Music and Religion

The argument that religion has artistic benefits to society has struck me on several occasions. In many ways this claim seems almost incontestable. Surely, I cannot argue that a composer like JS Bach wasn’t in any way inspired by his religious beliefs, in the conceptualisation and creation of his grandest works. More than anything, it would be a hugely silly assertion for a musician like myself to have to defend, because Bach obviously was deeply religious, and very clearly was his religiosity reflected in his musical output — to say otherwise would probably make me seem like a total ignoramus.

My argument, however, will be that religion does not actually deserve thanks for its “contribution” to the progress of music. You may argue that music (at least Western music) has its roots deeply tied to the church, and you would not be wrong to make such a claim. But can it not be argued that this is only simply due to the fact that the church had a monopoly on musical activity? Secular and sacred music have both co-existed for a long time, and I feel no need to thank secularism for secular music, much less thank religion for religious music. Musicians responded to churches as they also do to courts and courtly noblemen, and for two main reasons: 1. because they don’t have a choice, and/or 2. because that’s where the money is. The social circumstances in the earlier centuries were not entirely favourable for composers to write anything they wanted to write. The fact that ecclesiastical music exists in such great abundance can easily be explained by societal factors from which it emerged.

I should also stress that this does nothing to belittle the religious composite of Bach’s creativity, or to say that religion did not influence him in any way, and it shouldn’t. But it seems that the somewhat popular claim that religion is “necessary” or “expedient” in the evolution of music must seriously be put into question.

There is no doubt that religion can make a person feel elated or spiritual, as to produce such sublimely magnificent works, but one must understand that spirituality can be derived from other sources (eg. party pills), and that music wouldn’t be put in jeopardy if religion had not existed. Many great composers had been irreligious, among them Bartok, Berlioz, Strauss, Shostakovich, etc., but since we don’t really thank irreligion for their music, why thank religion for Bach?

Not only that credit is not deserved, but religion (especially Christianity) has actually been counterproductive to artistic developments, as I will shortly demonstrate. The monopoly on music means that the church actually controls what composers write, what gets published, and what gets performed. In this sense, the church is actually utilising music to serve their purpose, at the cost of genuine art. One does not demand creative art by confining minds to a square box. The truth is that the fate of creative art is probably one among the least of the church’s priorities. More music simply means better attendance, and it’s not hard to postulate why.

Then the 19th century came, and things were much different than before. Revolutions abound in Europe. Societies were shaken and irreversibly changed. The musical setting too had suffered changed (but maybe for the better). The artist was for the first time in history allowed to break free from the shackles of courts and churches, and to support themselves through their earnings (Beethoven, for example, went freelance). Beethoven was among the first composers who made it his business to write what he wanted to write, not what the public wanted to hear (it is understandable why the Romantics might have looked up to him as some sort of a demigod).

Amid all these developments, however, one particular country seemed to have escaped the hatchet of revolution (which was happening almost everywhere else in Europe). This country was England (or I should say, the whole of Great Britain). In England, the church was still very much in power. But, no doubt that the church slowly was losing its grip on people, and I quote:

“So the imitation of secular styles [in music] was almost an involuntary consequence of vigorous efforts to improve [church] performance … It had happened before–for instance in the Restoration period. Yet its consequences at this time were not altogether happy. The late-romantic musical ideal brought all resources to bear on the maximizing of emotional effect, and this did not accord well with a religious liturgy and tradition that emphasized dignity and restraint.” – Temperley

Not much elaboration is required here from my part. Here we have an instance where the church was actually trying to holding music back from becoming too secular/Romantic — but then when the necessity came, it too was forced to imitate secular styles, in order to ensure its own survival.

In this instance, we find religious values and traditions (among other things) proving to be quite detrimental to the musical growth of a country. Of course, I should not make aesthetic assumptions on the “progress” of music, but I think it is clear from these examples that the claim that music owes much to religion is, in fact, debatable.

I feel that Western music was only ever dependent on aristocracy and religion because there were no other possible alternatives through which it could have survived. If the composer did not write for courts or churches then he would have starved to death. Moreover, it seems apparent to me that when the opportune moment came, composers quickly broke away from this thralldom, and I have presented a case where religious music was in turn forced to rely on secular styles, because they too had no alternative. The composer is so often governed by his social circumstances, and the fact that music once relied on religion or irreligion does not mean that it could not have existed without.

Personally, I am actually a huge fan of psalmody. Surely I can appreciate and view religion as a cultural phenomenon; there’s no denying that it has played a huge part in the course of human history, and that it has and continues to disseminate itself through the arts. I can appreciate liturgical texts as I do Shakespeare, and I can certainly entertain Christian concepts as they appear in Christian music, as I do secular concepts as they appear in secular music.

But, having said that, the argument that music owes a debt to religion is still, I think, a fallacy.