MUSIC: To What End Beauty? by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

To What End Beauty? by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

Some time ago, I read a book review about the varied ways Beethoven and his music have been viewed in different eras.  Although I have lost the review, I have never forgotten its substance.  According to the reviewer, there was a time when Beethoven’s music was seen as engaging the noblest powers of the human spirit, a claim that has commonly been raised for other composers in the Western classical canon.  The reviewer went on to observe that this commendation of the salutary effects of great music was annihilated by the Nazi’s use of such music to adorn and reinforce their malevolent ends.

In a similar vein, two of my students at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music once did a gripping presentation on how the Ku Klux Klan employed many of the most beloved hymns of Protestant churches to justify and celebrate the Klan’s acts of terrorism against people who were not of their race and background.  The students urged churches and other groups to become knowledgeable about the “performative history” of pieces in order to realize the problematic associations that may be awakened by their use.

Both the book review and the students’ presentation lead me to wonder if there is any piece of enduring music whose beauty has not been misused for nefarious purposes.  The question does not apply only to music.  As a scholar of homiletics, I can attest that some of the most beautiful and beloved passages of scripture have been used for the worst possible ends: the reinforcement of prejudice and the justification of violence.  If we were to eliminate from our musical repertoires and our religious traditions every piece of music and writing whose performative history is clouded with misuse, the range of what we might play and preach upon would be decimated.

It is true we need to remember that many of our artistic and religious treasures have been co-opted for terrible purposes, but at the same time we need to celebrate how they have also inspired people to act in ways that are just and compassionate and how they have provided solace for the grieving, peace for the disturbed, hope for the despairing, and a renewed sense of wonder for the world-weary.  I think of countless people I have known who have given testimony to the grace and empowering goodness that has poured into them through hearing or performing beautiful music.  I think of the protests against oppression and the movements for justice that have been uplifted and sustained by the beauty of music.

Ultimately, we human creatures are capable of using any gift of beauty for the worst and for the noblest ends.  Our art needs to stand in the court of ethics not in order to make aesthetic judgments but to assess the ends to which it is directed.  But ethics also needs the witness of our art to avoid becoming drearily moralistic.  Yes, beauty can be used to ornament evil, but it can also be used to inspire the highest and holiest aspirations of the human heart.

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