Contemporary Classical Music

I think I have figured out why contemporary classical music doesn’t satisfy. There are several ways to create and resolve musical tension. There are rhythmical ways, harmonic ways, dynamic ways, timbrel ways, and more. However, of these various ways, the harmonic way is the most easily recognizable way. It works by creating harmonic tension and then relieving that tension. In much modern classical music, there is no harmonic resolution. Therefore you cannot tell when the musical plot has been resolved. Maybe you’ve noticed that when some of these pieces end, you don’t know when to clap. This is because many modern pieces have rejected the tonal system altogether. Without a tonal system, there is no such as resolution. Harmonic musical arcs proceed from tonal consonance to tonal dissonance, and then back to consonance for the resolution.

This idea can be applied to much modern novel-writing as well, especially the more stream-of-consciousness models. If there is no narrative arc from happiness to crisis to happiness, then readers will not be very happy. Of course, that will be the author’s intention in a tragedy, though even there, a resolution to the tension still takes place, just not the one we “want.”

Why do we love this narrative arc? I would suggest that it is because that is how we want history to flow, in its ultimate proportions. It is the narrative arc of the Bible (creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation). I think God put that arc in all of us, and that’s how we want the story to end.



  1. Martin said,

    November 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I think you are right. Most contemporary classical music, I freely admit, I cannot stand. It is stream-of-consciousness music writing, and often more interested in bare technique or technical theoretical exploration than in melodic and harmonic resolution.

    I think melody is involved here, too. I can take just about any harmonic exploration and experimentation if it is in support of something melodic. And a good melody or melodic line has some sort of resolution. As you put it, the story ends.

    (BTW, contemporary jazz is going down the same route…)

  2. Kent said,

    November 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Helpful reviews recommending what is to be gleaned from contemporary classical music have come from Robert R. Reilly at Crisis Magazine.

  3. mary kathryn said,

    November 9, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Many of the lyrical and harmonic progressions are unsatisfying and almost boring. But perhaps the best example of this “lack of resolution” or “unfinished” feel is from a contemporary Christian praise song that was used in our school chapel a few years ago. One entire line was this: “My glorious.” An adjective without a noun. I suppose it means “My glorious God,” or something like that, but that unresolved text is supposed to leave some kind of spiritual angst in the singer that is compelling. I disliked the song quite a bit, and since I was the high school English teacher, I teased the students about the mediocre grammar.

  4. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    You’ve hit upon one of my greatest earthly joys – Western classsical music in all forms, styles, and genres of the past 1000 years. I have been an intense listener, reader, and collector for over fifty years. I am familiar with the entire repertoire, instrumental and vocal, of this thousand-year period. And, although I have my favorites, I love nearly all of it, even 20th-century avant-garde.

    I must respectfully disagree with the statement that “Without a tonal system, there is no such [thing] as resolution.” Actually, this is not true. There are various musical “languages” employed during the past hundred years, some of which utilize traditional tonality and some not. The resolution inherent in the triadic system of major and minor keys (which is only 500-600 years old, after all) is not the only way to achieve variety and resolution.

    There’s much more to be said, but I’m out of time right now. I would ask everyone to keep an open mind (and ear), however, and realize that the learning curve for some contemporary classical music might be a little steep. The rewards might just be worth the effort, however.

  5. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    You’ve hit upon one of my greatest earthly joys – Western classsical music in all forms, styles, and genres of the past 1000 years. I have been an intense listener, reader, and collector for over fifty years. I am familiar with the entire repertoire, instrumental and vocal, of this thousand-year period. And, although I have my favorites, I love nearly all of it, even 20th-century avant-garde.

    I must respectfully disagree with the statement that “Without a tonal system, there is no such [thing] as resolution.” Actually, this is not true. There are various musical “languages” employed during the past hundred years, some of which utilize traditional tonality and some not. The resolution inherent in the triadic system of major and minor keys (which is only 500-600 years old, after all) is not the only way to achieve variety and resolution.

    There’s much more to be said, but I’m out of time right now. I would ask everyone to keep an open mind (and ear), however, and realize that the learning curve for some contemporary classical music might be a little steep. The rewards might just be worth the effort, however.

    One final note for now: During the past thirty years, the trend in contemporary classical music has been back toward a more melodic, tonal, and conservative style. So, it’s really necessary to know composer we’re referring to, and even what period in that composer’s life.

  6. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Please excuse the double post. My computer is acting up today.

    On a lighter note: It’s easy to know when to clap after a piece of contemporary music. It’s when the orchestra stops playing, and the conductor lowers his baton.

  7. rfwhite said,

    November 9, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Green Baggins:

    So, is it your hypothesis that the suppression-rejection-loss of the Christian (aka biblical) narrative arc has produced the absence of the musical counterpart to this arc in contemporary classical music? Is this suppression a species of the suppression of Rom 1.18ff.?

  8. November 9, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    There are at least three composers alive today who are bucking the trend: Arvo Pärt, Morten Lauridsen, and Eric Whitacre. They are experimenting with some amazingly beautiful harmonies I’ve not heard elsewhere. Their music definitely resolves.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    November 9, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Frank, I am well aware that there are many different styles of modern classical out there. However, up until the last thirty years, the only contemporary composers who embraced resolution were Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. Copland on occasion. But the likes of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern (the twelve-tone composers), and especially Stravinsky, pushed music well outside the tonal system. Tonality is based on the harmonic overtone series. It is how God made harmonics to work. So I will stick with what I said. When I was doing my piano degree at St. Olaf, my teachers always wanted me to explore modern music. I have heard plenty of it, performed lots of it, but like very little of it. One exception is Rachmaninoff. But then, of course, he is more of a neo-Romantic anyway.

    Dr. White, I think you could make that argument.

    Adrian, and still addressing Frank to a certain extent, there are a fair number of recent composers who are very tonal. Take Michael Torque, the ones Adrian mentioned, John Rutter, Rene Clausen, and even some of the work of John Corigliano is more in the tonal realm.

  10. Reed Here said,

    November 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Lane: you’re such a geek. And very insightful as a result ;-)

    While not having the music background to have figured out your observation, my gut response is that this makes sense. I note with you that this seems to be a spreading phenomena in much of what passes for modern/contemporary culture in the West. It is almost as if the loss of a Grand Narrative, with its assurances of ultimate meaning, has resulted in our reflections on creation being imbibed with this sense of meaninglessness. About the best we can do is create something that generates angst. Take Lady Gaga for example.

  11. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 9, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – three of my favorite composers! I love everything Schoenberg ever wrote, from his late-Romantic lush chromaticism of his youth to the atonal “Pierrot Lunaire” to the 12-tone classics, especially the concertos. Berg’s Violin Concerto is, in my opinion, is the finest of all 12-tone works, and sublimely beautiful by any standards. I know it’s a matter of taste, and I don’t expect many to join me here. I do love, though, being able to switch with ease from Renaissance polyphony to Monteverdi magrigals to a Bach cantata to a Haydn string quartet to a Mahler symphony and beyond to Elliott Carter (who will be 103 in December!).

    ” . . . up until the last thirty years, the only contemporary composers who embraced resolution were Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff.” I can name 50 others in five minutes, just by browsing my CD library.

