Voicing the Ineffable: Musical Representations of Religious Experience

Voicing the Ineffable: Musical Representations of Religious Experience

Voicing the Ineffable: Musical Representations of Religious Experience

Voicing the Ineffable: Musical Representations of Religious Experience

Excerpt

The relationship between music and religion has long been a clearly delineated one, seemingly requiring little verbalization, much less justification. Up to the late Middle Ages, music employed for ritual expressions of faith in sacred contexts and for evocations of the numinous (as, e.g., in the theater) was contrasted with music presented for entertainment, be it that of an aristocracy with too much time to fill, or that of the common people with a need for diversion from their hard lives. Both the highly intricate works played in the august halls of princely palaces and the easily accessible genres presented in the open air on market squares and the like were eventually referred to as "secular" in nature. The distinction was understood to denote the spiritual as well as the aesthetic impact: music heard as a pastime or background to other activities (like formal dining or dancing) fulfilled different purposes and consequently conveyed different messages from music heard in the context of rituals addressing human erring and divine Redemption, or right versus wrong human conduct. The latter was believed to aid in the communication of eternal truth, while the former was suspected of arousing sensuality and thus potentially leading away from the spiritual perspective of life.

In subsequent centuries, music offered for entertainment at various levels of sophistication spilled from the courtly salons to the concert hall and the home. Such music, created for virtuoso performance or for the enjoyment in private chambers, occasionally made room for an expression of religious experiences outside the dedicated spaces of worship and moral edification. This aspect is particularly intriguing in instrumental music, where allusions to extra-musical messages are at best hinted at in titles or explanatory notes, and in those cases of vocal music where it can be shown that the musical language adds a subtext or at least significant nuances to the verbal text.

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