Beethoven…turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms—leave them to the Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.
Love Songs All Address God
In 1998, Nick Cave*, an Australian rock/pop artist, was asked by the Vienna Poetry Academy to give a series of talks on the nature of song-writing. A year later he gave a slightly revised version of the same speech at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Here is an excerpt on the relationship between love songs, God, and “saudade”, a Portuguese word connected to a sense of longing and desire for God’s presence.
Though the Love Song comes in many guises – songs of exaltation and praise, songs of rage and of despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss – they all address God, for it is the haunted premise of longing that the true Love Song inhabits. It is a howl in the void for love and for comfort, and it lives on the lips of the child crying for his mother.
It is the song of the lover in need of their loved one, the raving of the lunatic supplicant petitioning his god. It is the cry of one chained to the earth and craving flight, a flight into inspiration and imagination and divinity. The Love Song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the Love Song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.
We all experience within us what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’, which translates as an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love Song. ‘Saudade’ is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. The Love Song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up through our wounds.
…What I found, time and time again in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, was that verses of rapture, of ecstasy and love could hold within them apparently opposite sentiments – hate, revenge, bloody-mindedness, etc. – these sentiments were not mutually exclusive. This idea has left an enduring impression upon my song-writing.
The Love Song must be borne into the realm of the irrational, the absurd, the distracted, the melancholic, the obsessive and the insane, for the Love Song is the clamour of love itself, and love is, of course, a form of madness. Whether it is the love of God, or romantic erotic love – these are manifestations of our need to be torn away from the rational, to take leave of our senses, so to speak.
Nick Cave, Speech: “The Secret Life of the Love Song”, London, March 30, 1999.
*Editor’s note: Nick Cave has at times self-identified as a Christian and at others not, regardless, the argument is an interesting one.
The Love Song
Richard Foster wrote once of a father walking through a mall with his two-year-old son. The child was cranky; he kept whining and wriggling and complaining. The father struggled to remain patient.
…[The father] scooped up his little two-year-old grumbler, held him tight to his chest, and began to sing an impromptu love son. None of the words rhymed. He sang it off-key, but as best as he could, he shared his heart: “I love you. I’m so glad you’re my boy. You make me laugh.” From store to store the father kept going, words not rhyming, notes off-key. His son relaxed, captivated by this strange and wonderful song.
Finally, when they had finished, the dad went to the car, buckled his son in the car seat, and his son raised his arms and lifted up his head. “Sing it to me again, Daddy. Sing it to me again.”
Music: Yesterday & Today
These days, music is everywhere. It’s on television and film, elevators and restaurants, public bathrooms and dentist offices. It’s in our cars and on our phones. With just a few taps to our screens, we can access almost any song from anytime and anywhere. But it hasn’t always been this way. For most of human history, music was a strictly ephemeral experience. Sound was first recorded in the mid-nineteenth century, and it wasn’t until the very late-nineteenth century that recorded music as a form of entertainment became normative. Before then, if someone wanted to hear music, they had to find the people who played music and the places where they were playing it.
Songs were localized. Songs were events. A song wasn’t just about five minutes of sound. A song was about the journey to a location, the gathering of a community, the anticipation of the first note, and the mix of satisfaction and sadness when the final note ended. Songs were moments to be cherished and memories to be captured. Even more than that, songs were an invitation to create these moments and memories together. And for most of history, there was one primary place where this invitation was standing and open, week after week: the church.
For many years the church was the predominant place where entire local communities gathered regularly to create music and sing songs. Those who wrote songs for the church always wrote with participatory audiences in mind. They wrote songs designed not simply to appeal to the masses but primarily to involve them. In the digital age, we’ve lost sight of this great heritage. The singing life of the church was built upon the foundational principle of engagement—gathering to sing, create, and worship together. But in the digital age, this principle has devolved into an almost unrecognizable (to most of church history at least) form of entertainment.
Andy Crouch, who is not only a writer but a trained musician and worship leader, describes what we experience in most of our churches today this way: “Our worship bands are more technically proficient than ever, and louder than ever. The people holding microphones are singing, often expertly and almost always passionately. It’s just the rest of us who, like the crowd at a ballgame, are mostly swaying along, maybe echoing a few of the phrases or words.
Our Silent Boycott
Mario told me I needed to listen to some Tupac. “Alright,” I said. “Let me hear his best stuff.” I didn’t tell Mario that, where I grew up, people who were saved didn’t listen to rap music. I’d been saved since before I knew how to turn a radio dial. Not listening to 102 JAMZ wasn’t something anyone ever explained to me.
It was a given—like locking our doors when we drove through East Winston or scoffing at anything that smacked of big government. Our silent boycott of a whole genre of music couldn’t have had anything to do with the fact that rap was “black music.” We weren’t like that. I knew from an early age that I was a colorblind Christian. Besides, Vanilla Ice was one of the most notorious of the badboy rappers—and he was white…
Before I met Mario, it never occurred to me that I might be missing out on something by cutting myself off from the entire world of rap music. But I had begun to realize that my piety had its own contradictions. Like the fact that every church deacon I ever rode along with to the tobacco market played Garth Brooks on the truck radio. About the time I hit puberty, I started to feel why a man might want to “slip on down to the oasis” and meet up with some “friends in low places.” Rappers, it turned out, weren’t the only entertainers who played to human passion. But those urges, I knew, had to be resisted—at least until marriage. That’s what they taught us in the True Love Waits program.