    Dr. White,

    I disagree strongly with your thesis at #7. Like Igor Stravinsky, I’m an “absolutist” with regard to music. Stravinsky famously said, “Music expresses itself” and cannot express anything else. Our emotional reactions to and enjoyment of the music belong to us and are not inherent in the music itself. With this position, I’ve raised lots of eyebrows and not a few hackles with my fellow Reformed music-lovers, especially Van Tillian apologists. I believe that each musical form, genre, style, or “language,” if it has proved viable at all, is legitimate, because it requires some type of organizing principle, whether tonality, timbre, development, or contrast. Speaking theologically, every style reflects one or more aspects of the created order. (How to state this precisely and illustrate it technically is beyond my competence.)

    I’d love to be able to sit down with you guys and discuss aesthetics. For now, I’m off to read some theology and listen to a mass by Palestrina.

  12. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 9, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Note: By music expressing only itself I meant, of course, *only* the music and not the text of vocal music. The appropriate pairing of music and text is another subject altogether. That hot topic is especially relevant for our psalmody and hymnody. As you all know, that’s where the real battles begin.

  13. rfwhite said,

    November 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    11-12 Frank: Hey, man, I’m more than happy to be corrected! Since both of my children hold degrees in music similar to Green Baggins, his post sparked my two questions. But I’m not quite sure what thesis you think I was attempting to advance with (what I presume is your reference to) my 2nd question. Sorry to be slow on the uptake.

    Your claims are definitely worth considering: “each musical form, genre, style, or ‘language,’ if it has proved viable at all, is legitimate, because it requires some type of organizing principle” and “every style reflects one or more aspects of the created order.” Care to elaborate?

    Another way to pose my question is, how do the noetic effects of sin relate to the Christian narrative arc that, according to Green Baggins, God put in our souls?

  14. Chris E said,

    November 10, 2011 at 5:15 am

    I think it’s more that contemporary classical music mainly dialogues inside the genre and so the forms of resolution used are harder for those who aren’t steeped in the genre to recognise.

    A similar thing is true of contemporary jazz.

  15. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 10, 2011 at 6:10 am

    Dr. White,

    It’s entirely my fault. I opened this can of worms, so I’ll try to make some sense of it.

    First of all, the “narrative arc” idea may have some merit. For most of us most of the time, “If there is no narrative arc from happiness to crisis to happiness, then readers will not be very happy.” And it may be true that we desire a clear, unmistakable resolution when we listen to music. Further, it may be that traditional Western tonality (triadic, major and minor keys, equal temperament, return to “home base” via tension and release) may be the most effective vehice for us Westerners to experience such a resolution. It’s pretty obvious that, in general, this tonal scheme has nice structural parallels with the grand Biblical drama of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. Nor can it be denied that we all enjoy recognizable melodies. (I never entirely recovered after ABBA broke up in 1982.)

    Nothing above, however, proves that traditional Western music, with its twelve major and minor scales and all that goes with them, is more “Christian” than other musical forms and structures. (I generally use the shorthand phrase “musical language.”)

    Why do I say this? Primarily for two reasons: (1) The nature of music iteself, and (2) the blessings of God’s “common grace.”

    The nature of music: If it is true, as Stravinsky wrote, that “music expresses itself” and can express nothing else, then we can never say that a particular piece of music is “Christian” or “anti-Christian.” Nor can we discern the worldview of the composer by listening to the music.(Again, I’m excluding texts in vocal music, which are not the music itself.) We can only judge whether a musical composition is a competent, effective example of the “musical language” in which it is written. Sometimess the language and structure are not readily apparent. Some music takes considerable effort to understand and appreciate. Complexity does not necessarily mean second-rate (Bach’s Goldberg Variations). When any work stands the test of time (Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring), we recognize that work to have succeeded according to its own internal rules and structure.

    I don’t mean any of this to sound dry and clinical. Hearing good music yields great intellectual satisfaction and emotional pleasure, and the greatest music does this in the greatest measure. In fact, at times I’m guilty of an almost idolatrous attachement to great music. I don’t approach this subject dispassionately, I assure you.

    What I do inisist upon, however, is allowing music to speak to us on its own terms. When I hear a fellow Christian denouncing a particuarly difficult, dissonant piece from the 20th century as anti-Christian, my simple six-word question is, “Did the MUSIC tell you that?” I submit that it did not, and indeed it cannot. Music is not verbal revelation; it is sound arranged in space and time so as to give pleasure to the hearer. It is not words. If music’s meaning could be expressed in words, we wouldn’t need the music. It is impossible to draw a direct inference from sounds to words.

    Enough on this first point. I hope to discuss common grace in relation to musical form and structure later. How about this provocative statement for now: We can never evaluate music in theological categories of sin, redemption, or worldview, but only in technical terms like we use to judge a chess strategy or rate the work of our car mechanic. Again, I’m speaking of the music itself, not our emotional reaction to it, which is entirely subjective and personal.

  16. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 10, 2011 at 9:40 am

    I’ve been trying to come up with the most challenging modern piece of Christian music possible, one that’s stir to stir your blood(or make it boil, as the case may be). Here it is:

    “Utrenja” by Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) from Naxos, available as CD for $10.20 and download for $7.99 at

    Utrenja is now over forty years old but still packs a might wallop. This two-part work on the Entombment and the Resurrrection of Christ is described perfectly by a reviewer at Amazon as “thorny and extravagant high Modernism.”

    Here are excerpts from two reviews at Amazon:

    “The chorus sings, shouts, chants, and whispers in sliding atonal clusters of sound, surrounded by great dramatic outbursts from the orchestra (there is a big part for the bass drum and something that sounds like an anvil!). Better yet are the several Basso Profundos who sing demented church-style chants. Interspersed are a number of quieter sections that recall, alternatively, Palestrina, Slavic folk songs, and Orthodox church music. It all builds repeatedly to gargantuan, even frightening, climaxes . . . ”

    “‘All I’m interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition,’ declared the young Penderecki, who in the 60’s formally undermined Communist control of Poland by using mostly textures and tones in avant-garde compositions, and flaunting catholic sources under an athiest state. His two-part ‘Utrenja’ is a challenging and emotional evocation of the ‘Entombment’ (I) and ‘Resurrection’ (II) of Christ. This 1971 duo carried deep metaphorical resonance for the generation chafing under the post-’68 crackdown, and propelled Penderecki’s international support.

    These are mainly choral pieces, led by three male and two female soloists, backed by a ephemeral choir and very percussive orchestra. They use the voice for emotional textures, not as angelic arias, to convey the anguish of the death of Jesus and astonishment at his return. Voices declare, argue, whisper, and lament. They shift between dissonant thickets of babble, chanted recitations, transcendent tones, penitent solos, fragmented murmurs, alarmed clarions, and white noise. It is intense and strangely beautiful. Sharp, bold orchestral rapids direct the flow of vocals like a rocky stream. This is a music of deep drama and complex emotional range, an epic story played out through a sonic landscape. Far from an aloof exercise, it is breathless, eerie, and alive.”

    Check out this and other sacred works by Penderecki, including the St. Luke Passion. I dare ya.

  17. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 10, 2011 at 9:43 am

    That should be “sure to stir up your blood . . .” in the first paragraph and “mighty wallop” in the third. See how excited I get about this stuff!

  18. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 10, 2011 at 9:51 am

    One clarification: By “Christian music” in #16 I mean vocal music set to a Christian text.

  19. Sean Gerety said,

    November 10, 2011 at 10:40 am

    “I don’t write music for sissy ears.” – Charles Ives.

  20. Cris D. said,

    November 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    The most modern or contemprary classical music I have listened to are some sonatas by Paul Hindemith. Unless someone like Coltrane is a contemporary classic!

    The most recent additions to my musical collection are some traditional Irish music (John McSherry on Uillean pipes is a revelation) and and Looking Back by Philips, Grier & Flinner: Guitar, Mandolin, Upright Bass, with an amazing cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”

    Testing new laptopb/browser, so this is a bit of a fluff contribution

  21. Cris D. said,

    November 10, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Frank and Lane (et al): Have you ever read the opening section of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? Do you have any thoughts on that from the combination of your musical and theological trainings? I’ve pondered Tolkien’s creation story from time to time, enjoy it along with everything he wrote. Here’s one to ponder: the “angels” of this creation story are called the Ainur. Do you think Tolkien was playing with the Greek words : aineo – to speak in praise of, to praise; and ainos and aine – praise, fame

    Just wondering?

    Tolkien puts forth a creation story with “the One,” the creator presenting a musical theme to his heavenly host. The music is enhanced and developed by this choir as the decreed way to flesh out the details. The “fallen” or self-willed, rebellious singer introduces discord & disharmony through his own ideas and inventions. Thus bad things enter into the creation, as the creator even incorporates the rebel’s themes and ultimately answers them (judges?) and resolves (redeems?) those discordant elements along with the rest. It’s not Tolkien’s normal narrative style (like LOTR), but worthy of reading and reflection, as are all his works.

  22. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Interesting reflections on Tolkien, Chris. I’m probably one of two Reformed guys in the world who’s not a big fan of Tolkien. I love the ideas, but the execution wearies me.

    Years ago, I presented my one-sentence review of “The Fellowship of the Ring” to Dr. Derek Thomas: “Ten pages up a hill, five pages down.” He was, as the saying goes, not amused.

  23. Cris D. said,

    November 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Frank, I’m one of those guys who thinks if a sermon or Bible study doesn’t refer to or illustrate from Tolkien, or from Bob Dylan, then it’s definitely got room for improvement!


  24. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Last week’s program “The Cross and the Jukebox” by Dr. Russell Moore of SBTS at is on Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin.'” Cool.

    I suppose some kids 1/3 my age would consider Bob Dylan to be “Contemporary Classical Music.” I don’t care what they call him. They should listen.

  25. November 10, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    A conservative music critic, Terry Teachout, once observed that Elliott Carter’s music will be forgotten within about 20 minutes of his death. Cruel, but (hopefully) true.

    Most modern music helps to show why Bach will never go out of style – or my favorite composer, Haydn, either.

  26. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 11, 2011 at 1:06 am

    I like Elliott Carter in small doses, Bach and Haydn in very large doses.

    Nothing I’ve written should be taken to imply that “contemporary classical” is my preferred music. The more radical modernists represent about 5% of my listening. I do believe that this music is legitimate and viable, however, and that it’s worthwhile on its own terms. That’s the “common grace” concept I mentioned earlier; every musical style or form must conform to the created order in some manner if it is to be comprehensible at all.

    As for someone like Carter being quickly forgotten, that may well prov true. How many contemporaries of Haydn and Mozart can you name today?

  27. Joe Branca said,

    November 11, 2011 at 2:04 am

    Frank: “How about this provocative statement for now: We can never evaluate music in theological categories of sin, redemption, or worldview, but only in technical terms like we use to judge a chess strategy or rate the work of our car mechanic. Again, I’m speaking of the music itself, not our emotional reaction to it, which is entirely subjective and personal.”

    I agree completely. I’m continually awe struck by how so many approaches to music can affect me in so many different ways, no matter era or genre, it’s always something to appreciate when the composer/performer are true to their intended effect.

    A great sampler of some of what modern composers have to offer is in in the music selection for the film Tree of Life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s brilliant just from the music alone (but apart from that the most profound film I’ve ever seen). Berlioz and Gorecki are in there. Also I had not heard any John Tavener before that, his choral pieces are fascinating.

  28. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 11, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Thanks, Joe. I need to see “The Tree of Life.” Sometimes things that are supposed to be profound strike me as just pretentious. (It’s the “cranky old man” syndrome, I admit.) A lot of solid people have praised this film, though.

    The all-time greatest use of modernist and avant-garde music in film has to be “2001.” Not to mention the sheer genius of combining Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz with the slowly spinning space station. Unforgettable.

    The repertoire of Western art “classical” music of the past 1000 years is vast and varied, an extraordinary gift of God. (Even the Schoenberg String Quartets.)

  29. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 11, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Richard #25,

    If Haydn is your favorite composer, you have good taste indeed!

    Haydn has been my friend and solace for over half a century. When I’m weary or down, I’m likely to reach first for a CD of Haydn symphonies. For some strange reason Mozart, who is supposed to be the superior composer, never moves me. I respect Mozart’s astonishing genius and inhuman perfection, but he never warms my heart. Every note from Haydn, though, is sheer joy.

  30. Martin said,

    November 11, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Frank – interesting observation about Haydn and Mozart. I’d agree that, while I enjoy Mozart he doesn’t move the heart like others. The exception to that, for me though, are his later piano concertos.

  31. Cris D. said,

    November 11, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Frank: Circling back to #15 …

    The nature of music: If it is true, as Stravinsky wrote, that “music expresses itself” and can express nothing else, then we can never say that a particular piece of music is “Christian” or “anti-Christian.” Nor can we discern the worldview of the composer by listening to the music.

    I’m not so sure about this, Frank. Doesn’t the “world-view” or spiritual condition of a composer come into play – as in unregenerate, especially in open rebellion against the Creator – vs. the regenerate composer, who has submitted, at least principially, to the Lord and Redeemer. Isn’t there some kind of “composer’s intent”? Don’t we confess that to some degree, all the unbeliever’s thoughts, words and deeds, the unbeliever’s life, is one of rebellion against and rejection of God? How is that all music, universally and categorically, is “good” (hopefully I’m not overstating or misrepresenting you)? How can music (like you, not speaking of lyrics/texts put to music) escape the effects of the fall? Is music some how both untainted and untaintable?

    What I do inisist upon, however, is allowing music to speak to us on its own terms. When I hear a fellow Christian denouncing a particuarly difficult, dissonant piece from the 20th century as anti-Christian, my simple six-word question is, “Did the MUSIC tell you that?” I submit that it did not, and indeed it cannot. Music is not verbal revelation; it is sound arranged in space and time so as to give pleasure to the hearer. It is not words. If music’s meaning could be expressed in words, we wouldn’t need the music. It is impossible to draw a direct inference from sounds to words.

    I can agree with most of this, that is, different cultures have developed their own systems of what sounds like “music” to that culture. I’m being a good guy here, I’m not insisting that Celtic jigs and reels are the standard for all times and places. But, “impossible to draw a direct inference from sounds to words”? I don’t know about that. I think there’s something inherently “wordish” or “speachish” about the sons & daughters of Adam and Eve. We might not be able to comprehensively express, discuss or convey musical meaning and impact by words, but we can and do use words to express evaluation of, and communicate with one another about music. We don’t describe or express our appreciation for a string quartet by playing violins and cellos at one another.

    Give us some more thoughts, Frank (and Lane, our host!). Let’s sit here over a virtual ale, or coffee, an exchange thoughts.


  32. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Chris at #31,

    Kudos for the excellent questions in your paragraph beginning “I’m not so sure about this, Frank.” You’ve gotten to the heart of the matter! I’m dedicating my lunch hour to form and write out my thoughts. Playing in my office is a CD of symphonies by Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), younger son of Charles Wesley and nephew of John Wesley. (And, to anticipate a question, his works sound no different from any other competent, second-tier composer of the late Classical-early Romantic period.)

    Here’s your paragraph: “Doesn’t the “world-view” or spiritual condition of a composer come into play – as in unregenerate, especially in open rebellion against the Creator – vs. the regenerate composer, who has submitted, at least principially, to the Lord and Redeemer. Isn’t there some kind of ‘composer’s intent’? Don’t we confess that to some degree, all the unbeliever’s thoughts, words and deeds, the unbeliever’s life, is one of rebellion against and rejection of God? How is that all music, universally and categorically, is ‘good’ (hopefully I’m not overstating or misrepresenting you)? How can music (like you, not speaking of lyrics/texts put to music) escape the effects of the fall? Is music some how both untainted and untaintable?”

    I’ll respond to your final question first, sincerely but I realize provocatively: YES, except with regard to technical matters. And here’s the reason. Choice of lyrics/texts aside, remember that music itself is not verbal, nor can it ever be “representational” in the sense of painting or dance. Music is sound arranged in space and time, according to rules (“grammar”) established by the style/form (“language”) employed, so as to evoke emotion and give pleasure to the hearer. Thus, the final product, the music itself, to quote Stravinsky once more, can express only itself. The composer may consciously write a piece of music to (in his mind) declare his hatred of the one true God. (I believe, but cannot prove, that this almost never happens.) I submit, though, that you can never tell that by listening to the work. To repeat my simple question, “Did the MUSIC tell you that?” As I wrote before, it did not, indeed it cannot. If the music itself cannot tell you the “worldview perspective” of the composer, then we shouldn’t care about it one way or the other. The music will stand or fall on its own terms as an example of the form or language in which it is written, which is only musical. (Another bold statement! Feel free to throw stuff.)

    I was discussing this very thing a couple of weeks ago with a well-known PCA pastor/scholar/writer. He said that he believes much contemporary “classical” music reflects the hopelessness, nihilism, and godlessness of our day. Agreeing for the moment for the sake of argument, I asked him, “Couldn’t a Christian composer write exactly the same piece, without the kind of resolution you’re looking for, to reveal this very despair, thus pointing to the need for redemption?” When he said, “Well, yes, I suppose,” my response was “There, you’ve made my point.” Even if we were to burden an instrumental composition with such an interpretation (which I don’t believe is legitimate anyway), we still wouldn’t know the underlying worldview or intention of the composer. Once more: “Did the MUSIC tell you that?”

    I know that some of you sharp presuppositional apologists out there are squirming as you read this. And I suspect others will accuse me of extreme “two-kingdom” neutrality. I assure you, I’m neither anti-presuppositional nor claiming neutrality. What I’m trying to do is place the critique of a musical composition in the same category as the work of a surgeon or the execution of a baseball double-play. In every case, there are both art and science involved, but the judgment is according to the rules of the game, not the worldview of the player. Remember also that composers do not write worldview. They writes notes within the constraints of the form they’ve chosen, for musicians to play and for other people to hear.

    To state it more philosophically, it is a “category mistake” to interpret music (lyrics/texts aside, of course) according to the worldview of the composer. I tried for decades to do that very thing. I read and heard many Christians, from Francis Schaeffer to personal friends, proclaim confidently that since this or that composer was “non-Christian,” his works were also “non-Christian” or “anti-Christian.” After hearing thousands of pieces, however, comparing one to another, I realized that there are no objective criteria for this task. What the worldview critiques boil down to is essentially this: “I don’t like dissonance and what seems to me like disorganized sound. Music that springs from a Christian worldview must be ‘traditional,’ tonal, harmonic, and melodic, with clear resolution.” I finally made a breakthrough when I asked myself, “Really? Sez who? Does the Bible say this? Does general revelation demand it?”

    My position is that every viable (that is, accepted and comprehensible) musical form/style/genre/language is legitimate, since it reflects in some manner the order of the world, which is of course God’s creation. I believe that I am enough of a theologian, but know that I’m not enough of a philosopher or a musician, to work this thesis out in technical detail.

    There are a couple of other matters we could discuss at a later time: (1) Good music vs. bad music (that is, good or bad within the chosen form), and (2) The appropriate music for the occasion, including the matching of music and text. For (2), I’m thinking of the music that David played to soothe Saul. We can all imagine what would have been appropriate, and what probably would enraged Saul even more. What is the right music to evoke the desired emotion? It’s this skill, along with technical mastery, that sets the “masterpiece” apart from the ordinary.

    Back to work. Duty calls.

  33. Reed Here said,

    November 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    What, no cheers for Yes?

  34. Cris D. said,

    November 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Frank: thanks for devoting your lunch break to that! I have a better grasp of what you’re saying, but I am indeed feeling a little bit squeamish as a VanTilian. Perhpas it’s best to say, that we are unable, as creatures, to judge some of those elements or attributes of compositions, since we do know know comprehensively or exhasutively, as God does.

    I’m going to reflect more on your words … tune in Brendan O’Reagan’s A Wind of Change, and get back to my mundania.


  35. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I started another post on Richard Strauss’s great tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathstra,” inspired by Nietzsche, but lost it by mistake. Suffice it to say that Strauss’s masterpiece stands on its own as a magnificent, colorful, stirring composition without reference to the fiercely anti-Christian writings of Nietzsche — regardless of what Strauss may have had in mind when he wrote it. The emotions it evokes — defiance, despair, the agony of conflict, the unsettled feeling of ambiguity — are universal to the human condition and independent of a particular worldview.

    (Everyone knows the opening fanfare of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from the beginning of the movie “2001.”)

  36. Dale Olzer said,

    November 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Great post Frank, you have provided valuable insight into music and art. As one who likes to think of himself as a “sharp presuppositional apologists”, I could be fooling myself, I find your comments in #32 spot on. For in God’s common grace, a pagan artist while rebellion against God can create beautiful art that will even encourage Christians. Just as a pagan philanthropist can establish a medical center that perhaps performs emergency heart surgery on a great theologian and pastor.

    The thing about art, whether it is music, painting, sculpture …, is that it can and often does evoke emotions and a subjective interpretation. As one artist said when ask what he was trying to express in his painting, “If I knew what I wanted to express, I would have wrote a book, because I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say, I painted it.”

    So one can listen to “World Wide Suicide” by Pearl Jam and conclude that “everything is going to pot, let anarchy rule”. A redeemed man may hear that music and understand the struggles of a fallen world that seems bent on destructions. But praise be to God that he is indeed reconciling a sinful world to himself and that God by his providence is directing, upholding, disposing, and governing all creatures, actions and things, from greatest to least to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (WCF V.I)

  37. November 12, 2011 at 12:46 am

    Frank, #29:

    I’m currently working my way, once again, through John McCabe’s 1974-1977 recording (a 12-CD boxed set) of Haydn’s complete solo keyboard music. The recordings were made in a church. Through headphones you can hear, every once in awhile, birds chirping in the trees just outside the church. The chirping complements Haydn’s music wonderfully!

  38. Thomas Twitchell said,

    November 12, 2011 at 10:15 am

    “you don’t know when to clap”

    My elders would approve of that.

  39. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 12, 2011 at 10:25 am


    If you want to talk more music, e-mail me at

  40. paigebritton said,

    November 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Loved your little essay, Frank! Saved it for the musicians in my life.

