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From Palestrina to Pino

I think you should watch these. Set aside a few hours, and enjoy.


If you hunt, you might find most or parts of the eight episodes online. Or you might simply splurge and give the BBC some more filthy lucre for the two series on DVD. You won’t be disappointed.

If for no other reason, watch them to hear The Sixteen sing some of the most beautiful vocal music written for the human voice, and to hear Harry Christopher’s explanations of what the composers were doing in those works.

On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to be jarred or upset, ask this question: from Gregorian, to Palestrina, to Byrd, to Bach, to Brahms, to Pärt and Rutter, how did we get to this?

From each of the composers profiled in the Sacred Music programs to one another, you can draw a nearly straight line. As you progress in time, they build on each other, and develop from one another. Our last example, however, is not just the latest in a natural progression, it is a break altogether. It does not represent an ‘updated style’; it represents an altogether foreign view of what is good, what is beautiful, what God deserves, and how His people respond to Him. Allegri, Tallis, Luther, Bruckner, and Gorecki are different to one another but equivalent in their sentiment. Our sock-waving friends have no correlation to historic Christian sentiment.

So how did we come to this? It is not as if the rolling on of the years brought this naturally, like your child’s height chart. Nor does one go from Allegri’s Miserere to “You Spin Me Right ‘Round Jesus” passively, like sun-bleached paint on the outside of the church. Humans made deliberate choices, and the results of the choices we made are right in front of us on YouTube.

If we are to change matters, we would do well to ask: What was rejected, and why? What was preferred and loved and promoted? What is still being rejected and preferred? Forget about the sock-waving worship-leader ; ask, why is there a supposedly Christian audience for this stuff? What did the parents and pastors of those children do (or not do) so that the people in that clip had a strong liking for that music, and considered it worship?

Here’s the trick. Instead of beginning your answers with “They…” or “Some people…”, begin the answers with “We…”

The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works.

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

10 Responses to From Palestrina to Pino

  1. David,

    I too very much enjoy the Sixteen and, in general, the series (which I own on DVD). I, with you, was disappointed that every episode seemed to want to put in some salacious points. I found this both objectionable and unnecessary.

    It seems even the BBC is not immune to populism and a crass appeal to appetite at times. ;)

  2. You're straying close to a straw man fallacy with your comparison. We do, after all, have plenty of examples of ribald songs from the middle ages and early modern period. (For example,….

    The rise to dominance of popular music in the modern period is a result of democratization. All the examples you listed–Palestrina, Bach, etc.–were produced by and for cultural, political, and economic elites. (And, indeed, these musical forms buttressed elite power by acting out the social hierarchy and reminding the audience of the power of state and church.)

    Music for the majority of medieval people was quite different. You are assuming a single stream of musical history that is a revisionist fantasy. Modern popular music doesn't pull from medieval high church music because they are distinct musical traditions. Medieval folk music is ground zero for modern popular music. "Classical" music today, still principally the music of the cultural elites, is an echo of a time when culture belonged to the elites.

    I would propose that the rise of democratic culture is a morally neutral development. You may well disagree, but your arguments against modern popular music seem to me to be rooted in elitism rather than biblicism.

  3. I simply can't see how medieval folk and contemporary popular music are exactly the same. The differences are simply too great for me find this even remotely intellectually satisfying.

  4. David's analysis seems no more fanciful than the assumption of a direct line of musical heritage from medieval folk music to modern pop. I also think it a huge leap to conclude that the only factor driving the choice of musical forms in an earlier age was a desire to pander to cultural elites. It seems more plausible that reasoned choices were made regarding the impropriety of framing expressions of God's glory in the forms used for "ribald songs." One must always embrace the (false) idea of the moral neutrality of cultural expression in order to dismiss the need to make such choices.

  5. Steve, what I said above was that democraticization was morally neutral, not that cultural expression is so.

    Michael, certainly they reminded their listeners of the power of God, but God's power as expressed through pope, priest, and king.

  6. Paul,

    Is there a way to evaluate the goodness or beauty of the works of these composers? Regardless of whether they emerged through democratization or through the patronage of the church or nobility, we are responsible to judge their fitness for Christian worship. Only if we agree that there is such a way, can we determine if there is continuity of sentiment between these works.

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