Category Archives: Music

Our Future Belongs to the Lord

This 1978 Cantopop song, which I recently learned, has sentiments of James and Ecclesiastes, but in a happy light:

無論有幾多變遷,何必諸多掛牽?
過了今天,再有一天,仲有幾個十年。
願望係做個預算,夢幻係自我去編,
無謂去搵個道理,把你欺騙。

命裡係注定從前,夢境係一片胡言,
唯有我永遠面對目前。
明日話今天,昨天亦提到
想到舊年 更多挑戰。

迎面有幾多變遷,誰知道邊一個先?
這裡高山,那裡滄海,在那天變良田?
實在係話變就變,預伏在樂趣前面,
前面有千變萬化,不會睇見。

(Approximate English translation on Lyrics Translate.)

Oratorio Idea: Josiah

I’m imagining an oratorio, Josiah, King of the Jews, the titular character being voiced by a countertenor – in my dreams, someone like Jakub Józef Orliński or Iestyn Davies – and the plot centred around the discovery of the long-lost book of Deuteronomy in the temple of the LORD. The oratorio is set in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, in the waning years of the Assyrian empire, while Josiah energetically leads a national revival, breaking idols throughout the land and restoring the temple of the LORD.

Act 1 opens with Josiah troubled at the prophet and royal kinsman Zephaniah’s words about the day of the LORD in the midst of Judah’s national revival and overlord Assyria’s decline.

In Act 2, while the temple is being repaired upon Josiah’s orders, the young priest and prophet Jeremiah appears at the temple gates; upon those who have ‘healed’ the hurt of the people by putting their confidence in ‘the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’, he pronounces certain doom. The people and Josiah are perplexed and displeased with Jeremiah’s words, but the oldest councillor remembers his father’s account of how Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah broke the brazen serpent that Moses had made.

In Act 3, the book of the law of the LORD (viz., Deuteronomy) is found in the temple. Josiah tears his clothes and weeps when he hears the word of the LORD, and sends for the prophetess Huldah.

In Act 4, word returns from Huldah, saying that the LORD will surely bring evil upon Jerusalem and its inhabitants thereof, even all the curses that are written in the book which they have read before the king of Judah, because the people have forsaken the LORD; yet, on account of Josiah’s tender heart before the LORD, this evil will not come upon David’s house within Josiah’s reign. Josiah, relieved at the LORD’s kindness but sobered by the calamity that will befall Jerusalem after his time, prays that a future Anointed of the LORD may reverse the fortunes of the house of David according to what is written in the book of the law.

In Act 5, the people observe the Passover exactly 100 years after Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah’s revival of the Passover, and slaughter the Paschal lamb for sacrifice with great rejoicing.

The Times Tables and the Eight Modes of Church Music

A friend of mine says,

My daughter enjoys the cutesy sing-along songs they use for memorization at school, but my son is not amused. He likes some of them ok, but there are a few that really test his (and my) patience. I feel bad for the kid. There’s a real need for masculine influences in early childhood education. Even the ‘classical’ variety.

I have a proposal.

Imagine, for multiplication, chanting the 1s to the 8s in the eight church modes, from Dorian to Hypomixolydian; the 9s can be in the tonus peregrinus (wandering tone). In this way, in a Western Christian school, you can kill two or more birds with one stone. The memorization of the multiplication tables can be aided by music; the music can also range through the varied tonalities of traditional church music, in settings masculine enough not to alienate the boys.

Of course, each line must be long enough to be chanted, and ‘one times six is six’ cannot by stretched into two hemistichs (half verses). This is what I suggest: Let the first hemistich be an odd, the second hemistich an even. Two times nine, then, is an odd, and the second half of that verse can say ‘thus multiply the twos’ or something to that effect.

Ci Lyric as Anthem After the Third Collect

Just as the Song of Songs is in the biblical canon, there is a place in the worship of God for the sensuousness of the teahouse, a woman singing a ci 詞 lyric as she plays the pipa. This too, after all, is part of the piety of the Church: the desire for the beloved, the Lord’s Anointed.

According to the ci genre, the musical vehicle would be existing Chinese tunes suitable for songs about love. In the first stanza of a two-stanza ci, the singer could render a piece of the Song of Songs in verse; in the second stanza, her lyric could unravel that piece of silk according to what the New Testament has shown us about Christ.

Easter Music, Contemporary v. Traditional: A Test

Christ is risen, alleluia.

