Music As Prayer

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

August 14, 2017

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 [...]

MUSIC: How do You Sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus? by Thomas H. Troeger

August 7, 2017

From: Music As Prayer How do you sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy)?  How do you approach in music the one whose glory fills Heaven and Earth?  Do you sing it the way Bach does in his Mass in B Minor with the choir nearly shouting the word to the accompaniment of tympani and trumpets?  I was moved to ask this question when I preached in a service of worship that featured the Requiem of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  I had grown up listening to Bach’s Mass on recordings, and although since then I have heard and preached on many other settings of the Sanctus, it is Bach’s monumental treatment that rings most stubbornly in memory’s ear.  So when I first listened to Schnittke’s setting, it took my [...]

MUSIC: Church Organist Declared Greatest Composer by Thomas H. Troeger

July 31, 2017

From: Music As Prayer Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for the New York Times, once wrote a series of articles on the ten greatest classical music composers.  He acknowledged all the limitations of such a question and that even the word classical is problematic, not adequately conveying the richness and dynamism of our musical legacy.  Tommasini, a champion of contemporary music, decided he would not consider living composers because “we are too close” to them “to have perspective.  Besides, assessing greatness is the last thing on your mind when you are listening to an involving, exciting, or baffling new piece.” Despite these limitations, Tommasini still wanted to pursue the matter: “I began this [...]

MUSIC: The Whole Company Of Musicians by Thomas H. Troeger

July 24, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I once attended an organ recital by my colleague Martin Jean that exclusively featured the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707).  I was eager to hear this concert because J. S. Bach – while a young organist at Arnstadt – had walked two hundred miles to hear Buxtehude perform his own music in the city of Lübeck.  Although I often listen to Bach, I had never heard an all-Buxtehude concert.  Since Martin Jean would be performing on an organ styled after those of the great North European organ builder Arp Schnitger, I thought his recital would be a wonderful way to enter a sonic universe that had held Bach so enthralled that he overstayed his paid furlough from the church in Arnstadt by two or possibly [...]

MUSIC: The Deeper Meaning Of Inspiring Music by Thomas H. Troeger

July 17, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I recall delivering a series of brief homilies during a service of beautiful anthems, hymns, and organ works.  The occasion gave me an opportunity to reflect on why listening to great choral and organ music in a sacred space is not simply pleasurable but restorative and uplifting.  We commonly describe such an experience as “inspiring,” which literally means the spirit being poured into us.  I began reflecting in greater detail on exactly what happens to my heart and mind when I am inspired, when I listen to music with my whole being, giving myself over completely to the river of sound. As I thought about the matter, I recalled an academic paper by the German scholar Alexander Deeg in which he shares [...]

MUSIC: Plucked From The Universe by Thomas H. Troeger

July 10, 2017

From: Music As Prayer While reading the biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, I was enchanted to learn that the great theoretical physicist was also a violinist and sometimes even performed at scientific gatherings.  After the response of several colleagues to a lecture, Einstein declined to provide further comment, saying instead, “It will perhaps be pleasanter and more understandable if instead of making a speech I play a piece for you on the violin.”  He proceeded to perform a sonata by Mozart with, according to Frank [the host of the event], “his simple, precise, and therefore doubly moving manner.”  What a splendid scene this is: one of the greatest scientific minds in history responding to colleagues [...]

MUSIC: The Great Mighty Ocean Tone by Thomas H. Troeger

July 3, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I was re-reading the Yale lectures on preaching that were delivered by Henry Ward Beecher (1871, 1872, and 1873) when I discovered an extraordinary meditation about pipe organs.  These were the first lectures in a series that had been permanently endowed to honor Henry’s father, Lyman Beecher.  The lectures cover many topics other than preaching.  They are about prayer meetings and the placement of new ministers, and they offer extensive reflections on church music, including congregational singing and organs.  Henry Ward Beecher is rhapsodic about the pipe organ: I look upon the history and the development of the organ for Christian uses as a sublime instance of the guiding hand of God’s providence.  [...]

MUSIC: Salutary Harmonies by Thomas H. Troeger

June 26, 2017

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 [...]

MUSIC: When The World Falls Apart by Thomas H. Troeger

June 19, 2017

From: Music As Prayer If you were to look through the door of my study, you would know at a glance that I am well acquainted with the chaos monster.  Books are piled upon books; papers upon papers; and stacks upon stacks on the desk, the filing cabinet, the floor, and the couch.  The chaos monster is always threatening to get the upper hand.  What about you?  Sooner or later, most of us do battle with the chaos monster, if not in our study, then simply in the course of living.  We think we have our day organized and know when and where we have got to be.  Then suddenly a text message comes in or the phone rings or the computer dings with an emergency we never foresaw. Most of us are adept at dealing with the minor intrusions of the [...]

MUSIC: Music And Metaphor by Thomas H. Troeger

June 12, 2017

From: Music As Prayer I am indebted to my friend and colleague Martin Jean for introducing me to this Kendall Walton quotation that summarizes many of the ways we describe the expressive qualities of music: We call passages of music exuberant, agitated, serene, timid, calm, determined, nervous. We speak of rising and falling melodies, of wistful melodies and hurried rhythms, or motion and rest, of leaps, skips, and stepwise progression, of statements and answering phases, tension and release, resignation and resolve, struggle, uncertainty, and arrival. Music can be impetuous, powerful, delicate, sprightly, witty, majestic, tender, arrogant, peevish, spirited, yearning, chilly. As we listen to it we imagine agitation or nervousness, [...]