Function and Art in Religious Music

October 6, 2016 at 10:30 am

What makes something art? Can something designed purely for function (say, a urinal) be art? Does something have to be essentially useless for it to be art?

I’m not going down that road – come to your own conclusion.

It is an interesting thing to ponder, though. There is plenty of gorgeous music written for functional use. Take William Byrd‘s Mass for Five Voices – this setting could be sung on any Sunday as a regular Christian Mass, but is so exquisite that you can just as easily find it in a secular concert hall. Meanwhile, the infamous Missa “My Little Pony” would be booed off any concert stage, yet sadly remains sung in churches. And any church music director who demands on singing Bach’s Mass in B minor will surely be fired once the priest realizes that the first of three Kyries takes over 10 minutes – but concert-lovers will drive for hours to hear a B-minor mass in a hall.

Jewish sacred music seems to be free from the function/art woes that have become a norm for Christian texts. Perhaps this is because musical instruments were not used in synagogues until relatively recently; unaccompanied choral music took a backseat to instrumental music from the baroque to the late romantic. I have had difficulty finding functional sacred Jewish music that rings as both function and art. Perhaps anti-Semitic trends have suppressed Jewish sacred music from becoming mainstream concert music in the way Mozart’s Masses have. Or, perhaps there is just less of this music than I expect. If you know of any Jewish sacred music that is both (liturgically) functional and high art, please let me know!

The only Jewish Service I’ve heard performed in a concert setting is by Ernst Bloch. If you knew nothing of Judaism at all, you would still enjoy this work as a romantic choral symphony – the work’s flavor is not unlike the Brahms Requiem. However, this service could be sung at your local synagogue, while the Brahms (in its entirety) is exclusively performed as a concert piece.

This is the final part of the service, the Aaronic blessing. You’ll hear the cantor singing the blessing and the choir responding, “Amen”.

May the Lord bless you and guard you;
May the Lord make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift up His face unto you and give you peace.

The full service can be found here.


Music Training

August 27, 2016 at 10:00 am

Arthur Honegger wrote “Pacific 231” to sound like the journey of a steam-engine. This piece needs no description – you’ll know exactly what is going on as you listen – and what a great ending!