Articles and other literature

Kunst og Salmesang (Art and the Singing of Hymns)

By the composer, Rud Langgaard. "Kirken", Vol. 5, 1933, pp. 68-72.

In a feature article in a newspaper, "Den Nyere danske Salmesang" ("Danish Hymn Singing of Recent Years"), we may read the following: "Laub has rung out the church bells over the whole land, and we must respond to this call. I have attempted to do so in this article, though I am only a layman, and a musician would of course be better able to pass a musical judgement". I would therefore presume, as a "Musician", to respond to this suggestion, not least on the grounds that there is great interest in hymn singing at the moment, and that the tenets of Laubianism in this matter are becoming more and more widespread in a manner which, to put it bluntly, is incredibly misleading. Fortunately, voices have been raised against them - here and there - but these have not been sufficient to indicate in a satisfactory manner what is basically so pernicious in this Laubian creed, namely, the quite unacceptable premise on which the whole idea of "Proper Church Music" is founded, a position which on closer analysis cannot be historically proven, for example by referring to music before the 16th century as purely "ecclesiastical". If these few lines can help but a little towards informing people about this, then my purpose will have been fully achieved.

"To make one's own feelings the object of artistic treatment contrives against the very nature of church music. Art as absolute art has no place in the church, and it is never the task of church music to provoke or represent feelings and moods" - thus writes Laub, for example, in his book, "Om Kirkesangen" ("On Hymn Singing") (1887). From this position, Laub and the Laubians, supporters of "the proper style of singing in church", attack the "Romantic Hymn Singing" of the 19th century, of which the most prominent protagonists here at home were Gade and Hartmann. To illustrate this I only need to quote from one of Canon Warming's articles: "The great, musically rich half of the 19th century created the romance, a style of singing full of moods and strong feelings; an independent form of art alongside that of poetry. It is clear that this music is not suited for use in church or by the congregation, as music here is strictly at the service of the Word. One is constantly reminded of this in churches by these organ improvisations that more often evoke echoes of Schubert, Mendelsohn and Wagner than of true church music (sic!), so that one feels oneself removed to a theatre or a concert hall".

This quotation is sufficiently characteristic of the attitude of Laubianism to "artistic" hymn singing. But what about the foundation for all this - the whole purpose of Laub's work, which is well summarised by the above quotation from his book; what is the basis for these assertions? What truth is there in them? As will be shown in the following, in this case we are at all events only talking about a matter of taste. What he postulates has no historical foundation whatever - Christ himself was an artist of feeling [Note 1]. Let us hear what Richard Wagner and our own Niels W. Gade have to say about this: "Lucky we are," says Wagner, ["]if with a pure consciousness we can keep our minds open to the message sent to us by he who was broken yet raised up; if through Christ - that artistic poet of the world's tragedy - we can allow ourselves with reassured minds to be led to feel reconciled with this human life of ours. This poetic priest will also lead us over into that reborn life, there to lay before us all that is transient through the ideal truth of his likeness and imitation. Now the Saviour invites us to let our longing, our faith and our hope ring out in music. As its most noble inheritance the Christian church has left us the whole lamenting, clamouring, musical soul of the Christian religion. Floating through the sanctuaries of the temple, this sacred music should penetrate with its life-giving force every corner of nature, teaching mankind - ever seeking salvation - a new language... Over and above all ideas and thoughts, this musical and poetic visionary reveals to us the ineffable: we sense, indeed we feel and see that even the world of this apparently unshakeable Will is only a state of mind that must yield to the one truth: "I know that my Redeemer liveth!" ("Religion & Art", 1880). Gade expresses himself in the same vein: "I do not think that the poet should be a schoolmaster for me and impress on me this or that poetic model, since in this case the poem learned as an example would be the only justified art form for a poet. No, on the contrary he shall clothe his learning (the moral, or the idea of a work of art) in an attractive form. Thus did our Lord and Saviour himself, who most often taught his disciples and his listeners by means of parables (poetry), in this way not only appealing to the intellect, but to feelings and the imagination". Listen also to what Viktor Rydberg has to say in his lectures: "In the sayings of Jesus we find so much that reveals the most refined and intense awareness of the beauty of nature and the symbolism of the natural world". Think of Goethe: "Alle Religion sei Kunst", etc., etc.

The Early Church was a church of intense feelings, and its churches were decorated with works of art. In the post- apostolic period, and even earlier, the Church was characterised by tomb paintings [note 2] and the Mysteries. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Catholic Church made use of art as a world of symbols in the church: the feelings aroused by the Passion, the mystery plays, and the mysticism centred on Christ. In the Renaissance, painting was a fully-accepted tool for the presentation of religious ideas - think only of all those wonderful church paintings by Leonardo, Raphael, Ferrari, Bellini, Michel Angelo, Correggio, Signorelli, etc. Take a look at Perugino's "Pieta", for example (in San Pietro in Perugia). Is all this not also art, art to create feelings and moods? It is in itself an ecclesiastical protest against the assertion that art and feelings have no place in the origins of church music. In fact, there is no reason to suppose that church music from the very beginning should have been in open conflict with the contribution made to the Church by the art of painting. Even the hymns of Grundtvig, much praised by Laub, are often full of feeling.

