Musings: The Aesthetics of Sacred Music

By Vogels, David | The American Organist, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Musings: The Aesthetics of Sacred Music


Vogels, David, The American Organist


Is a worship service an aesthetic experience? That question came to mind last February on the last Sunday after Epiphany, when I happened to attend the Eucharist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. As soon as I picked up the bulletin and saw that the Mass setting was to be Nico Muhly's Bright Mass with Canons, and that the organ prelude would consist of William Bolcom's "What a Friend We Have in Jesus!" (from his Gospel Preludes) and Muhly's Installation Prelude No. 2,1 looked forward to a wonderful offering of recent American music. Organist-director of music John Scott and his excellent choir of men and boys did not disappoint in the least. Whether the service made me a better person or Christian or Episcopalian may be subject to debate, but there can be no doubt that I appreciated it aesthetically.

The answer to my opening question may seem self-evident to most AGO members, who generally serve mainline denominations; but it's by no means unanimous. Many evangelicals take the position that worship is pure praise, however it is expressed by the congregation, and that aesthetic values are distracting or even dangerous. Personally, I agree with composer-conductor John Mason Hodges of Memphis, Tenn., who wrote in the journal Reformation & Revival (Summer 2000), "... our worship in this world ... needs to include the beauty of God as well as the truth and the goodness of God. It is beauty that makes truth edible. It is beauty that makes goodness attractive. In our decisions about worship, we need to put into practice a good understanding of beauty."

If we accept that premise, how do we actually "put into practice" our "understanding of beauty"? This whole internal discussion led me back to Robert Pirsig's seminal book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I hadn't read ZMM (as it is now commonly abbreviated) since my graduate-school days at the University of Colorado, where William Kearns required it for his music aesthetics class. That was rather venturesome for a college music historian in 1976-especially since the book had only been released in 1974-but I came to learn that Kearns was an outside-the-box thinker, one who later brought the American Music Research Center from California to Colorado. In a recent email, Kearns recalled, "I believe that what attracted me was the idea that the author had about reviewing the whole history of philosophy, particularly as it related to aesthetics." He mentioned that he no longer owned the book, but it certainly made a lasting impression on my soon-to-be wife and I, who were both taking his class. We still have two copies, and I can't tell you how many people we've given or recommended it to since our first reading. But I had not reread Pirsig's text entirely until my inspiration at St. Thomas Church.

ZMM is, as the cover blurb states, a "journey of a man in search of himself' on a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son. Subtided "An Inquiry into Values," it is also a philosophical discussion that reaches back to the ancient Greek Sophists to devise what Pirsig's follow-up book called a Metaphysics of Quality. …

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