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Posted by Aurino Souza on October 31, 2002 14:59:47 UTC

What Makes Music Sacred Or Secular?

That has of course been a subject of debate ever since the division first appeared. For most of our history, the essential difference between sacred and secular music was that the latter always employed elements of dance. Considering that, all "Christian" music today is just secular music with religious lyrics. Sacred composition in the West died when the Churches could no longer afford it, sometime in the last decades of the 18th century.

Though we have no record of music being a source of controversy in the Old Testament (or the New Testament for that matter), the history of the Christian church has been full of controversy over this issue. At one point only unison chant was considered "sacred". Harmony was considered too sensual.

This is nonsense as the concept of harmony was invented by the Church! It was originally called Organum.

Worship was perceived at that time as being only contemplative and sober and the music of the church reflected that.

That is certainly true, but so what?

Today we all consider Handel's "Messiah" as being one of the greatest works of sacred music of all time.

The Messiah is certainly sacred music as it deals with religious themes. But the Messiah is not liturgical music since it was composed to be performed in a concert hall, not in a church.

But when he composed this masterpiece he was roundly condemned in conservative pulpits all over London. How dare he profane the Word of God by using the same musical motifs employed in Italian operettas? And to make matters worse, he premiered this work NOT in the church but in the theater--a house of secular entertainment. To many Christians this was shocking and offensive.

This is ridiculous, there was never a controversy. The Messiah is called an oratorio, and all oratorios are based on biblical themes and employ the musical idioms of opera. The article made it sound as if the Messiah was the first oratorio ever, when the genre was more than a century old by then.

Luther's music was just as scandalous. His most famous lyric "A Mighty Fortress" was set to a beer-drinking tune straight out of the pub. Today it's considered traditional "sacred" music of the finest order. Charles Wesley had the same mindset that Luther had. Make church music singable, hummable, simple and melodic--but with profound theological lyrics.

Greensleeves was written for a prostitute. So what? Luther's "Ein' Feste Burg" is sacred, the drinking song with which it shares its melody is not. So what?

Move forward to the last century...

Funny how the article spends so little time in the 30 centuries preceding our own as if they were irrelevant. That's what I'd call historical myopia.

Nothing of this matters much, I suppose, but I hate to see people spreading misinformation (not you Mike, the original author)



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