Quentin Faulkner’s analysis of the impact of Romantic aesthetic philosophy on the church and its music is enlightening (pun intended) and helpful:
The nineteenth century was the era of Romanticism, particularly in music. It was also the period in which Chrisianity began to reassemble and regroup its forces after its first disastrous encounter with Enlightenment ideas. Romantic views and attitudes thus had a considerable amount to do with the churches’ struggles for revival and with the ideas about music that these struggles promoted. The Romantic era was by and large favorably disposed to religion in general and Christianity in particular; a certain dimension of the Romantic attitude seemed to vibrate in sympathy with medieval Christian ideas. It was not the speculative, constructivist aspect of medieval thought that was reborn and that thrived, however, but the mystical, the other-worldly, the visionary. Religion as espoused by romantics was frequently an unorthodox, emotional, highly personalized form of Christianity; in it the composer found a place, elevated to the level of a demi-god.
Two characteristic attitudes of Romanticism strongly imprinted themselves on nineteenth-century ecclesiastical revivals and thus had an enormous impact on church music. The first was historicism, a respect and a longing for the past, in particular for the Middle Ages. Because the church was the central institution during the Middle Ages, this affinity for the medieval particularly affected nineteenth-century religion. Historicism was not at heart an objective, scientific inquiry, but rather a spiritual and artistic movement. It gave birth to the nineteenth-century gothic revival and to the renewed interest in music of past ages. The second attitude was aestheticism, the worship of beuayt as an end in itself. Aestheticism in relation to Christianity led to equating the beautiful with the divine. While both of these attitudes are well documented as influential movements in the churches during the nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth), it should be noted that neither of them was or is well grounded biblically or theologically. Thus when they came to be scrutinized by the more dispassionate, prosaic twentieth century, both of them appeared to be like the proverbial house built on sand.
Attempts at ecclesiastical revival in the wake of the Enlightenment followed two general directions:
1. The traditionally liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican) centered their revivals around a renewal of their historic liturgies–in effect an attempt to reassert the centrality of cultic celebration for Christian faith and life. Solesmes eventually took the lead for Roman Catholicism; the Lutheran revival was marked by the issuance of ever more historically based Kirchenagenden, or orders of worship; the Anglican revival was led by the Oxford and Ecclesiological Movements. It was in these attempts at liturgical revival that the romantic characteristics of historicism and aestheticism were most clearly evident. They were marked by a strong reassertion of the by-now hallowed ideals of church music, and by a renewed and intensive cultivation of Gregorian Chant and Renaissance polyphony (especially Palestrina)–though now conditioned by a spirit of quietism: “Protestant church music must take care to remain within the venerable bounds of a distinctly prayerful mood. Under no circumstances should it express passion; it must exude divine calmness and peaceful consecration” (Julius Smend, c. 1900). The traditional churches increasingly designated early music (or music conceived to some degree in the spirit of earlier styles, e.g., motets of Anton Bruckner such as “Christus factus es” or “Locus iste”) as the music most proper for Christian worship. It was only during this period, and in circles concerned with the restored vitality of Christianity, that the opposition and tension between sacred (i.e., early music or the revival of early styles) and secular (i.e., music in a contemporary style) became heated and confused.
The restoration of church music of the past, therefore, was largely initiated and conditioned by forces outside of the church (that is, historicism and aestheticism). Church music had lost its place as leader and had to be content to follow the trends set by contemporary secular music. That secular musical ideas should condition the practice of church music was inevitable, given the continued disunity, internal weakness, and confused self-image of Christianity (despite sporadic internal revivals). Churchmen often ignored music or took it for granted; church musicians were largely ill-prepared and poorly paid. To be sure, the situation was better in certain areas and churches, bu this must be attributed to a peculiar affection for church music on the part of the populace in those regions, rather than to any vital theological conception of music’s role in worship.
2. The newer evangelical churches (e.g., Baptist and Methodist), building on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pietism, attempted to win back Christian losses by vigorous efforts at revival already begun during the eighteenth century, emphasizing emotional preaching leading to individual conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. While the roots of these movements were in Europe, most of their energy was generated in the United States. In its eagerness to use music as a tool in its missionary effort, evangelical Christianity was very receptive to new developments and ideas in music, especially devices that intensified music’s emotional impact. This often led to the sort of exploitation of music that Eric Routley describes so well in his book, The Church and Music (pp. 179-80).
The vice of Victorian music is often said to be “sentimentality,” and if sentimentality is emotional content backed by no solid truth, a show of feeling with no intention of consequent honesty, the description is an accurate one. Hence, at any rate, came the multitudinous drawing-room and salon music of the later Victorian era, and this music was “tool-music” at two levels: it was music composed and published in order to help the business of music-making along, and in that sense a tool; and it was music composed in order to create irresponsible emotion and an unreal sense of well-being, and in that sense also a tool.
But this music, the secular music of the salon, was not the final degradation. It remained for the church to debase music to the limit. For music designed to create mere natural emotions such as sorrow or pity, or peace of mind has at any rate what a celebrated broadcaster calls “animal content.” But the hack-music of the church. . . , music designed to produce not natural emotion but (save the mark) religions emotion–this was music at its lowest ebb.
It is important to recognize that there was often no strict dividing line between the two directions (popularly termed “high church” and “evangelical”). Various aspects of both mixed and mingled in many churches during the nineteenth century, and continue to do so even today. It is crucial to emphasize that neither direction produced a broad-based, comprehensive, coherent theological explanation of the significance and function of music in relation to the church. Music (for that matter, all the arts) had become a theological orphan. In fact, no important theological movement, either in the nineteenth or twentieth century, has concerned itself in any profound way with the significance of harmony, order, or beauty in Christian life or cult.
-from Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church by Quentin Faulkner (187-98)
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.