Music was not made for the church; rather, the church was made for music.
Oh, they’ll try to tell you it’s the other way around. The historians and the anthropologists, the theologians and the believers — they’ll all point out that musical notation was invented by monks, and that the earliest Western music sang praise to God, and that some of history’s greatest composers from Bach to Messiaen to Mahler put pen to staff paper in the hopes that their glorious melodies would reach the heavens. All this is completely true.
But music was not invented so God could listen. It was invented so we could listen.
I played my very first church gig in the spring of my tenth grade year. The docile organist from a local Lutheran congregation needed an oboist to accompany the choir at an Ash Wednesday service. My name was pulled from my youth orchestra’s roster, and I was told to show up for one rehearsal and one service. I would receive fifty dollars.
This marked the first time I set foot in a church. Raised Jewish — emphasis on the ish — I had only experienced stuffy, carpeted synagogues that smelled like old people and airport. Synagogues are not meant for music, which perhaps explains the painful lack of instrumental music in most Jewish rituals. Churches, on the other hand, live for it. The soaring slope of a church ceiling swallows the music inside of it, such that the walls verily hum, organic, alive with vibration. Each note paints stained glass panels with vivid shades of sunlight and shadow. The music wanders and whispers through endless rows of wooden pews, slipping into each open ear and drawing smiles on tired worshipers’ faces.
Sacred music is classical by proxy. Classical music and the church are inextricably linked through their rich, shared histories. And, seeing as religion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, we can rest assured that its music will stay with us for the time being. As long as the church exists, classical music lives on.
I am writing this post having just returned from a midnight mass gig — Episcopal, if it makes a difference. I’ve played in every type of service from Methodist to Catholic and I still don’t understand the difference. Every church at which I’ve gigged, no matter what denomination, doesn’t simply use music to praise the Lord — music is the service. Prayer is song. The sermon, or homily, or whatever singularity a given church observes, is surrounded on all sides by hymns and interludes and amens. The mass I played tonight was no exception, with a forty-minute prelude of choir and orchestra and bells followed by ninety minutes of prayer and ceremony alternately spoken and sung. Every second of it was gorgeous.
Church music is truly special. It is passionate and ancient and deeply human. It reminds us that we can’t just let there be peace on earth — we must forge this peace ourselves.
Simply put, church music is beautiful. Absolutely, stunningly beautiful.