October 27, 2013: Sacred vs. Secular Music

October 27, 2013 19:51

Symphonic Meditation on "Ein’ Feste Burg" William Zeitler


When the nation of Israel was being founded around 1950, it was a matter of some debate as to what the official national language ought to be. You’d think ‘Hebrew’ would be a slam dunk, but many of the leading rabbis opposed that. Their reasoning was that Hebrew should be reserved for Scripture and the synagogue, and not be the common language used by cursing longshoremen and such.

In the Middle Ages there was an analogous situation: there was Latin for Scripture and church, and the local language for secular affairs. This separation between sacred and secular even extended to music: young men with lutes sang love songs through grates to their young ladies, but on Sunday morning it was Gregorian chants with no lutes in sight – sacred and secular music were very different. And the congregation sang nothing in the service: the Gregorian chants were sung by singers trained and set apart for that task.

Luther not only changed theology, he also changed the role of music in church. No more separate language for church (Latin) – we’re using the vernacular! And no more separate language for Scripture – we’re translating that into the vernacular too! And no more separate singers for church while the congregation remains silent – everybody is going to sing! And no more separate music for church (Gregorian chants) – Luther created the first congregational hymnal – songs for the congregation to sing, using tunes borrowed from bar-room songs when necessary. (As Luther reportedly said, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?“ I might also point out that tune for the Star Spangled Banner was originally a drinking song as well. But that’s another story…)

We still struggle with those two philosophies: music on Sunday morning should essentially be like the music we hear the rest of the week (the ‘contemporary music with praise songs and guitars’ point of view) vs. the music should have its own separate and generally traditional character. Those two philosophies are an ongoing challenge for the staff here at First Presbyterian.

Except for this Sunday. In your typical week at home and work I can guarantee you that you won’t hear a bevy of bagpipes with full-bore pipe organ – only here this Sunday morning at San Bernardino First Presbyterian Church. Not a lute or guitar within miles!


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