The historical hostility of churches to secular music

I’ve just been thinking about this, occasioned by the “Vivaldi’s Women” documentary that’s on YouTube (in its wonderful entirety), and something occurred to me.

There is definitely a numinous experience of music in a “sacred” context. I can think of no well-balanced people with good hearing who wouldn’t be deeply moved while listening to a good, strong choir singing wonderful music in an echoing arena with good acoustics, and a big cathedral is as good an arena as any. Anyone will feel a swell when hearing music like that, a sensation that one can’t breathe in deeply enough as one needs to while listening because one just isn’t big enough inside to hold it all.

Churches I think can rely on people confusing that sensation with an awareness of their particular version of God™ — not simply a numinous experience, but one that proves that their worldly, political power is vindicated. That sensation of interior vastness is more than a demonstration of the spiritual capability of the human mind. It’s proof positive that the church (whichever one it happens to be) is right to have the money and power and control over your life that it has. It’s one of the strongest emotions a human can feel, and if it can be harnessed to validate worldly power, well then.

But what if you go into a secular setting with deeply moving music … and you are equally deeply moved? What other conclusion can be reached but that it’s the music that’s moving you, not your supposed awareness of the power of a controlling political entity? A rock concert is a perfectly secular setting, and yet if you can feel that same sensation of internal vastness while listening to them, that puts them in direct competition with the church. It reveals that what you might have thought was a sensation of godly power was a sensation of the power of music, and that it had nothing at all to do with the rightness of the political control exerted by these authorities over your life.

For the church to keep you convinced that you sensed God™ in that beautiful choir, it must make damned sure that you never feel that feeling anywhere but in the cathedral, while that one choir is singing. Otherwise, if some guy with long hair running around on stage with a microphone can make you feel it, or someone pounding at a piano or shredding a guitar … either it’s not God™ or, if you do prefer to think in religious terms when it comes to musical numinousness, then that long-haired guy with the microphone can function as well as the church can to connect you to God™, however you may conceive of it. Secular music can either invalidate the church completely or at the very least directly compete with it.

So we get accusations of backmasking devilish messages in rock songs, hundreds of hardanger fiddles thrown into the fire during the 1800s in Norway during religious revivals, and Beatles records burned in pyres. “We’re bigger than Jesus Christ right now,” was the offhand comment that sparked that fire, and Lennon couldn’t have realized at that one throwaway moment that his comment got straight to the heart of the churches’ fears. He couldn’t have picked a better quip as a musician to make them feel pantsed.

It also explains why the only form of secular music that most churches approve of wholeheartedly is only the starchiest interpretations of classical music. Don’t clap, don’t move, don’t applaud until the end, hold off, feel no enthusiasm, don’t get too worked up. Even the musicians aren’t supposed to be too animated. Where this is not the case, they have also historically been hostile even to classical performers, witness the accusations of Paganini having made deals with the devil to gain his ability to play. (The man was not allowed a Catholic burial until 30-some years after he had died because of those accusations.)

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