Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Music and religion

consisted of a chorale melody, other religious text and newly composed music in multiple movements. These movements were made up of recitatives, arias, and chorus movements. In my opinion, this was a true bridge between religious concepts and the deeper meanings and spirituality of music, as it connected people to a higher level of musicality within religion. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was perhaps the greatest composer to find balance between musical intention and religious purity. He devoted his compositions and music to religion, and he had an ultimate goal of ‘ creating a well-regulated church music to the Glory of God ’ (Geck 2004). Bach’s music was so influential and remains to this day, that many people, including musicologist Friedrich Blume (1893-1972), have chosen to call Bach the ‘ Fifth Evangelist ’ , and his passions in particular to be the ‘ Fifth Gospel ’ (Petzoldt 2015). Bach’s music is still performed and studied today, and is still of much importance in the English church service, with his organ works performed regularly before, during and at the end of the services as voluntar ies. This was not always the case. After Bach’s death, the quality of music in the Lutheran Church declined rapidly, which decreased the influence of Europe towards English church music. This allowed composers such as Handel to set and maintain a low level of English church music. It stayed this way until Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) ‘ rediscovers ’ and performs Bach’s organ music in England. This simple act of playing Bach’s music relit musical creativity in England (Grout 1981). The liturgical compositions of Samuel Wesley are some of the best examples of the strong relationship between music and religion. Wesley himself had a complicated view on religion, due to his father and uncle’s involvement in the early Methodist church. And although he was a Catholic, he was married in the Church of England. This meant that he never had a stable religious group to ground himself in. Due to being around and influenced by all these different religious groups, Wesley focused on writing music for the church in general. He was also not happy with how music was developing in England, and so decided to take a step back and write more archaically, in a similar style to the music of Bach. This proved to work, and his most famous pieces are the simpler church and organ works (Temperley 1966), a n example of which is Wesley’s extraordinary organ Voluntary in D major . Here he uses a similar style of writing to Bach but with more ‘updated’ harmonic structures and incorporates th e playing styles of his age. Yet he manages to keep both the simplicity and emotion for which Bach’s music is well known. I think the reason for simpler religious music being more popular is the fact that religion is not something which needs to be proved; it is a fundamental part of some people’s lives, and this means that it is not something that needs to be thought about or analysed in too much depth. In the same way, the feelings that come from music cannot be explained, and therefore the music which makes us feel spiritual does not need to be overcomplicated or analysed. The beauty of the simple religious music is that people can simply sit, listen and be immersed in it, without having to think too much. Whereas more complicated music can cloud the mind with all its different parts and leave little space for enjoyment and emotion. In conclusion, I believe that music and religion are very similar in the way in which they interact with people in their lives, and this has been true throughout history, with many musicians choosing to compose and extend their musicality into religious services through anthems, hymns and settings. I think the biggest proof we have of music’s effect on religion is when we look at cathedrals and famous churches in England, which have now almost all become large venues for the musical performance of music. This use of religious spaces for music reflects how the two are linked.


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