Laub calls the development of music from the 16th century "secular", i.e., "not suited to the church", and the Laubians (Bangert, Wøldike, Warming, Foss, etc.) have not been slow to bring "Romanticism" under this heading. Osv. Spengler, on the other hand, sees the development of music since the 16th century as the successor to the art of painting (including church art), which had reached its peak: "As soon as the fresco and the oil painting had ceased to be the dominant forms of art, the serried ranks of the great masters of music appear on the scene". If music did not quite achieve the same artistic position in the Church that painting did, this is precisely due to the late development of music, and certainly not to any form of ecclesiastical restriction on music, for example in the Renaissance Church. The fact is that at that time music fell far behind the art of painting in terms of the expression of spiritual themes. All the evidence suggests that if the artistic music of the 19th century had been developed in the Renaissance, then the Church of the time, which was aware of the use of art as a symbolic medium in church, would have accepted such religiously symbolic artistic music, and today we would have been able to adduce historical evidence to prove that this music should also bear the title "eccle-siastical" in the context of Church History, just as much as, or perhaps ever more so, than Palestrina. Chorale, the 19th century style of hymn singing, and also, in Denmark, the popular type of church romanza, were both a clear and beautiful expression of the two sides of the Christian God - severity and mercy - and were also a sort of natural, musical successor to the historical attitude of the Church to art. There is therefore no reason to maintain that Wagners "Parsifal Prelude" and Gade's "Den hellige Nat" ("Holy Night") are less "ecclesiastical" than Tintoretto's triptychs (Henry Thode has also shown this), or that free organ improvisations at church services should not continue in this direction, if possible. The point is that this style of playing does not just come naturally, whilst the Laubian style [note 3] can be learned by more or less any student of the organ, just like mathematical tables. The basic rule is simply: no parallel fifths, just plain basic chords - in other words: "the proper style of Church music"! It may well be that Laub's Hymns form a parallel to the art of the Early Church [note 4], but just look at Correggio's and Lotto's church paintings, or at Perugino's Madonna altar from the church in Certosa; is this simply "Meditation Art" in the original meaning of the word? Everything about these works evokes feeling, moods. How artistically beautiful! The same is true of the best tunes from the so-called "Romantic Church Music" [note 5]. There is nothing to support the view that congregational singing, as Laub maintains with reference to the oldest church music, "must only be a profoundly simple "Yes" and "Amen" to the Word" [note 6].

In other words, on closer analysis there can be no doubt that church music that is full of feeling (Romantic) belongs in the church. In his book, "Musik og Kirke" ("Music and the Church") (1920), Laub writes: "There is no need to create a mood at service; the mood is already there. If the organ can help to bring it forward, then this is an important function, but anything over and above this is a concert, and we do not congregate in church to hear music". On the other hand, the logical conclusion of this view must be that neither do we come to church to "look". In other words, visual decoration of the church is quite unnecessary. This, however, cannot be true. Has the Church not tolerated the dramatic forms of Leonardo da Vinzi and Michelangelo? In the same book, Laub tells the story of a Pope who exclaimed about a Palestrina Mass: "These are the songs of the Heavenly Jerusalem", and agrees unreservedly with the Pope in question. But - if Rome's historical attitude to church music is of importance - it would also be logical to remember Nietzsche's words: "Wagner's Parsifal is the faith of Rome without words". Nietzsche certainly had a solid knowledge of music to base his judgement on - he was also a "professional", that is, a composer, which the Pope in question certainly was not.

Clearly enough, however, this view does not intend to turn the church into a concert hall, and should one still think that this is the case, one might just as well maintain that the church is an art gallery, and not a "church" if it is decorated with Christian art. However, no one will seriously maintain that this art does not belong in a church. The view of Laub and the Laubians that only Palestrina, Eccard and "Gregorian Chant" are church music in "the proper meaning of the term", is at all events not conconant with the historical attitude of the Church to art, which he adduces to support his position. In its best moments, the so-called "secular" development of music did not lead to the demise of church music - on the contrary. Laub's position, which he attempts to impose in a dictatorial fashion, is moreover self-contradictory, for how can any opponent of art in the church tolerate Palestrina's artistic singing as ecclesiastical at all? And even though "the old artistic style of singing", Palestrina, was, as Laub maintains, "an expression of what the congregation felt in their hearts", in contrast to the later style, which according to Laub "seduces" people to put themselves forward in a vain and conceited manner, how is it possible to draw the line between "the heart of the congregation" og "vanity"? "All is vanity", says Ecclesiates, and this being more or less true there is no reason to suppose that the state of the congregation in this regard is significantly affected by the music used in church. On the contrary: the correct (Christian) attitude of congregations to the Danish "Romantic" style of church music (Hartmann, Winding etc.) must surely in musical terms be closer to the proper Christian ideal. The unreasonable claims of Laubian must come to an end.

Standing in front of Tintoretto's "Crucifixion" Wagner once said (1882) that "one can never paint Christ... ", "...but one can paint a tonal picture of Him". This dramatic statement corresponds to the historical attitude of the Church to art, and Laub's assertion does not. "Parsifal" and "Holy Night" are the musical counterparts to Bellini's altar. Both are ecclesiastical art. As I have said, the "full of mood" hymn singing of the 19th century constituted an approach to what painting had meant for the Church. Laub blocked this approach, but it must be continued, so that in accordance with its innermost nature it can in the course of time take on the mantle of what painting - but also music, and this to an even greater degree - is called to be: a clear artistic expression of the beauty and deep feelings aroused by the Christian message.

Note 1: Matthew 10, 28 and 16, 26.
Note 2: "Den første Kristendoms Historie" ("The Story of Early Christianity") (Viktor Rydberg)
Note 3: Most of Carl Nielsen's hymns belong in this category.
Note 4: For example the apse mosaic in the church of St. Agnes in Rome.
Note 5: Also including some newer tunes, such as Gustav Helsted's "Det koster ei for megen Strid" ("It does not cost too great a fight").
Note 6: How can this statement be reconciled at all with the peacock symbol of the Early Church?