Up above my head…

This post is in response to a previous request to elucidate on some comments I made regarding a song with the title of this post as the opening line – not just any old version of this wonderful African-American spiritual. And, even as I type these opening lines, I’m listening to this track and turning up the volume and getting excited – the praise going on here is in fact very serious. I’m talking about the Kirk Franklin and God’s Property version of this spiritual. I really need to arrange and direct a version of this track as soon as God wills, because I think we could do certain things chorally that would bring the spiritual message out even more strongly…

Let’s start with the lyrics:

Up above my head I hear music in the air
Up above my head there’s a melody so bright
And fair
I can hear when I’m all alone
Even in those times when I feel all hope is gone
Up above my head I hear joybells ringing
Up above my head I hear angels singing
There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere

I hear music in the air
I hear music everywhere
There must be a God somewhere

There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere
There must be a God somewhere

~

Martin Luther wrote:

“Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate — and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the
emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find?”

Readers of the last post will recall having been introduced to Sir Colin Davis, the uber-renowned British conductor who is fast becoming a hero of mine, as he also seems to be for one of my own great teacher/mentors. He has some very serious things to say about the power of sacred music – he recently conducted one of the hardest pieces of classical music ever written, a major choral/orchestral work called Missa Solemnis by Beethoven  – that little-known composer who may or may not have written something called the Moonlight Sonata…

Now, if you are a honest church musician who has not really ever properly considered the effect that sacred music can have on those who do not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord – and that God exists – take a very good look at what Sir Colin has to say:

“That piece is a hell of a task: it’s so difficult for the orchestra to play and the chorus to sing that performing it is like failing to reach the top of Mount Everest. I think it’s one of the great statements of any time… At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That’s what Beethoven means. It’s absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest which is almost unbearable. And yet, there’s the power with which he sets the words: ‘Credo in unum deum!’ [I believe in one God!] You’d better believe him when he says it. And I do. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I’m left alone, I can’t believe anything. So it’s even more poignant for me. But for that brief hour and a half when I’m conducting the piece, I do.”

Now, I had – and still have – the huge privilege of being able to come to the conducting table of European sacred music with a rather greater technical theological knowledge than most conductors. It was absolutely amazing to have had the opportunity to study this work even briefly as a conductor. I have found that many of the finest conductors do in fact get their theology confused and muddled at times (well, they are not Christians or theology students and not claiming to be), but their sincerity about getting the best interpretation that they can is in fact humbling. There is also the fact that Beethoven did indeed do some very, very unusual things in this particular piece – but I don’t want to be too distracted by those technicalities at present. It is the essence of what Davis is saying that matters right now –

– namely, that the spiritual power in this piece of music is so great that for the duration of it’s performance, he actually suspends disbelief in order to faithfully conduct the work. The Missa Solemnis is actually pointing him towards God!

So then: are we suggesting that only the very grandest music points to God? Is it only classical music from the proto-European vanguard that can bring people face-to-face with the idea that God really might just be real? Or can this happen with other music as well?

Liturgical musicologist Mary McGann writes the following:

“A Latino community singing cantos, accompanied by a conjunto or Mariachi ensemble; an Indian assembly singing bhajan to the accompaniment of a tabla and harmonium; a Vietnamese assembly chanting sacred texts and prayers in doc khin – an a capella form of chanting based on the tonal scale of the Vietnamese language. Each idiom is not only an acoustic/sonic tradition, but a carrier of social customs, or ritual expectations, of spirituality, and of cosmology.”

Now, that might be a little bit harder to unpack, but what she is saying is that each of these different religious music traditions is more than just a music tradition or style or genre – they are actually carriers of spirituality itself, and of spritual worldview!

So there are two massive implications for us:

  1. When we hear music, it really can and does point us towards a reality beyond itself. The question is: which spiritual reality are we being drawn towards? Music can make us feel so much and so deeply that we can be fooled into thinking that the sense of fervour aroused within us is the worship of the true and only God, when in fact we have only tapped into the inherent spirituality of the music itself! People can hear music and be drawn towards (and closer towards) God – but they can also be drawn towards (and closer towards) the enemy himself! But ultimately, the kind of music – be it vocal or instrumental – that actually truly lifts the spirits and brings peace to the soul and mind can only come from one side – the side of Truth – as in, the person, not the concept…
  2. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all true Christian believers made a firm commitment to never ever perform a piece of music other than as praise to God?! Whether secular or explicitly sacred, such a policy would have a huge impact on the choices we make as Christian musicians…

I know that I have experienced the positive truth of someone hearing my music and knowing something different about it – it pointed them to the truth. They HEARD it in my playing – no words – no Bible – no theology. Just the music itself carried the spiritual content that made two unbelievers think that there had to be a God somewhere. That was a moment which changed my life as a musician forever.

I didn’t do that. The Holy Spirit did. And now that I am in ministry, sitting in my house in this first phase of Sabbath, preparing to serve as Worship Pastor in my home church tomorrow, I am desperate to be filled with the Spirit so that everything that I do as a musician for the rest of my days on this earth will point someone to God. If Beethoven could explore faith in music to such an extent that an agnostic like Davis is intellectually persuaded by the music itself – even if only for the duration of the music in real-time performance – then it is possible – absolutely possible – for any seriously committed and well-trained Levite to sing, play, direct, conduct, compose and arrange music in such a way that folk will say…

THERE MUST BE A GOD SOMEWHERE!

Believe it.

That is the only reason I am in music – to offer the highest level of praise that I can to my God – and to share faith. Music means everything to me for one reason only – it has helped me to worship God in ways that transcend language, and through it I have learnt what it means to “make melody in my heart unto the Lord” (EGW). God has used music in a powerful way to help me on my spiritual journey and so I can only give it back to Him. It is the highest privilege a musician can have – to praise God in music.

~

I hear music in the air
I hear music everywhere
There must be a God somewhere

~

Music really is one of the ways in which we KNOW that there is a God. What are you going to say to Him today?

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2 comments on “Up above my head…

  1. Shade Henry says:

    Amen! This was so spot on Alex, as well as informative. As someone who loves to write AND make music, I appreciate someone using one of the mediums of expression I love so well, to talk about another of my favourite mediums of expression :-). God is so gracious in allowing us to use these things for his glory. There’s a certain joy I find in good music and good writing that brings a smile to my face.

    • theomusicologist says:

      Praise God, Shade, and thanks for the kind words. Just want to push one thing you said a little further – God is indeed more than gracious in allowing us to use language and music to His glory, but in truth I would say that a better conceptual framework for that might to see it as God being gracious to allow us the related gift of sanity, prescience and sentience. As a result of those gifts, we have no choice but to offer praise in our use of words – full stop – i.e. beyond creative paradigms themselves. But because music operates so differently by virtue of its being non-verbal, we open ourselves to a type of joy which can and does exist in an of itself – so people can take true joy in music without acknowledging God! This means that music which actually brings people to a knowledge of the truth HAS to be inspired by the Truth – and that hopefully goes beyond bringing a smile to the face of a human being (blessed as that is) – but it actually provokes and stimulates a process which leads to change!

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