Recently Mrs rb and I went to an excellent performance by a choral group call ‘The Sixteen‘ (which features 18 singers – go figure), who are touring their program of sacred music. I suppose ‘sacred’ means that the music has some religious significance or plays out some bit of the bible.
The performance was terrific, with the highlight being Allegri’s Miserere. This piece features dueling voices across the auditorium, with sopranos showing off a bit. Beautiful, if a couple of verses too long. And my Latin is just not up to it.
Anyway, the performance afforded plenty of time for thinking about the origins of so-called sacred music, and how we can once again thank religion for another piece of our cultural history. I’ve written about the architectural legacy of religion before, noting that without religion we would have been culturally the poorer, and I think the same goes for music. But while I argue that the architecture side of the story came at a significant cost to the common man, I struggle to find any such exorbitant costs to the creation of music.
But don’t think for a minute that I’m attributing that beautiful music to god or even to the institution of religion. I would prefer to think of it as another outstanding creation of the human brain. With architecture we see the creation of structures using the golden ratio, as well as the fascinating Pi – along with many other heuristics and rules which seem to generate visually pleasing forms. Similarly, we see this curious relationship between the musical notes on the so-called ‘equal tempered’ scale – each successive note is based on the 12th root of 2, which is approximately 1.059463094359… This link shows the simple formula for calculating the frequencies. Why combinations of these frequencies, and the intervals between them, should be pleasing to the ear I have no clue. It is true that many other scales exist which are also pleasing to whichever culture developed them, and this only serves to underline the main point is that this state of affairs is not mystical, but is an invention of man.
The other observation I would make is that while religion has been a catalyst for the beautiful sacred and gospel music, I don’t think that it alone was responsible for its evolution. Way back when I was studying rules of harmony during my piano days, much fun was to be had constructing music based on those rules. However, one quickly came to realise that simply applying those rules meant that the resulting music was pretty limited – it sounded, well, churchy, for want of a better academic word. My teacher subsequently explained that interesting music was in the breaking of the rules, rather than in the observation of them. Hence the appeal of ‘crunchy’ jazz chords, and discordant combinations of notes which bring delight when they ‘resolve’ to a more pleasing combination. A good example of the latter can be found at the end of ‘Music of the Night’, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, in which the singer holds a constant note, but the orchestra plays a series of discordant notes until they finally harmonise. Classic.
And there’s the rub. Because religion is notoriously slow to change anything, and terrible at breaking rules (at least their own rules, if not those of society), without other influences, I believe all sacred music would have remained churchy, to use my new super-descriptive word, and the most exciting melody on offer would be ‘All things bright and beautiful’ or similar.
But, rules were broken, and the rest is musical history.
Fortunately, humans have moved on in many spheres, including music, allowing us the luxury of being able to enjoy the religiously-inspired ‘The Sixteen’.