Saint Clement of Alexandria [150-215] was convinced that goodness is intrinsic to certain kinds of music and wickedness to others. He encouraged the faithful in the usage of diatonic melodies and regular meters, exhorted them to avoid “chromatics and syncopation” which, he believed, led to “drunkenness and debauchery.” This belief is still widespread. Indeed, the proposition has never been disproved. And, though Johann Sebastian Bach [1685-1750] employed both devices consistently and convincingly (at least to posterity, though his congregation did complain) in the praise of God, and though Beethoven [1770-1827] employed them no less to celebrate the brotherhood of man, the fact remains that, when any composer wishes to depict heaven in contrast to hell or the serenities of virtue versus the excitements of sin, he is virtually obliged to use, for the one, a plainer, stiffer melodic and rhythmical vocabulary than for the other.
Olivier Messiaen [1908-1992] has devoted his whole musical career to the purging, so to speak, or conversion to devotional uses, of all the most dangerous musical devices. The augmented fourth (or “diabolus in musica”), the major sixth, the false relation (or use of contradictory chromatics in two voices), the exaggerated employment of chromatics in melody and harmony, the ornamental dissonance, the integral dissonance, the highest elaborations of syncopated and other broken rhythms, and an almost sinfully coloristic orchestration are the very substance of his musical style, though piety is certainly its subject. And yet, even he is obliged, for the depiction of evil, to go farther in the same direction and to insert additional violations of custom and of symmetry. I suspect, indeed, that it is not so much the employment in music of all the known picturesque effects that is valuable for suggesting the dark forces as it is a certain absence of symmetry in their employment. There is no reason why the music of the higher spheres should not be represented by the higher complexities and that of man’s lower tendencies by all that is banal, bromidic, and puny, though, so far, no major composer has, to my knowledge, essayed to represent beatitude by interest and fantasy, in contrast to a damnation (as in Satre’s “No Exit”) of boredom by monotony.
The endowing of music with an edifying ethical content is a problem every composer has to face. – Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), American composer, music critic, and author, in an article published in the New York Herald Tribune on April 27, 1947