In response to songs I have heard for Easter, I want to propose a test for a hymn’s musical quality, a test with a theological basis. The theological basis is this: just as the offering of incense and the sacrifice of animals belong to the Old Testament – even though today we may still sweeten a church with incense and eat lamb with thanksgiving this Easter – so too only the singing, and not the playing of instruments, is properly the New Testament worship of the Lord. The test, then, is to strip away the pyrotechnics and try singing the hymn on the quality of the melody alone. Let’s use two songs I heard today: one of them a ‘contemporary worship song’, the other a classic hymn for Easter Day.

This Easter song may sound catchy, but try singing it a cappella and see how it is with the instruments stripped away:

I think you’ll find that it falls flat, and you won’t want to be heard singing it without the instruments whose proper place in worship is to accompany the singing.

In contrast, the classic Easter hymn ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today’, though certainly grand with the right instrumentation, works well even if you sing it alone in a country field, and it’s the kind of earworm you might find yourself whistling on the way home from church.

Christ is risen, alleluia.

Cool Lingnan Regional Æsthetics to Develop

Cantonese folk metal (e.g. for some of the psalms) with tunes created in the tradition of Naamyam and Cantonese opera. The electric guitar or electric gaohu or whatever can carry the tones of Cantonese speech if itʼs not clean vocals. Also, pipa riffs.

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This but richer, and Lingnan rather than Jiangnan in inspiration.

Sino Deco architecture. Just think about the possibilities. This could take 19th-century Seiyap architecture and 20th-century Hong Kong vernacular, as well as classical Lingnan architecture, into fascinating places, in parallel with Shanghai’s developments, and it would really fit Guangdongʼs place within China as a centre of international trade and cultural exchange since the Ming and Qing dynasties.

(I’m trying to contain my excitement at the thought of an airport with a Deco dragon wall. Nine dragons for Kowloon 九龍.)

cantonese-embroidered-cream-silk-shawl-19c-bonhams

Cantonese embroidery turned to the making of church altar frontals. Imagine how Lingnan articulations of Christian imagery could go, especially in the use of plant and animal symbolism with important Chinese characters in worm-style seal scripts from the ancient Chu state used as sacred monograms along with the Chi-Rho – or IC XC NIKA (‘Jesus Christ conquers’) in Chinese. These could be powerful textiles expressing the idea of Paradise and Godʼs victory over evil.

worm-script-han-dynasty-seal

I Didn’t Know This Psalm Project Existed

Well, I know now because I was looking for stuff for next Sunday’s worship and came upon these guitar arrangements of the Genevan Psalter.

Visual and Aural Æsthetics of Hagia Sophia

Take a look.

Appropriating Geʼez Music as Chinese?

Æthiopian music like this can probably be adapted into Chinese music. It already sounds similar.

The Beauty of Suzhounese

Is it just me, or is Suzhounese the most beautiful language ever sung by women? I think I have a serious weakness for that dialect.

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Recognition and Acknowledgement

One of the best scenes in Cantonese opera, from the 1959 film 《帝女花》 (The Flower Princess). The male protagonist, betrothed to the Ming dynasty princess shortly before the emperor’s suicide before rebel forces, now in the new Qing dynasty recognizes a Daoist nun as his once intended, tries to persuade her to acknowledge their relationship.

Aside

Ming Wilson in the Princeton Tory, ‘The Redemption of the World: What Music Teaches about Objectivity, Beauty & God’: ‘Considering both undeniable historical opinion and persuasive modern findings, we should not reject a possible bond between objectivity and beauty in … Continue reading

Hezbollah and the Need for Better Music


Hezbollah is today leading the defence of Lebanon against the forces of Daesh (ISIS), not fearing to make tactically aggressive manoeuvres in Syria and lend its hand to the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. For this reason even Christians and Sunnis have joined their defence. This willingness to use military force for the common good is due at least in part to the music that helps maintain Hezbollah’s confidence.

So much of contemporary Christian music, on the other hand, seems to be written for women and eunuchs, and certainly not for men. I am not, of course, the first to have observed this tendency: others have noted it for years. How much of our music, training us in a general meekness and mildness – rather than humility before God and justly wielded power, but iron strength before the prowling lion Satan – has destroyed our ability to stand up to the snakes who spread false teaching, wolves who devour the flock, and wild beasts who rage against the people of God?

Shall we not consider the words of Glaucon and Socrates discussing music in Plato’s Republic (398d–399c, tr. Grube)?

Nonetheless, I said, you know that, in the first place, a song consists of three elements – words, harmonic mode, and rhythm.

Yes, I do know that.

As far as words are concerned, they are no different in songs than they are when not set to music, so mustn’t they conform in the same way to the patterns we established just now?

