekly to play for a couple of hours. None of us were very expert, all of us were enthusiastic.
We played simply for our own pleasure. And the pleasure was not merely in the music with its inter-mingling parts, but in shared participation. All contributing, no-one dominant, each dependent upon the contribution of the others.
Later, I was lent a brass tenor horn and learnt to play it even less skilfully than the recorder. Joining a group of brass band players, I again experienced the delight of creating harmonious sounds in the company of others, even if my contribution was largely to the umph pah pah under-current.
Sadly, other things took over one’s time, and it is many, many years since I last played. The rudimentary skills, always precariously held, have now left me, but the memory of pleasures past remains. There is a close affinity between the joy of making music and “that peace which passes all understanding” which can be found in religious worship. So it is no surprise that music has such a central role in our services of devotion.
Music vocabulary spills over into life in general. Discords resolve into harmonies; 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.
But let us return to our opening quotation, or at least to the beginning of it, which refers to music as the food of love. Central to the 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.
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 (I love chocolate eclairs), to enveloping the profoundest emotional and spiritual experiences, at the opposite end of the scale.
Our opening quotation was in the context 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, Beethoven his symphonies, 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 were 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 which 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 which 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 which many of us remember. However fine the words, the tune has to be right if we are to sing it! But additionally, 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 above, 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”
It goes on to describe the accidental discovery of a chord which 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.
Music is yet the food of love
Surround me with its swell. That I
May glorify my God, in awe,
In humble reverence. My love
Of neighbour defined as one
Hucklow 22 October 1995