Arts & Books Books

Christians will always be inspired ­– and divided – by music


Tim Dowley has managed to fit the entire history of Christian music into just 300 pages

Christian Music: A Global History
By Tim Dowley
SPCK, 336pp, £14.99/$30

This revised and expanded version of a “global history” first published in 2011 begins with Tim Dowley piecing together an account of the ancient Jewish musical traditions out of which Christian practice must have grown. Nearly 300 pages later, Dowley wraps up his survey with a few words on Christian jazz.

So there is much for the general reader to learn from this sturdy companion to 2,000 years of musical praise-giving. Early on, for example, there is an inventory of all of the musical instruments mentioned in the Bible, which, with no recourse to dumbing down, manages not to try the patience of the non-specialist. Shortly afterwards, a résumé of the fragments of early Christian hymns woven into the writings of St Paul is equally satisfying.

And did you know that Mozart is reputed to have claimed that he would have given all his works to have written the Gregorian Dies Irae? Or that Dave Brubeck converted to Catholicism in 1980? And that he wrote a Mass and a jazzy setting of the Sermon on the Mount? I didn’t. But then I hadn’t known that Vivaldi was a priest either.

Christian Music is essentially a reference book in which the entries are arranged in a chronological narrative, rather than alphabetically, though with some geographic and thematic treatments too. There is a lot to pack in. At times, the seams come close to popping. Sub-headings proliferate and, until he gets to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the rest, Dowley rarely dwells for long on any topic or figure. Purcell, for example, is done and dusted in one not-especially-long paragraph. Byrd squeezes past Elgar to earn just over a page.

This concision means that there is room for lots of lesser names to come swarming out of the shadows of the established greats. Henricus Isaac, a composer from the southern Netherlands who died in 1517, gets three whole sentences in which we learn that he wrote 36 (surviving) Masses and a collection of 450 chant-based polyphonic motets for the cathedral of Konstanz in Germany. Eighteenth-century Bostonian William Billings, on the other hand, was a tanner, blind in one eye and disabled in one arm and leg, who published The New England Psalm-Singer and came to be regarded as the father of US church and choral music.

Any history of Christian music must be, at least in part, the history of an almighty, exhausting, never-ending row, raging across time and place, across denominations and congregations, about whether to have music in church at all, about what kind of music this should be, about which texts to sing, about how the words should be sung, about whether instruments should be allowed, about which instruments should be allowed.

Dowley gives us plenty of glimpses of these debates. The first example he provides of the timeless custom of banning music comes from AD70 and the aftermath of the failed Jewish revolt and the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple. To mourn the loss, rabbis banned musical performances and prohibited all music during synagogue worship.

For Catholics, guest-written chapters on Latin America and Africa provide plentiful examples (from within and outside Catholicism) to think about when mulling over how a universal Church, whose cultural and liturgical paradigms were formed in Europe, might adapt, or not, to other times and places.

Dowley’s unfussiness is refreshing in lots of ways, but there is a downside to this approach to covering all the ground. In places, reading Christian Music feels like being on a long route march, sometimes through dense technical thickets.

So, the occasional roadside breaks for learned summaries or a little inspired speculation prove very welcome. I appreciated the introduction to the chapter on the making of Catholic baroque in which Dowley pauses to explain the nature of the musical threshold being crossed.

Similarly, when he recalls the opinion of Hildegard of Bingen on what music represents – the symphony of angels praising God, the balanced proportions of the revolving celestial spheres, the weaving together of body and soul, and the concealed designs of nature – I felt that I was being delighted and inspired, as well as informed. The power of Christian music is hinted at by a pithy remark of the Archbishop of Paris on the subject of César Franck: “He’ll bring more souls to God than we ever can.”

The ultimate value of a book like this is that, when the route march is over, the reader is able to double back, return to all those things that caught his eye along the way and apply his ear to them.

I have always had a hankering to listen to more of Haydn, for example, and Dowley points the way to all manner of seeming treasures from this devout Catholic composer. Then the real journey begins.