    A thought:
    I think it was Rich Mullins who once said (of his own compositions) that “the words are there for those who don’t understand the music.”

    Maybe composers (some? all?) THINK they are telling us things out of their own heads & worldviews with their non-lyrical compositions; but only those who are lyricists as well manage to complete the bridge between their minds and their listeners’. Perhaps music (alone) does not communicate, per se, but only evokes?

  41. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Tuning in a bit late on this one, but what a delightful, and substantive, discussion.

    Frank, as you may know, we have more Polish folk in Chicago than any city save Warsaw. Penderecki loves to visit here and we had a great Pritzker Pavillion concert with him conducting this summer. It was magnificent.

    I certainly understand what Lane is saying and think that he has a valid point (and have made similar ones before), but I also love many modern and contemporary composers. Where we would be without Sibelius?

    It’s a fairly complex subject. One’s most basic beliefs certainly affect how he expresses himself. But just as some of our most powerful authors are unbelievers who give remarkable expression to their worldviews, so too with our composers, though I think that there is validity in your observation about the differences that pertain in music, purely considered.

    Do you ever come up here to hear the CSO? Best orchestra in the country (Stereo Review and others). Chicago is a great music town. My wife and I heard a wonderful Boris Godunov last night at the Lyric Opera and have a couple of great concerts coming up at the CSO, including one with the Mahler 6 and a world premiere (Matheson Violin Concerto).

    Thanks, folks, for a great and delightful discussion.

  42. Ron said,

    November 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    It seems to me that Mozart’s “Dissonance” didn’t remain dissonant too long (seconds?) for good reason. Soon after this dedicated piece begins, boom, Mozart major. O.K., so I’m a wine enthusiast… dissonance reminds me of straight Cab-Franc, a grape that is best used for blending, not drinking alone. Listen to the intro of Mozart’s string quartet no. 19, for instance. The instability of discord must (and does) give way, immediately, to the “traditional” (implanted in all of us), but that only makes the unresolved more “pleasant” upon resolve, Lane’s point I think. Many of us are old enough to remember the non-Trinitarian influence upon George Harrison’s Beatle compositions such as, “I Want To Tell You” and “Within and Without You” and John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but these songs, tremendous as they are in their own right, are impossibly lacking of anyconsonance, though in some respect they leave one longing in the end, unlike the “Pauline” sort : Your Mother Should Know as a “for instance.”

    I grew up with live chamber music in the home, a delight for my family and a blessing I don’t think I’ll ever forget for quartets are intimate and don’t lend themselves to large halls. My father played professionally, though that wasn’t his primary source of income, and I was a student in my youth of some of his cronies. I don’t remember too often drinking the Cab-Franc of the orchestral variety, but I do remember enjoying its participation in the blend. I now expose my children under my tutelage to much Paul but only a bit of John. It was Paul who borrowed from Mozart in my estimation (and my dear dad’s).

  43. Ron said,

    November 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    Alan, I do so love when you post here.


  44. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 13, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Paige #40, “Perhaps music (alone) does not communicate, per se, but only evokes?”

    I wish I’d said that! Precisely what I mean.

    Here’s a four-word summary of what I’ve been trying to say: “You can’t exegete sound.”

    Alan, My wife and I are due for anaother “music week” in Chicago. We attend several concerts of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans each year. The LPO is the only musician-owned professional orchestra in the U.S.A. It’s a fine band, but no CSO, of course.

    Ron #43: Yes, the Mozart “Dissonant” Quartet must resolve into consonance, because the rules of the musical language in which he was writing demand it. Whether this “traditional” (that is, Western European) language is implanted in us all is, I suppose, the point at issue.

    There is no question that our “traditional” musical language was born and nurtured in a “Christian” civilization. (We all know what I mean by that last term. No need to repeat the qualifiers.) And, as I’ve said before, this language has nice structual parallels to the Biblical pattern of creation-fall-redememption-consummation. It’s also true that it has proven wonderfully flexible, from the simplest harmonies and melodies to the most complex development. But none of these undeniable facts proves that the music itself is more “Christian,” or that other musical forms, styles, or traditions are less legitimate.

    I can even gladly affirm (not reluctantly concede) that the “traditional” tonal Western musical language we know is the finest ever conceived for large-scale orchestral works of great color, variety, and complexity. On another level, the most memorable melodies have flourished through this musical language. (Think not only classical music’s “greatest hits” but folk music and popular music.) “Contemporary” (highly dissonant, avant-garde, atonal, or twelve-tone) classical music makes up about 5% of my CD collection and 5% of my listening. That’s sounds about right.

    I seem to have come full circle to Lane’s original post. I agree with the description of the positive values of the tonal system but not with the statement that “contemporary classical music doesn’t satisfy.” It can and it does (at least to me and some other music lovers), as long as it’s accepted and evaluated on its own terms, within its own limited range of expression. And, to risk singing my tired old song again, since the music itself can’t “mean” or express anything other than itself, the value of modern music must be judged only by musical standards and not in terms of worldview.

    Back to the original post: “There are several ways to create and resolve musical tension.There are rhythmical ways, harmonic ways, dynamic ways, timbrel ways, and more.” Amen to that. Much of the joy of music consists in learning and experiencing these various ways, and not demanding that one musical language conform to the requirements of another.

  45. Ron said,

    November 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Frank – as Alan said up front, this is a somewhat complex subject, but what you said seems quite agreeable to me. I think I follow your nuance and concur. The only question I have left is whether Alan was making a pun here: “Tuning in a bit late on this one.” Bold emphasis mine. :)

  46. todd said,

    November 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    And we may have a new Mozart on our hands:

  47. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 13, 2011 at 11:10 pm


    You are sharp to note a minor thing. But how would one compose a post with appoggiatura, passaggio, and tessitura? That would not be natural but would be a major accomplishment. I flatly refuse to try at this time as it is late and I must go to bed so that I, with all sleepers [might] awake in the morning [in a good] mood. I know, I really should knock-it-off, but I may get back to this soon. I may, in fact, get often back. Was that Godunov? Ciao.

  48. Ron said,

    November 14, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Buongiorno, Alan.

    Nicely done and I know I can’t keep up. So, you might have to duet solo. I know you can you Handel it though. Addio

  49. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 14, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Sonato nocturne nor a tarantella is left alone: we do not engage in paranomasia cantabile sotto voce but trumpet it forth–this is the key! C’mon, Ron, join the chorus. Don’t go into Hadyn or think this for the Byrd’s. OK, I really do have opus to attend to. Arrivederci.

  50. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 14, 2011 at 9:25 am

    What used to be so sharp has now fallen flat. The tone has changed. Rather than resort to a major fifth (liquid spirits, that is), we should sound “the mystic chords of memory” (with apologies to A. Lincoln, terribly painful for this Southerner). Otherwise we’ll never resolve into a cadence.

    We need to stop harping on this theme. The crash of this thread may be cymbalic of sour notes to come.

  51. Cris D. said,

    November 14, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I’m going for the populist vote here:

    Q. What do you get a Banjo player for Christmas?

    A. Mittens!

    Q. What is the difference between a ’57 Chevrolet and a Banjo?

    A. You can tune the Chevrolet.

    Q. If a banjoist and a mandolinist fall off the Empire State bldg, who hits first?

    A. The mandolinist, cause the banjoist will have to stop and retune

    Q. How long does it take to tune a banjo? ~~~~~~ No one knows

    Whats the difference between a banjo and an onion? No one cries when you cut up a banjo.

