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The art of paying attention

by
04 July 2014

Andrew Davison reads interviews reflecting on sacred music

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Sacred Music in Secular Society
Jonathan Arnold
Ashgate £19.99
(978-1-4094-5171-6)
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT834 )

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 richly rewarding.

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.

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