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Recorded music for Worship

Music for Worship Collection Notes

It was probably some time shortly before the year 202, when the persecution of Christians by the emperor Severus began, that the early church father, Clement of Alexandria, director of the catechetical school in that city, composed his Exhortation to the Greeks. To capture his audience's attention, Clement began with references to several Greek legends illustrating the power of music:

Amphion of Thebes and Arion of Methymna were both minstrels, and both were renowned in story. They are celebrated in song to this day in the chorus of the Greeks; the one for having allured the fishes, and the other for having surrounded Thebes with walls by the power of music. Another, a Thracian, a cunning master of his art (he also is the subject of a Hellenic legend), tamed the wild beasts by the mere might of song; and transplanted trees--oaks--by music.

The Thracian he leaves unnamed is Orpheus, left unnamed, no doubt, because he was the object of a pagan cult. Clement invokes these names in order to introduce his readers to the Gospel of Christ. a song which Clement suggests surpasses even the music of Orpheus, because this song has the power to move not just trees, animals and demons, but that wildest, most redoubtable of beasts, the human heart:

But not such is my song, which has come to loose, and that speedily, the bitter bondage of tyrannizing demons; and leading us back to the mild and loving yoke of piety, recalls to heaven those that had been cast prostrate to the earth. It alone has tamed men, the most intractable of animals.

Belief in the power of music not only supplied Clement of Alexandria with an alluring opening for his exhortation to the Greeks, but it also finds significant expression in the Bible. If Arion of Methymna was able to surround Thebes with walls by the power of music (perhaps an oblique reference to the shrill skirl of bagpipes that could dismay even the fiercest approaching warrior), in the Book of Joshua, Chapter 6, music--repeated blasts on the ram's horn, interspersed with the shouts of the Hebrew people, and accompanied by the rhythmic tramp of their feet--brings down the walls of another city, the Canaanite Jericho. But even more impressively, in all of ancient literature, it is in the Hebrew Scriptures that we find the most dramatic illustration of the therapeutic power of music. In I Samuel 16.14ff, music is used not to protect a city or bring down its walls but to console the mind of troubled majesty:

Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul and an evil spirit from God filled him with terror. Saul's servants said to him, 'Look, an evil spirit of God is the cause of your terror. Let our lord give the order and your servants who wait on you will look for a skilled harpist; when the evil spirit of God troubles you, the harpist will play and you will recover.' Saul said to his servants, 'Find me a man who plays well and bring him to me.' One of the soldiers then spoke up. . . And so David came to Saul and entered his service. . . And whenever the spirit from God troubled Saul, David took the harp and played; then Saul grew calm, and recovered, and the evil spirit left him.

Belief in the power of music both to soothe the troubled soul and to conjure up a sense of the sacred, the therapeutic and hieratic functions of music, no doubt led to the importance of music in Hebrew worship. In the temple at Jerusalem, many of the priests functioned as sacred musicians, and God was worshipped with singing and with music on a variety of instruments. That same conviction about the power of music to enhance worship by moving the hearts of its participants and rendering an acute sense of the sacredness of the moment influenced Christian worship. Indeed the Psalms of the Jerusalem temple figure significantly in the history of Christian music, most prominently in the settings of Gregorian chant for the observance called the Divine Office.

It is similar convictions about the power of music that led my friends Harvey and Thelma Reisman to make a generous donation to Seton Hall University to establish a collection of recorded sacred music to be housed in the library of Immaculate Conception Seminary, the School of Theology at Seton Hall University. One of the things that has made my friendship with the Reismans so enjoyable is the love we share of music. Harvey and Thelma have long been great patrons of music, supporting several musical organizations in this area. Besides enjoying concerts together, we have often talked about the current state of music in the recording industry, concert halls, synagogues and churches. No doubt such considerations led Harvey and Thelma to decide a way to honor me at the time of my 25th anniversary of ordination, in May of 1999, would be to establish a library of recorded music that would acquaint future ministers, clerical and lay, with the rich heritage of Catholic church music and related traditions. With that in mind, we have assembled a collection of more than two hundred compact disc recordings. One of these recordings even attempts to reconstruct the sound of the music in the Jerusalem temple liturgy. Most, however, contribute to an historical survey of Catholic Church music that includes not only a sampling of the vast literature of Gregorian chant but also significant samples of Old Roman, Ambrosian, Ruthenian, Mozarabic, and Syriac chant. Samplings of Russian and Anglican chant are also included. A feature of the collection is a large representation of the music of Palestrina, a high point in the history of Catholic music. But there is also a generous sampling of Mass settings, Te Deums, Stabat Maters, vespers services and oratorios by Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Rossini, Dvorak, Bruckner, Hindemith, Vaughan William, Poulenc, Langlais, and Stravinsky. But more popular forms of music are not neglected. Here are recordings of congregational hymn-singing from many periods and styles, Masses in contemporary African or Hispano-American musical settings, as well as the jazz Mass of Dave Brubeck. Listen to this music. If it does not bring down some walls, it could calm your troubled spirit, maybe even give you the sense of a sacred beauty all too rare in our time.

Rev. Lawrence B. Porter, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology