Sacred Music in Secular Society
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JONATHAN ARNOLD lays out his intentions towards the beginning of
his book: to appraise "the status of sacred Christian music in
Western secular society at the beginning of the twenty-first
century", to consider "why it is so popular amongst those of faith
and those of none", and, finally, to consider "what theological
implications may arise from these findings".
He achieves these aims in a decreasing degree of success: his
account of the present status of sacred music is excellent; his
explorations of why it is so popular are illuminating but slightly
hamstrung by an insufficiently deep analysis of what "sacred" and
"secular" mean; and the theological analysis is the weakest strand,
although here, too, he leaves us with thoughts to ponder.
In order to achieve his ends, Arnold conducted interviews with
some of the leading figures in sacred vocal music in the UK. Many
of these will be familiar names to any reader with an interest in
this genre of music: the conductors Harry Christophers, James
O'Donnell, and Peter Phillips, for instance, or the composer James
MacMillan, the philosopher Roger Scruton, and the theologian and
sometime archbishop Lord Williams.
Given that Arnold's transcriptions of his conversations allow us
to "listen to" figures such as these, it will be no surprise that
the principle treasures in this volume are the interviews. Arnold
should also be praised for his eye for an illuminating quotation.
Some of these are quite extended, especially when they come from
journalistic sources. Through such excerpts, other prominent
figures from the world of sacred music come to feature, such as Sir
John Eliot Gardiner.
Among the constituencies that Arnold has in mind, three are
particularly prominent: contemporary listeners, performers, and
composers. The first group are represented only through what
performers and composers have to say about them, and what a fourth
group have to add: the intellectual commentators, represented here
by Lord Williams and Dr Scruton.
Liturgists, clergy, and church musicians will be struck by the
conviction - remarkably widely shared here across contributors -
that plainsong is absolutely foundational for Western choral music,
and - they add - for Western liturgical worship. Both Lord Williams
and Dr MacMillan make penetrating comments about what the musical
state of contemporary Christian worship has to say about the state
of our souls.
Dr Scruton concurs, and a comment of his bears particular
attention: decline in church attendance parallels decline in
attendance at concert halls. Attention lies atthe heart of human
life, as Lord Williams would also say. It is also rather difficult,
and we are getting less and less good at it.
Arnold's book is a necessary purchase for any theological
library with a holding in music. The bibliography is valuable in
its own right, although it contains a surprising number of small
slips. Beyond that, it should enjoy a surprisingly wide readership,
for a book from an academic press, since the pool of those who
combine an interest in music, and even passion for it,with an
interest in theology is not small.
While it is not a work on the "theology of music" per se, anyone
interested in that topic will find something to reflect on here.
Similarly, the contributors have much of value to say about the
place of music in the liturgy, not least in the divergent comments
of those performers who favour the concert hall and those who see a
particular privilege in singing in the more anonymous setting of
worship. The composers are less split: composing for the liturgy is
Something concurs between music and the spirit. This book offers
a series of vistas upon that concurrence. It also contains some
heartfelt expressions of thankfulness for it, and is likely to
leave the reader adding his or her own.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in
Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University.
Mater premières by The Sixteen reviewed