The music world of our century does not feel quite at home with religious subjects, any more than the directors of our religious establishments feel confident about contemporary composition.  The making of a joyful noise unto the Lord and the praising of Him upon a loud instrument are practiced, in our time, with more timidity than gusto.  A lugubrious respectability overlays nearly all our religious music-making.  And our best composers tend, more and more, to reserve their joyful noises, as well as their really terrifying ones, for secular circumstances.

The basis of this timidity is not so much, I fancy, a lack of religious faith on the part of musicians or any suspicion of music’s efficacy on the part of religious administrators as it is an erroneous conception, by both, of what constitutes a proper sacred style.  It is thought that profane associations invalidate stylistic elements for religious usage.  And yet, the history of religion, if it proves anything at all about music, proves the contrary.  The exchange of material and device between sacred and secular usage is the one constant pattern discernible in the musical history of the last twelve hundred years.  And, at no point in that time, is it possible to distinguish, save by sheer functional criteria, such as instruments or verbal texts employed, the music of worship from that of sheer entertainment.

Professionals of religion have constantly tried to censor the music used in their establishments.  But, whenever the censorship of tune or of technical device becomes strict, inspiration moves over to the market place.  The “purification” of church music that followed the pronouncements of the Council of Trent provoked, in less than fifty years, the invention of the opera.  And the real originality of the seventeenth-century operatic style caused its adoption, within twenty-five years, by the religious establishments.  The modernized plain-chant of the Benedictine monks made possible, too, the writing of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” and Satie’s “Socrate,” although it has not yet produced one first-class piece of church composition.

Church music in our century, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, has been conservative and, compared to the music of theater and concert, inexpressive.  It lacks self-confidence, liberty, assertion.

From: “Styles in Sacred Music,” by Virgil Thomson, in Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles, 1940-1954, edited by Tim Page; The Library of America, Volume 258 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2014), pp. 227-228.  “Styles of Sacred Music” originally appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on July 23, 1944.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was an American composer, music critic, and author.  He was Chief Music Critic and Head of the Music Department at the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954.


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