They must.

Further, the mode and rhythm must fit the words.

Of course.

And we said that we no longer needed dirges and lamentations among our words.

We did, indeed.

What are the lamenting modes, then? You tell me, since you’re musical.

The mixo-Lydian, the syntono-Lydian, and some others of that sort.

Aren’t they to be excluded, then? They’re useless even to decent women, let alone to men.

Certainly.

Drunkenness, softness, and idleness are also most inappropriate for our guardians [i.e. the warrior ruling class, as opposed to the producers].

How could they not be?

What, then, are the soft modes suitable for drinking-parties?

The Ionian and those Lydian modes that are said to be relaxed.

Could you ever use these to make people warriors?

Never. And now all you have left is the Dorian and Phrygian modes.

I don’t know all the musical modes. Just leave me the mode that would suitably imitate the tone and rhythm of a courageous person who is active in battle or doing other violent deeds, or who is failing and facing wounds, death, or some other misfortune, and who, in all these circumstances, is fighting off his fate steadily and with self-control. Leave me also another mode, that of someone engaged in a peaceful, unforced, voluntary action, persuading someone or asking a favor of a god in prayer or of a human being through teaching and exhortation, or, on the other hand, of someone submitting to the supplications of another who is teaching him and trying to get him to change his mind, and who, in all these circumstances, is acting with moderation and self-control, not with arrogance but with understanding, and is content with the outcome. Leave me, then, these two modes, which will best imitate the violent or voluntary tones of voice of those who are moderate and courageous, whether in good fortune or in bad.

The modes you’re asking for are the very ones I mentioned.

In the kingdom of God, as long as it exists within a fallen world, there must (pace Plato) be lamentation. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, indeed, teach us to mourn for Jerusalem fallen, and mourn we must unto the ending of the world. Blessed, says our Lord, are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. In the mourning of a Christian, directed toward God, is both a plea against the present and a confidence in the judgement of God. For the Christian warrior, then, it is the elegy and the hope of the world to come, the world that is coming from heaven to earth, that together make his resolve to fight. In Christendom, therefore, we must have the Lydian and the Mixolydian (both authentic and plagal), which Western music has kept as church modes 5–8, elegiac but hopeful.

Nevertheless, much neglected among Western Christians today are modes 1–4, comprising the Dorian and the Phrygian (both authentic and plagal). These are modes we dearly need to bring back into the idiom of the common Christian’s expression, that he may be fit both to speak sober reason and to make war against the devil and, when there is need, against forces of flesh and blood as well. What the devil has removed from the throats of Christians, let us restore to the songs of the Church.

Tallis’s psalm tunes here, except the ninth, are numbered to correspond to the church modes (or tones): (1) Dorian, (2) Hypodorian, (3) Phrygian, (4) Hypophrygian, (5) Lydian, (6) Hypolydian, (7) Mixolydian, (8) Hypomixolydian.

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A Carol for the Feast of St Stephen

Performed by Magpie Lane.

Saint Stephen was a holy man
Endued with heavenly might,
And many wonders he did work
All in the people’s sight;
And by the holy Spirit of God,
Which did his heart inflame,
He spared not, in every place,
To preach God’s holy Name.

O man, do never faint nor fear,
When God the truth shall try;
But mark how Stephen, for Christ’s sake,
Was a-willing for to die.

Before the elders he was brought,
His answer for to make,
But they could not the spirit withstand
Whereby this man did speak.
While this was told, the multitude
Beholding him aright,
His comely face began to shine
Most like an angel bright.

Then Stephen did put forth his voice,
And he did first unfold
The wond’rous works which God had wrought
E’en for their fathers old;
That they thereby might plainly know
Christ Jesus should be he
That from the burden of the law
Should quit us frank and free.

But, oh! quoth he, you wicked men,
Which of your fathers all
Did not the prophets persecute,
And keep in woeful thrall?
But when they heard him so to say,
Upon him they all ran,
And there without the city gates
They stoned this holy man.

There he most meekly on his knees
To God did pray at large
Desiring that he should not lay
This sin unto their charge;
Then yielding up his soul to God,
Who had it dearly bought,
He lost his life, and his body then
To the grave was seemly brought.

Aside

Analects 11.1: 子曰:「先進於禮樂,野人也;後進於禮樂,君子也。如用之,則吾從先進。」 ‘The Master said, “Those of my disciples who were first to enter into study of ritual and music with me were simple rustics, whereas those who entered later were aristocrats (junzi 君子). If I had to employ … Continue reading