Pulchra Musica: A Case for the Beauty of Sacred Music

Beauty.  It is a simple word to cause so much ruckus in the world; and yet it houses all the complexities of mystery.  A powerful force that captures, inspires, startles, and delights us, something that increases joy and deepens meaning, something that demands response yet eludes definition.  This dance of words would seem to lead us on a frivolously philosophical journey, and yet beauty does not remain there, it is tangible, accessible, moldable, even strongly physical.

Beauty floods our world: I have seen it shimmer and warm a rose garden, a Blue Mountain sun-rise, Canova’s Cupid and Psyche, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and a myriad of other wondrous memories that merely skim the surface of beauty’s breadth, like the brief ripple from a bird’s foot as it glides low over water.  But there is a certain quality of beauty that is unique to music.  The sacred, choral jewels of the Renaissance and Baroque eras – pieces like Zelenka’s “Magnificat in D” and Handel’s “Comfort Ye” from “Messiah” – never cease to awaken that transcendent yearning, that awed joy that is the handmaiden of true beauty.  This is perfectly acceptable to say in our relativistic age; I have had an experience that I interpreted according to emotion, and thus state my opinion on a matter – choral music is beautiful.  But a brief examination of mind reveals that pure democracy cannot uphold the weight of these deeper things, for when relativism tampers with beauty, the result is often confused or jarring, the abstract, uninspired fruit of misplaced independence.  But I would contest that the beauty found in four-part harmony supersedes my transitory emotion or limited experience, that it answers to a higher court than human opinion and thus maintains a constant standard despite shifting mediums and tastes.

Beauty must be found in a unity of things: first, there is a beauty in purpose – does is accomplish what is was made for?  Second, a beauty in form – is it crafted with excellence, sensitivity, and realism? And third, a beauty in radiance – does it inspire wonder, hope, reflection, passion or delight?  This type of triune tension provides the strong foundation of beauty defined.

So, does sacred choral music align with these requirements?  First, is it beautiful in its purpose?  Assuredly.  Intended as a form of worship to glorify the Most High and re-inspire congregations to adore him, the towering domes of cathedrals and the monastic fireside alike have echoed “beauty” back down upon sacred choral music for centuries.  To this day, there is an instinctive hushed wonder when the traveler encounters this polyphonic treasure, despite private musical preference.

Second, is it beautiful in form?  Unquestionably.  Metaphoric styles of melody and carefully crafted rhythms produce profound connections with the realities sung about, stirring a recognizable beauty.  Additionally, the layering of four to six harmonies and the uniting of tens to hundreds of voices into cohesive song, places rigorous demands upon the sensitivity and excellence of the composer’s ear as well as the performer’s voice.  And when the demands are met in a piece such as Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” or Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, its beauty is stunning indeed.

Third, is sacred choral music beautiful in radiance?  As hymn writer and reformer Martin Luther once said “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful present God has given us.”  As alluded through this essay, the power sacred choral music exerts over the human mind and heart is strong and vibrant indeed.  It inspires the soul toward worship and awe, it captures the heart in wonder and joy, and fascinates the mind in its complexity and artistry.

Beauty demands response; but in the ardent search for the “how” of responding – and oh, there is wondrous power in a cultivated imagination to answer that! – in that seeking of practicals, let us not forget to ask “to whom?”  For pleasure is found in community; it is dull indeed to experience something euphoric and have no one with which to exclaim over it, or to receive a great gift, to feel truly grateful, and have no one to thank for it.  The very existence of these pleasures, the fact that they cannot be independently judged, demands we look to a nobler standard, a higher court that establishes the truth and goodness of beauty; and this pursuit will urge us ever higher and deeper until we reach the very throne room of God.  As the creator and quintessence of beauty, the LORD God is himself the standard by which we judge all that is beautiful.  The Psalmist declares again and again “the perfection of beauty [in] God shines forth” (50:2), and he could desire nothing more than to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (27:4).  The prophets join the chorus, saying “For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty!” (Zachariah 9:17), and the apostles pick up the anthem in the New Testament, exclaiming “we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Music is beautiful.  It is beautiful because it accomplishes its purpose, it is excellent in its form, and it stirs us with its radiance.  Furthermore, music is beautiful because there exists a perfect transcendent standard by which we can understand it and judge the things that echo around us in this dazzling symphony of existence.  And this standard is not a mere philosophical abstract, rather it is as intensely personal as it is lofty and glorious; ultimate beauty is treasured up in the eternal heart-song of the Lord Most High.


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