Getting Reverence Back Into Church Music

To thee Cherubin and Seraphin :
 continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy :
 Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty :
 of thy glory.

It’s been a long time since we’ve really valued music that promotes an atmosphere of reverence. Of course, true reverence is in the heart, overflowing into the body, but it hardly makes sense to make physical reverence difficult, especially as the body teaches the soul what Scripture declares. Imagine actually bowing down to the words ‘Here I am to worship, / Here I am to bow down, / Here I am to say that you’re my God.’ Would you really physically bow down? I doubt it. So why make it so difficult?

I really want to stop being the only one bowing and prostrating, and instead be doing it together as a Body as well, but the music doesn’t help. Sometimes I’m jarred by the discrepancy between the music and the bending of the knee, but I’m even more jarred by the discrepancy between the bowing that happens in the Bible and the bowing that isn’t happening now in our actual practice. Can I make all my practice cerebral? The consciousness of individual choice doesn’t even figure into my choice now: the catholic practice of the Church compels me, will or not, to join all the saints, the twenty-four elders around the Great Throne.

Serve the LORD with fear,
 and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
 lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way,
 when his wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

Now listen to the interaction between organ and voice in the Te Deum hymn sung in Notre Dame de Paris:

The hymn’s one of celebration and thanksgiving to God for a special blessing – according to old legend, it was authored by Saints Ambrose and Augustine, on the occasion of the latter’s baptism by the former – but it’s also solemn rather than gay (in the old sense): it has a gravity that ‘Here I Am to Worship’ doesn’t.

Musical style per se isn’t the issue, but we need to be able to express real reverence and not just ‘feel’ it in our hearts – underlying the ‘heart only’ (rationalistic) deal is an individualistic assumption that corporate reverence is neither practisable nor very desirable. If the usual medium used lacks the necessary resources, we need to get those resources even if it means taking a page (or many) from older solutions.


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