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To Touch the Face of God

By Daniel Martins

My parents were not particularly musical. Neither played an instrument, and the only organized singing they ever did was when my mother was in the church choir for a time. My father, who was a structural engineer, was exposed to some basic music theory as part of a night-school program at a local Bible college, and I remember him relying on a slide rule to help him figure it out. But when I was around 10, they acquired — for the sake of their children, no doubt — two collections of LPs, called The Instruments of the Orchestra and Music of the Great Composers.

These recordings changed my life; their influence cannot be overstated. I fell in love with music, particularly the genres of music that tend to be lumped together under the catch-all label “classical.” Although I took piano lessons between the ages of 7 and 13, and played the French horn in school bands from fifth grade on, I was not blessed with native talent as a performer to match my enthusiasm for the art form. I was not overly devoted to practicing, and not one of the nerds who went to music camp every summer.

When I reached college, I intended to major in political science as a prelude to law school. Then a well-meaning academic adviser told me I probably wouldn’t have time to remain in the college band, and I immediately tumbled into a first-order vocational crisis. To my shock, I emerged from that crisis as a music major. Less to my shock — though, to my disappointment — I never really came into my own as a performer on the French horn. So I concentrated on music history, theory, and composition, eventually studying musicology at the graduate level and earning a master’s degree in that discipline.

I would have proceeded to an academic career in music had I not been interrupted by an undeniable sense of vocation to the priesthood, so I turned my attention in that direction. Yet, barely any of my education as a musician and scholar went to waste in my doing so. I served as a parish choir director and assistant organist for a while (yeah, I picked up organ along the way — once again, not to any impressive degree of proficiency), assisted on the chapel organ while in seminary, did a bunch of composing and arranging (mastering the shortest form of musical composition: the responsorial psalm refrain), and helped my elite-level pianist wife add the organ to her skill set, deploying it in three successive parishes where I was the rector. Even in my life as a bishop, my music-publishing software has not lain dormant.

Music is integral to what Christians do when they gather for worship. (The said “low Mass” is not a baseline norm that is then enriched by music; it is an anomaly, an aberration, a pastoral concession to various circumstances.) It has ever been thus — witness St Paul’s exhortation regarding “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). And if we think that conflict about church music is solely a contemporary concern, we can think again. The hymn texts of Charles Wesley, for example, which are now considered “standards,” were scandalous innovations in a time when only metrical Psalms were deemed proper for public worship. The flowing ethereal polyphony of Renaissance composers like Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd was once considered so problematic that the Council of Trent considered shutting down anything but plainsong chant in the liturgy, until Palestrina wrote a Mass setting specifically intended to allay the concerns of the council fathers.

Even the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine himself, had mixed feelings about music, such that he considered banning it from liturgical celebrations in his diocese. He didn’t hate music; he loved it, and that was precisely the problem. He was concerned about liturgical music becoming so compelling, so beguiling in its own right, that it would draw attention away from the essential words and actions of the liturgy. (See Confessions, X.33.49, for the details.) I find myself of a double mind when I consider the good ecclesiastical doctor’s objections. I have certainly seen musicians in both the “classical” and “praise band” traditions attempt to treat the liturgy as a flatbed truck on which they can load as much of the sort of music that appeals to them as they can. Might I even have been guilty of that a time or two? My lips are sealed.

Yet, I can enumerate occasions when music in a church setting has transported me into what has felt in those moments like Heaven itself. At my first Easter Vigil, at the moment when the lights come on and “all Heaven breaks loose,” the organist played a fanfare that made my hair stand on end with sheer joy. Decades later, I was attending a weekday Evensong in Westminster Abbey, and the office hymn was Wesley’s “Love divine,” sung to the Welsh tune Blaenwen (sadly, not well-enough known in America). On the final verse, the organist reharmonized the melody in such a way that I was transported out of this world. At the very least, in that moment, I knew I had an “Anglican soul.” In my retirement now, as I spend many more Sundays in a pew than I do at the altar, I am spiritually buoyed by the hymns and service music, whether I’m singing with the congregation or hearing the choir, letting it all wash over me.

Does this touch on the sort of “desire” that bothered Augustine — desire of the sort, the gratification of which can become an end in itself, and therefore an idol? Yes, I suppose it does. I try to keep an open mind on that. But my actual experience is invariably that if music taps into desire, it’s a desire for God, and not anything else. In fact, I am wont to use the metaphor of “touching the face of God” to describe my experience of some of the music that I hear quite outside of church, beyond any liturgical context.

This is not a tag I bestow gratuitously. I am very fond of a great deal of music and a great many composers. I would consider many “great,” but they do not rise to that sublime level. In recent years, I have enjoyed live productions of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, and the “funeral music” from Act III of Twilight of the Gods makes me want to jump out of my skin with excitement. The symphonies of Brahms, along with his great choral work styled Ein Deutsches Requiem, take me places that seem not in this galaxy. And every year, during the Twelve Days of Christmas, I give at least one good, careful listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s oratorio Hodie, and never fail to find new depths to plumb of amazing compositional craft and text/music synergy. Yet, as much as I adore these works, and hundreds of others, I would not rank them in that “touch the face of God” top tier.

What, then, does belong there? Well, let me circle back to my engineer father who used a slide rule to help him understand music theory. I’m not sure exactly what he was trying to accomplish, but it turns out music and mathematics are closely related. I was terrible at math in school, but some of my most fascinating conversations have been with serious academic mathematicians, who find a deep and enthralling beauty in their rather exact (and exacting) science. Often, they speak of a particular solution as “elegant.” I would suspect that some of them might even resonate with my “touch the face of God” sensation, but find it in mathematics rather than music. Is this where art and science, so often thought of as non-overlapping categories, meet and bleed into one another? The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the relationship between music and math. They discovered that if you divide a vibrating string (or column of air) exactly in half, it produces a tone exactly one octave higher than the original. And if you keep on dividing that same string, it yields a successively smaller interval — a perfect fifth, a perfect fourth, a major third, a minor third, and so forth — in theory, infinitely. Could it be that the elusive “face of God” is in the science of music — or, perhaps, in the territory where art and science overlap?

One who is familiar with 20th-century music could be forgiven for supposing that the apotheosis of music as science lies in the 12-tone row compositions purveyed by Arnold Schoenberg and his ilk, which hardly left anyone leaving a concern hall humming happily. Yet, J.S. Bach, two centuries earlier, demonstrated that composing within disciplined formal strictures, accepting the objective givenness of a situation, even if that situation is voluntarily embraced, far from tamping down the artistic impulse, in fact gives it oxygen and allows it to thrive. Bach’s final bequest to posterity — in fact, incomplete at the time of his death in 1750 — was his magisterial Art of Fugue, a set of 14 fugues and four canons, all derived from the same simple d-minor theme. It is almost as if someone dared Bach to build the most ornate possible structure out of most meager initial building materials, and Bach replied, “Hold my beer.”

The Art of Fugue is breathtaking in its combination of scope and simplicity. It is written for unspecified instrumentation, and can therefore be performed by anything from human voices to a saxophone quartet. It is pure music like nothing else I know. It is a truly elegant synergy of the art and the science of musical composition. This, I must confess, is where I touch the face of God. Even though Bach wrote scores of sacred works — the cantatas and oratorios, the two Passions, the motets — it is, in my estimation, the objective purity of his “constrained” works — fugues, passacaglias, chaconnes, themes and variations — that bear the most robust witness to his inscription in each of his scores: soli Deo gloria, to the glory of God alone.


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