MUSIC: The Stone Age Ancestors Of Organists by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Stone Age Ancestors Of Organists

From: Music As Prayer

In an article entitled “Flute Music Wafted in Caves 35,000 Years Ago,” archaeologists describe flutes discovered in southwestern Germany.  One is a bone flute with five finger holes, and the other two are fragments of ivory instruments that “represented the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture.”  This last phrase leapt off the page because I do not usually associate the Stone Age with the “flowering of music-making.”  However, a specialist in ancient music, working with a wooden replica of the ivory flute, “found that the ancient flute produced a range of notes comparable in many ways to modern flutes.”

The archaeologists speculate that these instruments might have been played to celebrate a successful hunt or to provide music for fertility rites or social bonding.  Whatever its precise function, this Stone Age music “could have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, and thereby perhaps have helped facilitate the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans.”

The use of flutes thirty-five thousand years before our time gives us a sense of how deeply rooted in the human project is our love of pipe organs.  It is a long way from a piece of hollowed ivory with five holes to an instrument with bellows, pedals, manuals, stops, and multiple ranks of pipes, but the fact that our Stone Age ancestors made music with pipes tells us how important such music is to the human soul.

I wonder what those Stone Age players would have to say about subsequent developments in the way flutes (pipes) were viewed.  Biblical scholars tell us that the flute was considered unfit for worship, with the single exception of Psalm 150, in which the flute – along with everything else in creation – is exhorted to praise God.  The instrument was associated with sensuality and pagan rites, and therefore the objection was both cultural and theological.  The disapproval, however, was not limited to Biblical writers.  Plato opposed allowing flute players into his Republic, and there were other classical writers who disparaged flute players because they could not sing while they blew on their instrument, and thus their music lacked the meaning that lyrics provide.  I also know from the histories of churches in upstate New York that the introduction of organs in worship often met resistance.  Both love and fear of the music that comes from a pipe mark musical history.

Whenever I encounter this kind of ambiguity, I ask myself what wisdom or insight I can draw from it.  What might it mean for organists to know that the music they make has emerged from a conflicted history marked by both love and fear of pipes sounding?  The love part is easy for me: I love the sound of pipes playing.  But what about the fear?  I believe it is part of a larger primary anxiety that especially afflicts the religious heart: will beauty entice us away from God?  It is a fear that we find in the early church fathers.  I think especially of Saint Augustine and his ambivalence toward music and concern with its potential to divert him from the contemplation of divine splendor.  Could beauty, could pipes lead us away from God?  Yes, but then so can any gift that God has given us.  If we say we will not use a gift because it might lead us away from God, then we will not be able to use any gift God has given us!  So I say: let us join with our Stone Age ancestors and sound the pipes.  Let beauty fill the sanctuary to the glory of God.

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