  52. michael said,

    November 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Todd @ 46, thrilling!

  53. Cris D. said,

    November 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

    @47 through 50:

    At a rehearsal, the conductor stops and shouts to the bass section: “You are out of tune. Check it, please!”

    The first bassist pulls all his strings, says, “Our tuning is correct: all the strings are equally tight.”

    The first violist turns around and shouts, “You bloody idiot! It’s not the tension. The pegs have to be parallel!”

    What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?
    A fiddle is fun to listen to.

    Why are viola jokes so short?
    So violinists can understand them.

  54. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 14, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Re #46:

    I remember reading a biography of Mozart many years ago. The biographer pointed out one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever read about any genius in any field.

    The biography claimed that Mozart never had to be taught anything about music. No matter what it was, from the complexities of music theory to the rules of composition, Mozart only needed to be shown it one time, and he had instant comprehension of the entire thing. This is amazing almost beyond belief.

  55. John Harutunian said,

    November 14, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Frank, you might be interested to know that I’ve published a book comparing Haydn and Mozart (believe it or not, no one else has done this in any detail). Re: Haydn’s alleged superiority, you have the late great maestro Arturo Toscanini on your side. Of course, I can’t agree; but I think it’s best to say that despite surface similarities (resulting from their use of Western musical language at that point in history where that language was most clearly defined), Haydn and Mozart are ultimately very different. (With all respect to works in which Mozart shows Haydn’s influence, e.g. the String Quintet in E-flat, K. 614.)
    As you’ve implied, I think it’s best to distinguish between the terms “tonal” and “triadic”. I’m with Green Baggins insofar as I’m not a great admirer of contemporary music. But Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” is a masterpiece by any standards. And of course so is Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” -which is organized around what Stravinsky termed “poles of attraction” (the opening movement starts in e minor but concludes on a resounding G major chord). It’s thoroughly tonal.
    And here’s a provocative thought: Music does, after all, express *something* (it’s a creative “expression”, isn’t it?) But what it expresses can’t be “translated” into words. Not because words are too specific -but because they’re too vague. If this sounds like a fatuous claim, listen to the great slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467 (known to some as the “Elvira Madigan theme). Or the “Romanze” slow movement of his great D-Minor Piano Concerto. Or the opening melody of his last piano concerto (No. 27). All of these suggest a passage from Lewis’ Narnia chronicle, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” As the children were sailing towards the Eastern End of the World, there came a breeze from the east… “It lasted only a second or so, but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, ‘It would break your heart.’ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘was it so sad?’ ‘Sad! No,’ said Lucy.”
    That sums up much of late Mozart: not sad, yet heartbreaking.

  56. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 15, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Thanks, John, for your wonderful post. In my youth, as other guys talked endlessly about their sports heroes, I fantasized about being able to write a book like yours. To me, musicology was just about the coolest thing on earth. Since the word “nerd” and I are about the same age, sometimes I think it was invented just for me. I wear the label as a badge of honor.

    Classical music lovers revel in their intensely personal responses to various composers and their works. When I hear the Mozart movements you referenced, my reaction is, “Well, that’s pretty.” Give me a Monteverdi madrigal, though, with the sublime Emma Kirkby singing the top line with The Consort of Musicke, resolving those aching dissonances, and my heart is not only broken, but melted. The most exciting moment in all of music literature? The climax of Wagner’s “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,”

    Some people of my generation will recall their shock and pain at the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. I remember the special broadcast of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic a few days later. Of all the events of my teenage years, I recall that afternoon most vividly.

    For an informative and entertaining introduction to classical music, I recommend the 48-lecture course by Professor Robert Greenberg, “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” (audio or video), at Watch for the company’s regular sales for a great price.

    Concerning music as a glorious gift of God, Martin Luther said it best:

    Foreword to Georg Rhau’s Collection, “Symphoniae iucundae”.

    “I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!

    I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

    The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…

    Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms.

    This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.

    However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace.

    A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

    – Martin Luther

  57. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 15, 2011 at 7:16 am

    Actually, that most exciting of all moments in music to me comes rather early in “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” at 4:45 in the Szell/Cleveland Orchestra recording at

    I wouldn’t expenct anyone else to have the same reaction. That’s the beauty of great music.

  58. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 15, 2011 at 8:01 am


    Nothing like the Ring!

    And this past season, in March, we heard a Lohengrin at the Lyric Opera that was, in every sense of the word, magnificent. The entire cast was first rate and the title role was sung by the great South African tenor Johann Botha. I don’t know if you know Botha. I’ve heard him in Aida and Turandot, but he is quite the heldentenor and superb in Wagner. What a magnificent sound poured forth from his throat, both burnished and brilliant, rising above the Wagnerian orchestra and thrilling us all.

    And don’t forget, of course, Bernstein playing the Adagietto from the Mahler 5 at the funeral of Bobby Kennedy. I saw Bernstein once at Tanglewood (summer of 83), conducting the BSO in his Kaddish Symphony and the Beethoven Third, an experience I shall never forget.

    How fun to have a musical conversation like this in this midst of our busy lives!

  59. Cris D. said,

    November 15, 2011 at 9:28 am

    FranK (& Alan, et al):

    I am appreciating more your initial thoughts about music as language and what music can and can’t “say to the listener. I’m still holding out for a better grasp of composer’s intent (purpose or goal in composition) in regard to this, but have faced the force of music as a language, and let my linguistic background inform my thinking.

    While we certainly hold to the fact that the content of a person’s speaking or writing expresses his heart or mind an commitments, and their are styles of writing and speaking that have more and less appropriate social contexts, any given language, in and of itself, is capable to the task (for native speakers), and there’s little to be gained from trying to evaluate some languages or branches of languages as better than others.

    So bad jokes aside (I hope no one was offended – when it comes to tuning or playing my mandolin or guitar, my ear is as tin as it gets), this has been instructive and I have picked up some suggestions for expanding my classical horizons.


  60. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 15, 2011 at 10:33 am


    Please stop! (Just joking.) Now I can’t get a Chicago trip out of my head. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that Mid-America Reformed Seminary is, like, 45 minutes from downtown Chicago. I had thought you were out in a cornfield somewhere.

    I’ve known most of the great performers of the past fifty years only through recordings. We do have tickets, though, for Joshua Bell with the LPO next March in New Orleans (Brahms Violin Concerto.)


  61. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 15, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Finishing the last post:

    The Iris Chamber Orchestra from Germantown, Tennessee (a suburb of Memphis) is another fine group we get to hear at least once a year. The musicians are first-class, selected from around the country by conductor Michael Stern, son of violinist Isaac Stern.

  62. Frank Aderholdt said,

    November 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    We do have some musical bragging rights here in Miss-sippi. The Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music, located in the Jackson area, is a non-profit organization that brings a number of world-class early music performers to Jackson each year. And I do mean world-class musicians, soloists and groups who specialize in music from the medieval period through the death of J. S. Bach in 1750.

    Last spring we were privileged to hear the young singers from the British vocal group Stile Antico performing Renaissance motets and other works based on The Song of Songs. Sitting on either side of me of lil’ old me were two music-loving friends, Dr. Guy Waters of RTS and Dr. Derek Thomas. Imagine, all that Reformed theolgical expertise on one row in an Episcopal church, plus me.

  63. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Ah, Isaac Stern. What a great violinist! I had the privilege of hearing him three times. And after his death I was at a concert of the CSO at which Yo-Yo Ma, in a beautiful homage to Stern, played Bach’s First Unaccompanied Cello piece.

