MUSIC: Salutary Harmonies by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Salutary Harmonies by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines harmony as “the simultaneous sound (i.e., combination) of notes, giving what is known as vertical music contrasted with horizontal music.”  That is a technical definition that provides no idea of what harmony sounds like to the ear.  Think of a passage particularly rich in harmonies or of the concluding chord of one of your favorite compositions.  Listen to that blended sound resonating in your ear and then re-read the dictionary definition of harmony.  If that dictionary definition was all we had, I doubt that “harmony” would have become such a useful metaphor for so many different domains of experience and knowledge: living in harmony with nature, a harmonious marriage or friendship, reaching a harmonious accord, a harmony of flavors, the harmonies of love, an artist’s harmonious palette of colors, the harmony of the spheres.

That last metaphor has a wealth of historically important associations with philosophy and theology.  Many Biblical interpreters in the early church read Psalm 19 from the perspective of Greek thought.  They took the psalm’s opening verses to refer to the music that was created by the spheres of Heaven as they circled above the Earth in Greek cosmology:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice* goes out through all the Earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

The early church’s eventual acceptance of music in worship was largely influenced by the thought of Pythagoras as conveyed through the philosopher Plato.  Plato believed that “the universe is not only ‘rational,’ it is musical – musical harmony lies at the very heart of the cosmos.”  The resultant principle that making music helps put human beings in harmony with the spheres, with the nature of the created order, returns again and again in the history of ideas about music and its effect upon us.  For example, Clement of Alexandria [c. 150–215] taught that “the divine harmony is the creator of Christian unity; consequently, music from human lips was said to express and create unity and concord among Christians.”  Martin Luther, some fourteen hundred years later, made a similar affirmation: “Anyone who loves music is of good stuff, and whosoever is harmonically composed delights in harmony, which makes me much distrust the symmetry of those heads which declaim against all church music.”  Two centuries later, Haydn set “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God” in his oratorio The Creation.

We may be tempted to dismiss the insights of our ancestors in light of our radically different understanding of the cosmos.  An expanding universe that is 93.5 billion light years wide seems to demolish the harmony of the spheres.  However, before we dump the metaphor, I would suggest that the image has endured for so many centuries not because of its cosmological accuracy but because of its resonance in the human heart.  The harmony of the spheres is less a description of the universe and more a revelation about our need to find a way to a state of harmonious existence with ourselves, with one another, with creation, and with the very source of our being.  Cosmologies will come and go, but the hunger for harmony will persist.  Words alone will never feed it.  We need harmonies in our ear.  Our ancestors were right: there is something wondrously salutary to the soul in the sound of musical harmony.

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