Music and faith

A reflection by Peter Siepmann

This October [2005] marked the beginning of my fourth year as Music Associate at St Peter's, my twelfth year playing the organ and near enough my fifteenth year since first becoming actively involved in church music as a chorister at Bruern Abbey in the leafy depths of the Cotswolds! Born as the son of two professional musicians, it is not unexpected that music plays a very large part in my life. However, not being a religious family (indeed, not even an English one!), it is perhaps surprising that my musical 'niche' has turned out to be in Anglican church music. I imagine it will also be surprising to some that contrary to my love of the music of the church, I myself am not a Christian. Although I could write extensively on my thoughts and attitude towards religion, this is not the focus of this article. Rather, I would like to explore the relationship between faith and the practice of music in a liturgical context. Does such a relationship exist? Is it a desirable, even a necessary relationship for a church musician to have?

I am sure that masterpieces such as JS Bach's passions and masses, and Handel's oratorios can attribute much of their greatness to the deeply powerful spiritual meaning of the subject matter for the composers. Bach, in particular, was a deeply religious man, and I have no doubt that the power which these texts held for these composers (coupled, of course, with their awesome genius!) inspired them to write such extraordinary works. An empowerment described by some as being filled with the Holy Spirit. The German Requiem by Brahms is one of the most popular choral works in the repertoire and those of you who have heard (or even performed) it will know how spine-tinglingly powerful it is. But unlike Bach and Handel, Brahms, despite a religious upbringing, was not a Christian. This was not an uninformed choice. Jan Swafford's biography of Brahms explains how "though he was to be a freethinker in religion, Johannes pored over the Bible beyond the requirements for his Protestant confirmation". The German Requiem is unusual in its genre in that the text is not the standard requiem mass, but rather Brahms' own compilation of scriptural extracts. The conductor Karl Reinthaler took issue with some of Brahms' editorial exclusions, saying in a letter that “what is lacking, at least for a Christian consciousness, is the pivotal point: the salvation in the death of our Lord”. In fact, Brahms' response made it clear that his exclusion of the central message of Christianity (he cites John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”) was quite deliberate, but not because he felt he was not able to set the text because he did not believe it, but rather because he wanted his Requiem to be a personal testament, “his response to death as a secular, skeptical, modern man” (Swafford, 1997). If he had included John 3:16, would it be considered hypocrisy? Would my setting of a scriptural text be considered hypocritical? I hope not. As Brahms shows so powerfully, appreciation of the power of a text does not have to be dependent on belief in what it says.

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
Revelation 21:4

I quote this verse of Revelation, beautifully set by Edward Bainton in the well-known anthem, And I saw a new heaven, as a personal example of this 'faithless appreciation'. I never fail to feel moved at this stage of Bainton's masterpiece. Of course, the music is a major contributing factor, but the text is powerful indeed. Whether one believes it or not, surely no-one can deny that its promise of a future where the world's suffering will pass away is a wonderful one. I believe that in the composition, interpretation and performance of sacred music, an appreciation of the text being set is certainly a requirement, but belief in its meaning is not strictly necessary, although the power of inspiration it may give to the composer should not be overlooked.

Worship is an intensively personal activity – some may be moved by their own quiet prayer and consideration of the scriptures, some by singing, some by the beauty of paintings, incense, candle light and music, many by a combination of these. In his article about the wearing of Eucharistic vestments, Andrew Deuchar proposed that “worship is a sensual activity as much as it is intellectual”. This is a view that appeals to me greatly as, for me, a service is an exclusively sensual activity. I love the music of the church, the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer, the splendour of clerical vestments, the mysticism of incense and all the other liturgical elaborations popular in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Though, of course I appreciate that this is not what worship is all about. I have a sincere respect for what it is about and fully appreciate that all the customs mentioned above are simply methods of expression of that which is common to any tradition of worship, the practice of prayer and devotion. The fact that I cannot, and may never, understand these practices in no way influences the respect and appreciation I hold for their importance to those who do. It is important that these priorities are understood – the activities of the choir and the organist should always strive to enhance the worship, never to detract from it, and never to draw attention away from its true meaning.

Music is, of course, not necessary in church, yet it is used by almost all traditions. Why? Although music can be seen as purely a scene-setting device, I would argue that it is more than this. Sometimes words are not enough (hence the need for the “sensual” aspect of worship). The expression of great emotion is sometimes just not possible with words. We all know, for example, how sometimes a look or a touch does more to express heartfelt affection than any words can. I would like to suggest that, in the same way, the faithful need other languages than just words to describe (and indeed, prescribe) the affections they have for that in which they believe. One such language is music.

Although respect and appreciation cannot be seen as analogous to faith and understanding, I believe that they are sufficient substitutes to allow one to effectively and sensitively fulfill one's position as a conductor, organist or chorister. If the choir's singing or the organist's playing moves you in your personal devotion, there is no reason that the personal beliefs of the musicians should change this. For me, it is a joy and privilege to participate in the music making in our community of churches, and to be so kindly appreciated for it. I hope these are qualifications enough for any church musician.

Peter Siepmann, Music Associate

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Last revised 15th April 2006