Food of Divine Love

George Austin on the power of sacred music

After Mass on Christmas morning, we drove over to Chester for lunch with our son’s in-laws, listening to Classic FM as we went. The 114 miles took a hundred minutes (my wife was driving), and we had Christmas music all the way – carols, pieces from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Messiah (‘Unto us a child is born’ twice). It was a joy, and if there were no shepherds ‘abiding in the fields’ as we climbed to 1,200 feet over the Pennine moors, glowing as they were in the winter sunshine, it did not matter. Once it would have been the same on the BBC, but I suppose that, now political correctness reigns, it would be thought discourteous to other faiths to make more than what seems to be just a passing reference to the birth of Christ.


But for many of us the Christian festivals are marked not just by the words of worship in church but by music too. Once at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, I heard for the first time Allegri’s wonderful Miserere Mei, sung by the excellent college choir. Written for use in the Sistine Chapel, it only reached a wider public after Mozart had worshipped there and then transcribed it from memory afterwards. I know of no piece of Lenten music that so combines the deep sorrow for sins committed with the soaring cadences of the trebles declaring the joy of the good news that God has wiped the slate clean.

Since retirement I have been able to return to singing after 35 years abstinence, now as a bass rather than a tenor. The special choir at St Luke’s, York, is not a northern version of the Monteverdi Choir, but we do try our best, and were even able to attempt Fauré’s Requiem. It is true that we were helped in the solo parts by a soprano who formerly sang in a cathedral choir and a bass from Opera North (now at Mirfield), both members of the congregation. Again, the beautiful Agnus Dei by Fauré has within it a confident and restful assurance that the Lamb of God does indeed take away our sins.

But we also have provided music of a different sort, with a diet of spirituals at one Sunday Mass. As with Fauré and Allegri, the hauntingly beautiful Steal away to Jesus carries God’s promise that even if ‘we ain’t got long to stay here’, we shall be with him in the end. Like ritual and preaching (just as media sources like newspapers, television, and radio), music is communication.

New horizons

Thankfully, Anglicans have in recent years widened the musical possibilities within worship. I suppose it began some forty years ago, with ‘modern’ hymns like those of Patrick Appleford, with their hints of 40s musicals (and nothing wrong with that). Then Lord of the Dance, even though I now find it grates, seemed to hit a different note and perhaps opened the way to Graham Kendrick and others to write hymns and tunes that brighten up our praise of God.

It might have been revolutionary in the 1970s to use (as we did once at St Peter’s, Bushey Heath) a Swedish modern jazz recording of Shall we gather at the river? during the Mass, but my wife and I would now feel cheated at St Luke’s York when we sing Amazing grace if it were not accompanied by the organist playing jazz piano. It is good not only because it is done very well but because it communicates and uplifts.

Hope in B minor

Yet there is for me no one quite like Johann Sebastian Bach for expressing the glory and the mystery of God in music, though I have never had the opportunity to bring a choir and orchestra into church for Easter Day for what would be for me the ultimate Bach experience. For there is in the Mass in B minor a moment in which the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the glory of God over the sin of the world is expressed as in no other medium of communication.

That is in the Credo, when the Crucifixus solemnly fades into nothing as gradually the life leaves the body of the dying Saviour. Silence. Then orchestra and choir trumpet the victory over death and sin in Et Resurrexit, through which the genius of Bach communicates the Good News more vividly that anything else I know in music or art. To begin the Eucharist of Easter Day with that is an ambition I fear I shall never achieve.

For the solemn Three Hours of Good Friday I have over many years established an unbreakable ritual. If I am not preaching at a Three Hours somewhere, I don’t go to church. Instead, I listen at home to one of the Bach Passions, St Matthew and St John on alternate years, and every year it is somehow a new revelation of the mystery of the Passion.

Sometimes at the theatre a director will use the very minimum of scenery and let the words create in the imagination of the audience the pictorial context in which a play is set. Bach does precisely that in his music. There is the baying crowd screaming ‘Crucify! Crucify!’, the scornful Pilate refusing to change the words written on the cross, the series of poignant chorales after the death of Jesus as the hearts of his followers are torn apart with their world seeming suddenly to have died with their Master.

And at the end, the sadly confident Chorus, Ruht vohl, –

‘Lie in peace, sacred body for which I weep no more,

And bring me to my rest.

The grave that is yours holds no further suffering

And for me opens Heaven and closes Hell.’

But beware Muzak

Yet we need to take care. Music can communicate but it can also inhibit communication. There is a fashion in television documentaries today in which everything must apparently be overlain by a droning musical accompaniment. Do they think we cannot take it in without that encouragement? Or is it simply that music must accompany everything today?

A rather eccentric clergyman told me that he was eating in a restaurant and became irritated by the continuous pop music that filled the room. ‘Do we have to have that music with our meal?’ he asked the waiter. ‘Oh, our other customers like it,’ was the reply. My friend came in with the coup de grace. ‘But there are no other customers today,’ he pointed out, and reluctantly the music was switched off.

We do need in our worship to get the right balance, not only between the good, the bad and the ugly, but between that which enhances communication and that which inhibits it.

George Austin is a journalist and broadcaster