    Yes, we live nearer the city than the Seminary (about thirty minutes out). And when I was in Seminary out East, and pastored, we could regularly hear the Philadelphia Orchestra and occasionally get up to NYC for the Metropolitan Opera. I’ll save hearing Pavarotti in Il Trovatore for another time.

    Let me know if and when you come up and perhaps we can meet for music and libations.

  64. Peter Griffith said,

    November 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    I would like to recommend many of the choral works of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. Naxos has an album of unaccompanied choral music: Conductor: Edison, Noel, Choir: Elora Festival Singers, Label: Naxos.

    ” Bogoróditse Djévo” is a short choral piece that might be a good introduction. The text is from the Russian Orthodox liturgy of Vespers,
    after Luke 1: 28, 42.

    I’ve also just heard a composition by Patrick Hawes, “Song of Songs”. Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano, English Chamber Orchestra on Signum Classics.

  65. John Harutunian said,

    November 15, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Frank, I enjoyed your post. Before we leave Haydn: I was once discussing my Haydn/Mozart comparison with the late critic William Youngren of the Atlantic (a brilliant man -he and his wife had four doctorates between the two of them!), and he said flat out, “Nobody was greater than Haydn.” Though I can’t go quite that far, I’d agree that at his greatest Haydn was absolutely wonderful. I have the Argo set of his late masses (the conductors are George Guest, David Willcocks and Simon Preston). The Benedictus from the Harmoniemesse has a kind of exhilarating warmth which Mozart simply doesn’t have. And with the “Lord Nelson Mass” the man outdid himself: H.C. Robbins Landon rightly called it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition.”

    But if I were pushed against the wall to name my favorite composer it would be Bach; my favorite movement, the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from the B-Minor Mass. When seen on paper, the score looks merely accomplished and technically impressive; the continuous strings of 16th-notes seem to lend credence to the droll mischaracterization of Bach as “the great celestial sewing machine.” Then one actually listens to the music: and out of those ascending sequences something seems to emerge from within, something which one can’t pinpoint and locate at any place in the score, something which defies analysis -and one finds one’s self soaring into the heavens.

    Some of your other points touch on what are my own aesthetic blind spots. I think Wagner was certainly one of the greats; but the place you pointed out in Siegfried’s Rhine Journey has always sounded a bit awkward to me: it sounds like there’s a tape splice at that point. (I can’t deny the excitement, though.) My favorite Wagner composition is the Prelude to Die Meistersinger: it has an almost Beethovenish nobility which I don’t often hear in Wagner.
    Regarding Mahler, I’m even more touch and go. As you probably know, the finale of his Third Symphony was entitled “What Love Tells Me.” (At the very least, it’s got to be the greatest movie music ever written!) And Mahler noted “I could almost call it ‘What God Tells Me’ because God is love.” Which raises the question: Was Mahler’s conversion to Christianity genuine? I’d be interested in your perspective on this.
    Regarding madrigals, yes, Monteverdi’s “aching dissonances” perfectly express the texts. But considered strictly as music, I personally prefer the English madrigalists (Thomas Morley and company). And in his 1620 Vespers I’m extremely moved by those soaring boy soprano lines. But re: church music in general, I prefer Gabrieli.
    Do you know Gabrieli’s motet, “In ecclesiis”? Check out “In Ecclesiis A 14” on youtube -it’s a good performance on modern instruments, with the English translation of the Latin text being shown on the screen as it’s sung -and of course the music sounds more moving when the Word is understood by the people (I guess that’s my Reformed side coming out!).
    Why don’t American Evangelicals ever do something like that in worship? Perhaps because the music suggests some rather unevangelical themes (or at least un-Pop-Evangelical themes): the transcendent majesty of God, the sanctity of the worship service (whose music is “set apart” from what one normally hears during the week), a sense of the numinous.

    And of course I can’t omit mention of Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass: it’s music of otherwordly purity; traditional Roman Catholic church music at its finest.

  66. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 15, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    I’m not Frank, but as a trombonist and ardent lover of late Romanticism, I’m a passionate Mahlerian.

    Sad to say, Mahler’s conversion appears only to have been for career advancement. He was the most brilliant conductor, particularly of opera, of his day (though interestingly he never wrote an opera–a matter for another post). He wanted, and attained, posts at the Staatsoper and the Vienna Philharmonic, but conversion to Christianity seemed to be the price, as the anti-Semitism of the day demanded.

    His view of Resurrection is hardly orthodox in the 2nd Symphony or of heaven in the 4th (and as you note with the 3rd). The 8th ends with the Faust legend, though it began with Veni Creator Spiritus (Pentecost). Nonetheless, it is all glorious music (even though the 4th is not scored for trombone!).

    One critic put it this way: Mahler was looking for God and Bruckner had found him! But Bruckner deserves his own post (if only he had finished that glorious Ninth–what we have is great; imagnine the possibilities!).

  67. John Harutunian said,

    November 16, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Alan, your observations on Mahler’s conversion are in line with my own impressions. I just discovered an outstanding book, “Gustav Mahler” by Jens Malte Fischer, on amazon. It discusses his religious beliefs in detail, and supports your view.
    I wonder how his conducting compared with that of my all-time musical hero, Toscanini, with whom he clashed at the Met. Since Mahler left no recordings, we don’t know. But I will say that Toscanini is the one musical performer whose finest performances seem “in some mysterious way to relive the fiery moment of the music’s actual creation” (from the New Grove entry).

    And thanks for the great summary of Mahler’s “spirituality” vs. Bruckner’s,
    Also, I’ve been wondering about Post-romanticism, The usual two composers placed in that category and Mahler and Strauss (of course there are isolated works like Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht). Would you put Bruckner in that category also?

  68. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 16, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    No, I would see Bruckner as preceeding that, closer to Wagner, often giving edvidence of the influence of Beethoven and Schubert.

    It’s just that Mahler admired him and was influenced by him. They both wrote on such large palates. And give such glorious music to the low brass! Bruckner was almost painfully self-effacing, one of the few truly humble geniuses.

    The CSO is about to have a little Mahler-fest in December but before that a bit of Strauss (Ein Heldenleben), with the Lyric also giving Ariadne auf Naxos.

    Lane, I fear that I have transgressed on your good graces by continuing this discussion in a way that rather deviates from the OP. I will desist but it has been great fun.

    One last note: Did anyone else hear that marvelous performance by the SFS of the Sibelius 5 tonight? I heard it on WFMT (98.7), the greatest radio station in the country, that can also be accessed via live streaming.

  69. John Harutunian said,

    November 17, 2011 at 1:58 am

    Alan, thanks for the Bruckner comment. Yes, I can see the similarities between the Bruckner symphonies and the Schubert “Great” (they’re all symphonies “of heavenly length”). And many of Bruckner’s chord progressions bring Wagner to mind.
    I’ve put together some of the things in your posts: you might be interested to hear that although I’m a Bostonian, I studied music at Wheaton College (Class of 1965), at which time I went to Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Yes, the Chicago Symphony is terrific (Frank Crisafulli was principal trombone when I was there) and WFMT is a superb station.
    And in its own way, I even enjoyed the Picasso sculpture, which was unveiled when I was there (to decidedly non-universal acclaim!). It seems to suggest Stravinsky’s music to me.
    (I also have a Philadelphia connection -I spent two years studying musicology at Penn. I attended Tenth Presbyterian Church, pastored at the time by the late James Boice -and of course heard the unique and marvelous Philadelphia orchestra.)

