Making Music to the Lord (John Scott RIP)
In the middle of this week, the international world of church music and organ players was stunned and saddened to hear of the death of John Scott at the mere age of 59. John was organist of St Thomas’ Church in New York, having gone there from St Paul’s Cathedral in 2004. When he left St Paul’s it had probably the finest choir in the world, and St Thomas’ New York is probably the finest in North America. John himself was rated by many as the best organist in the world. He brought the St Paul’s Choir here in February 2004 you may remember, the only such visit the choir ever made under his direction. And indeed he played our doddering, slightly less decrepit instrument than it is now.
John played at Jessica and my wedding in St Paul’s, and was a someone with who I worked as a colleague on a daily basis. So there is much shock and sorrow felt around the world. Jonathan Marten knew him too – indeed the three of us had a pint together in New York 3 years ago. It’s not my intention this morning to pay tribute to John’s musical extraordinariness, although that must surely be done, and if you want to read an account of his playing I refer you to one of my books, ‘O Come Emmanuel’ in which I do just that.
John could preach in music – his playing of ‘Abide with Me’ was something very special indeed – not a simple hymn in the hands of a master. If I knew he was playing the hymns at evensong I would pick it specially! And if you think Anglican chant is boring and repetitive… St Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said: “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.” John could do it in music.
You might be wondering why I’m telling you this, and it’s not just because I want to pay tribute to John, or drop names for that matter. For if you look at today’s epistle text, you’ll see that it is rather relevant. In the week in which a great church organist dies, the world gathers on the next Sunday to hear these words:
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time …be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I’ve abbreviated it a bit, cutting out the bit about drinking too much – an omission which John would have laughed at - but if we abbreviate this very small passage further, St Paul is basically saying, “be careful how you live, make the most of your time, sing and give thanks.”
Salutary words in the wake of a musician struck down so suddenly, but also for us all. For even our dear friend Norman Gillibrand who died last month – he made it to 99, and he too sang and gave thanks all his life as well. We know not the hour nor the time, so we must be careful how we live, so we live and make music, singing praise and giving thanks. St Paul, in his wisdom doesn’t tell us to sunbathe, go shopping, clean the house, or anything else – no: he tells us to make music, and give thanks.
And it’s a most interesting, cultural piece of advice – very unexpected for St Paul and for the early church. And when we consider how important music has been and still is to every society, it is quite remarkable how infrequently it is mentioned in the Bible.
The first musician was Jubal in Genesis 4:21, who played both the lyre and the pipes while music accompanied or heralded battle. The Psalms were practically the hymn book of the ancient Jews, particularly after the end of the Babylonian exile in the middle of the sixth century BC. Only one Psalm is known to be from that period of exile: Psalm 137, “by the waters of Babylon”. The datings of the other Psalms are uncertain and much debated, but some claim to be by King David, and some scholars see no reason to doubt their authenticity. It is nevertheless a mistake to assume that all the Psalms were written personally by David. However, the association with David is strong and valid enough to give him a reputation in the Hebrew Bible as the archetypal musician, portrayed throughout history with a lyre or harp.
Once the Temple was established at Jerusalem, professional musicians became necessary, and at best the people got to sing the responses. There was no harmony as such and everything was sung from memory. A singer’s training took five years but they may have been selected and partially trained in childhood. The music of the temple was a necessary feature of worship: without singing the sacrifice was not valid. Special settings were composed and sung at particular points in the liturgy, along with designated Psalms. There is evidence that some of the Psalm singing would have involved the congregation at least some of the time. It is clear that the music of the Jewish temple was sophisticated, was utterly built in to the religion of the day, and commanded effort, finances and attention. That is still true in the church today.
Meanwhile, the Ancient Greeks were also exploring music, and two hundred years after the Jews returned to Israel after the exile, Plato (c428-347 BC) felt it necessary to point out that music could be dangerous because of its ability to take over the consciousness of listeners. His concern was mainly for the aulos and the kithara, ancestors of the flute and guitar respectively, and he banned the former from his ideal city state or Republic. Plato’s purpose was fundamentally religious, in The Republic Socrates claims that the aulos is linked to the satyr Marsyas, an evil being, whereas the lyre and kithara are the chosen instruments of Apollo, whom the Muses follow. These opinions formed the basis of the idea that music should serve the state religion, and so pipes were out (except for shepherds’) and strings were in. Plato was also well aware of and sought to take advantage of the fact that music serves an educative purpose, and proposed that everyone in the community should “voice always one and the same sentiment in song, story and speech” (Laws ii, 664a). For Plato therefore, music could be dangerous, but could be used to guide others in matters of politics and religion.
The contrast between Hebrew and Greek attitudes towards music is very important, for these two strands meet in the Middle East in the First Century, and to some extent in the person of Paul, a Jew educated in classical Greek thought.
We know that singing in praise of God was in vogue when Jesus was born: the angels praised God and the shepherds heard them (Luke 2:13-14), and at the end of his earthly life, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn together before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:26), just as they would have done had they been at the synagogue. Paul commends hymn singing and music in the context of worship: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26). He also writes, as we heard today: “…be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:18-20, also Colossians 3:16). He also describes himself as being one who sings: “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Paul is not going to be led by the nose flute, like a victim of Plato’s philosophy!
Music in worship was therefore encouraged and was seen to be a good thing. Yet lurking in the background was the attitude of those who either were Greek or who had been influenced by that culture. Where music was seen as aligned with pagan religion, there was a problem, and equally annoying was the attitude of the Romans, the rulers of the Middle East, who believed that music was basically for entertainment. Both Greek and Roman attitudes confronted and influenced the ancient and reverential Jewish view on music in worship, which Paul upholds in his letter to the Ephesians, and also, the same words appear in Colossians too. So for Paul, music was a very valuable – necessary - dimension of praise and thanksgiving, and he held this view in the face of the pagan Greeks who used it for debauchery and the Romans who used it for entertainment.
We might reflect on this today, for not only has Christianity been the bedrock of Western Music, and therefore a huge dimension of our inherited culture, these tensions are still very much present today. Music is still very much used for entertainment purposes, and some argue about differences between art music and popular music. Music is used in almost every film – the good, the bad and the ugly ones. And music is still at the heart of Christian worship.
Music lies at the heart of what we do under this roof – the choir sings and the organ plays. Neither are perfect – nor need they be – but nevertheless you’ll understand why I’m all for encouraging the choir and, more financially significantly, for restoring the organ. We are blessed with fine musicians here, and as in all things we give thanks to God the Father at all times for them. So the organ is not an added extra, it is the beating heart of our praise to God. And it needs a little more than a pacemaker fitted.
The church has never venerated or made any musical saints, unless you count Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century. Or perhaps JS Bach, who is revered by so many organists, John Scott among them. He perhaps should have the last word. For while Bach was a musician not a theologian (he wrote no theology) he has become revered as a kind of musical saint. He was a man of great faith, biblical knowledge and theological acuity who is credited with saying that “the ultimate end or final purpose of all music... is nothing other than the praise of God and the recreation of the soul”.
This is what John Scott believed, and I have to say it seems perfectly reasonable to me. The praise of God and the recreation of the soul is a great gift indeed, and it is for that as well as in that that we ‘sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among ourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 16/08/15