Playing for Pennies
How much does a world-class violinist make? Well, that depends on how he markets himself.
Have you ever heard of Joshua Bell?
He’s one of the finest classical musicians in the world. He plays to packed audiences all around the world, making upwards of $1,000 per minute.
The violin that he plays is a Stradivarius violin built in 1713, currently valued at $3.5 million. This particular Stradivarius violin, being close to 300 years old, is renowned to be the most beautiful sounding violin ever crafted.
So, here we have the finest violinist in the world playing the most beautiful violin ever. It’s safe to say that Bell, as an musician, is the best at what he does.
At the height of his career he was approached by the Washington Post to participate in a social experiment.
They wanted him to play at a local subway for an hour, during which thousands of people would walk by and hear him playing.
So on the morning of January 12, 2007, Bell played through a set list of classical masterpieces with his violin case open.
Can you a guess how much the finest violinist in the world, playing a beautiful $3.5 million violin made in hour?
A grand total of $32.
The finest violinist, playing the most beautiful instrument made a meager $32 from his “customers”.
The same violinist played in a Boston concert hall a few nights earlier. It was a performance where audience members paid $100 or more per ticket. During that event, he earned over $60,000 per hour.
The same talented musician, playing the same music on the same violin, yet in one instance he earns $32 an hour and in another, he earns $60,000 per hour.
Playing Second Fiddle
An Admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated orchestra conductor, what was the hardest instrument to play. He replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.” (Source: James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, Tyndale, 1988, p. 450, Brett Blair, Sermon Illustrations, 1999.)
The Purpose of Music
Johann Sebastian Bach said, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hub-bub.”
He headed his compositions: “J.J.” “Jesus Juva” which means “Jesus help me.”
He ended them “S.D.G.” “Soli Dei gratia” which means “To God alone the praise.”
Kingdom Conflict, J. Stowell, p. 77ff
If you’re familiar with Bach, you may know that at the bottom of his manuscripts, he wrote the initials, “S. D. G.” Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.” What you may not know is that at the top of his manuscripts he wrote, “Jesu Juva,” which is Latin for “Jesus, help!” There’s no better prayer for the beginning of an adventure.
Smoke Machines in Worship?
There was much I could have said in that moment. I could have contrasted different philosophies of ministry, especially in relation to the seeker movement in our postmodern culture, and explained how some view the Sunday service as having components of both worship and evangelism. I could have articulated the differences between entertainment and engagement and how the two, while they may look similar, are very different in intent and outcome.
And I could have passionately shared my deeply held convictions on worship theology, what it means to come before the throne of God as the people of God, the bride and the Bridegroom, the community of believers with the community of the Godhead. But I didn’t.
Instead I simply replied, “Well, technically, you need the smoke machines to be able to see the lasers.”
Spirituals and Suffering
There is no lack of pain and suffering in the world. Look around. Read the newspaper. Click on the Internet. Scroll Facebook or read a tweet. Suffering is always present like the paparazzi. It seems to stalk its human prey. Suffering is a part of the broken, sin-sick world. And if there is a theomusical genre that reminds us of this, it is the Spirituals.
They are musical memorabilia created on the anvil of misery by enslaved Backs. They are sorrow songs. They are suffering songs. However, to sing can be a sting to the reality of suffering. It can be a sign of hope and the presence of God in the midst of agony. This is why they called the “Spirituals” because they are the Spirit’s song and the Spirit will not be stopped and will blow through every season of life, even liturgical seasons like Lent.
Temporary Liberation from Music
The Shawshank Redemption contains a poignant scene in which a prisoner, Andy, locks himself into a restricted area and plays a record featuring opera singers. Beautiful music pours through the public address system while prisoners and guards stare upward, transfixed. Another prisoner, Red, played by Morgan Freeman, narrates:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. . . . I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
The music liberated those prisoners, stirring feelings of a better reality and instilling hope that true beauty exists. We, too, though we live in a fallen world, dare to hope for a transcendent happiness that’s out there . . . somewhere.
What Instrument Should My Son Learn?
Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous British conductor, was once asked advice from a lady regarding which instrument her son should learn next. Her son, whose first attempt at both the violin and trombone were so painful on her family’s ears that the mother decided a change was in order, thought Mr. Beecham might have some advice on a different instrument. When asked, Sir Thomas replied, “The bagpipes; they sound exactly the same when you have mastered them as when you first begin learning them.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Your Puny Little Fiddle
The composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was a devout man (some considered at times puritanical) who considered himself to be inspired by God while writing his compositions. He also worked extremely hard to perfect his music.
One of his musicians, a violinist, once complained to Beethoven that a piece of music was so awkwardly written that it was virtually impossible to play. Beethoven’s responded by saying, “When I composed that, I was conscious of being inspired by God Almighty. Do you think I can consider your puny little fiddle when He speaks to me?”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
See also Illustrations on Worship