  70. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 17, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Thanks, John, for that bit of bio–I thoroughly enjoyed it. While I have had a bit of classroom, as well as practical, musical instruction, I have no degrees in it and am not a professional.

    I love your BSO and grew up listening to the patrician William Pierce announce its concerts.

    And Jay Friedman is the principal trombone now at the CSO. He has a magnficent tone and plays with an umatched lilting legato. He’s incomparable in the great solo in the first movement of the Mahler 3.

    Thanks again to you, Frank, and others for such a wonderful conversation.

  71. John Harutunian said,

    November 17, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Alan, glad you enjoyed the bit of bio. One correction: I graduated Wheaton in 1969, not ’65 (at 63 years of age, I hate to make myself even older than I am!)

    More important: Are you familiar with the legendary French hornist Dennis Brain? His CD of the Mozart Concerti is a classic. Less well know is his CD of the two Strauss Concerti (together with the Hindemith Concerto with the composer conducting). No. 1 is an early work which sounds rather like Mendelssohn (which is probably while I like it). I once played the Finale for a brass player. He was incredulous: “John, that’s got to be a valve trombone -a French horn can’t do that!”
    You can get a used copy from Amazon for $2.99 -probably the greatest record buy I’ve ever seen.

  72. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 17, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    The brilliant British virtuoso playing Strauss, whose Mozart inspired the naughty Flanders and Swann, for only $2.99? I’m gettin’ it! Thanks for the tip, John.

    I should not admit this but I did F and S’s Ill Wind a few years back at a church talent night! It was lots of fun: “I once had a whim and I had to obey it to buy a French horn in a second-hand shop; I polished it up and I started to play it in spite of the neighbors who begged me to stop!”

    I must stop abusing this serious blog.

  73. John Harutunian said,

    November 17, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I think there’s a place for humor on this blog -especially as I own that Flanders and Swann record!

    Christian tie-in: it was given to me by Thomas Howard, the Evangelical-turned Catholic writer. (I’m not convinced by his arguments on behalf of Rome; but he’s a wonderful writer.)

    I’ll be anxious to hear what you think of Brain’s virtuosity on the Finale of the Strauss!

  74. James Horgan said,

    November 18, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Dear Lane,

    you’re list of ‘modern’ composers is rather limited (and Russian, albeit I like them). What about adding Grieg, Nielsen, Sibelius and Elgar, or Britten and Vaughan Williams? Bartok’s works for violin are beautiful. Messiaen’s reflective music is always thought provoking. Still alive and working are Frederic Rzewski (piano variations on The People United Will Never Be Divided) or James MacMillan (Veni Veni Emmanuel).

    For a one Reformed view of music look here
    I don’t agree with it all, but it’s a brave attempt.

  75. Mark Van Der Molen said,

    November 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    John, where can we get your book comparing Haydn and Mozart? I’ve always been fascinated by the comparison of these two greats, and was unaware of your work.

    I’ve always thought of Haydn as the greater of the two, but I’m not a trained musician, but I believe Mozart is reported to have said as much himself! Also, I love the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony 98, which has been interpreted as an homage to Mozart after Haydn learned of Mozart’s death.

  76. John Harutunian said,

    November 18, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Mark, good to hear from you. Re: the quote, it was actually Haydn who ranked Mozart above himself. In a letter to Leopold Mozart in 1785, he told him that his son was “the greatest composer known to [him] either in person or by name.” And Mozart was yet to write most of his greatest music. (Of course, one could argue, so was Haydn!)
    I think you’re right about the Symphony No. 98 -but it’s the second movement which contains a passage strikingly similar to one in the second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony.
    My book is a comparison of Haydn’s and Mozart’s uses of sonata form in their late instrumental music. It’s basically my UCLA dissertation, slightly expanded. If you’re seriously interested in it, email me at

  77. paigebritton said,

    November 19, 2011 at 6:59 am

    Hey, music lovers, back to Lane’s post ideas for a moment —

    I’ve been musing on Lane’s statement that the harmonic resolution-of-tension pattern is inherently more pleasing because it is reflective of the Bible’s own narrative arc of creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.

    Frank has suggested instead that maybe our ears are just accustomed to Western tonal patterns, and that there is no inherently “righteous” musical system — the “rightness” we perceive may simply be a matter of training or preference.

    I would add to Frank’s suggestion the observation that while the whole “symphony” of the Bible does reflect a resolution-of-tension pattern, individual “movements” do not necessarily provide resolution. I am thinking of Lamentations, as well as dark Psalms like #88. This would indicate that it is not counter to biblical example to create a piece of music that leaves the tension unresolved. This, too, is part of “speaking the truth in love” (insofar as music “speaks”!).


  78. Mark Van Der Molen said,

    November 19, 2011 at 7:14 am


    Thanks for the correction re: the quote of Haydn on his view of Mozart as his superior. I had in mind this quote from Mozart, which probably just shows that he had a similar view of Haydn as his superior. A mutual admiration society, so to speak:

    “There is no one who can do it all — to joke and to terrify, to evoke laughter and profound sentiment — and all equally well, except Joseph Haydn.”

    And I love this anectdote:

    “At a private party a new work of Joseph Haydn was being performed. Besides Mozart there were a number of other musicians present, among them a certain man who was never known to praise anyone but himself. He was standing next to Mozart and found fault with one thing after another. For a while Mozart listened patiently; when he could bear it no longer and the fault-finder once more conceitedly declared: ‘I would not have done that’, Mozart retorted: ‘Neither would I but do you know why? Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate.”

    And yes, I am interested in your thesis and will email you privately.

  79. John Harutunian said,

    November 19, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Mark, the quotes are most interesting. I assume they’re from Emily Anderson’s collection of translated Mozart letters? If so, I can’t quarrel with their authenticity.

    Paige, good insight. I’d add a point that transcends music: Why do we value artistic expressions of tragedy? Because -whether they’re literary classics like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or its contemporary musical equivalent, Bernsteins’ West Side Story- they leave us feeling reaffirmed of the infinite worth of a human being. (Even that of the strangers sitting next to us in the theater seats.)

    Which is a thoroughly Biblical concept. (Christ felt them to be worth enough to die for.)

  80. Cris Dickason said,

    November 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    If you are in the Philadelphia area …

    Performing from the works of Chopin and Scriabin . .
    Piano Concert

    • December 2, 2011
    • Time: 7:30pm – 9:30pm

    John Silva is a classical pianist and composer. As a pianist, his affection for the intrinsic sound of the piano is expressed through his use of tone and colour. As a composer, he focuses on the beautiful interaction between tones and the harmonies they produce.

  81. paigebritton said,

    November 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Frank & all,

    Here’s another thought or two about “What does music communicate?”

    We might say that we’re looking at a general / special revelation distinction here. The music certainly “tells” us something about the composer — as the created world “tells” of the glory of God — but there is a limit to the “telling” that does not seem to extend as far as the composer’s worldview.

    I wonder, if you could imagine listening to a composition by a composer who is entirely unknown to you, just how much information about the (human) creator will be conveyed by the music (if you are alert to it!)? Will it only be information about technical prowess? Is everything else that we could “hear” in the music necessarily speculative without a verbal assist?

    One more wonder: If you know the composer’s worldview beforehand, is it fair to “hear” it in the music after all, or must we still consider the music to be “worldview-neutral”?


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