Sacred Music Speaks to an Ancestral Truth Beyond Religion
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of singing in another concert with the Outer Cape Chorale. Over the past 14 years director Jon Arterton and the Chorale have presented a wide variety of choral music, from Bach to the Beatles. This most recent concert was one of their most challenging. It was also one of their most “sacred” concerts.
It included a Bach cantata, a Mozart mass, and a Magnificat from the 18th century Italian composer, Francesco Durante.
By "sacred," I mean the words to the music were taken from the traditional Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church, or, in Bach’s case, from a traditional Lutheran Christian hymn. I have sung enough sacred musical literature over the years that these words have become part of my unconscious vocabulary: “Kyrie eleison,” “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” “Credo in unum Deo,” “Dona nobis pacem,” and so on.
I have often wondered why this sacred music moves me so. I’m not a religious person, at least not in the traditional Christian sense. And I doubt that most of our audiences are either, though they, too, seem to be deeply moved by these pieces. Moreover, these “sacred” concerts themselves are usually performed not in churches but in secular public spaces, such as town halls and schools. So why should these century-old religious texts have such a pull? Is it just the artistic power of the music that moves us, and the words are just incidental? Is it somehow “hypocritical” allow oneself, as performer or listener, to be deeply affected by what one’s rational mind regards as an outworn creed?
I recently found a possible answer to this conundrum in an unexpected place. I was reading an essay by the American author Edith Wharton on, of all thing, the power of ghost stories. Here is what she says: “No one with a spark of imagination ever objected to a good ghost story as “improbable”…Most of us retain the more or less shadowy memory of ancestral terrors… [and] everybody knows a good ghost when he reads about him.”
In other words, she argues that the power of a good ghost story does not depend upon the reader’s belief in ghosts, at least not a conscious belief. What Wharton suggests is that we all carry an “ancestral” memory of having believed in ghosts, and that a well-crafted ghost story touches that deep memory, overriding rational objections, and triggers the sensation of pleasurable fright.
I think something similar happens to the listener or performer of traditional sacred music. We may not literally “believe” in the liturgy or religious lyrics being sung, but we have what Wharton would call an ancestral or cultural memory of having once believed them. Sung liturgy has always been part of religious services, from Gregorian chants to high masses to plainsong to traditional hymns and carols. Music reaches us on such a deep level that it carries those sacred words into a space where we respond, not rationally, but deeply emotionally, responding to what our ancestors once took as sacred truth. Is this hypocritical? I don’t think so. We all carry more worlds within us than we know, and music remains one of the most powerful tools to access them. It transports us to a deep past where, listening, we still feel the fear and love of God.