We have received not another email but a comment that poses a question. A certain classical musician wants to post the following comment on one of our posts. Rather than do that we’re going to give it a post of its own. Here it is, slightly edited:
Can I ask, then, because I'm a classical musician sometimes struggling whether classical music is useful or not, what the Orthodox Church's opinion of classical music is?
I also think that classical music may not be as spiritual and transforming as [Orthodox] chant is but I think that it is a great gift that can work as a healer in the psychological sense and also help people come closer to God.
What do you think?
Our post Evagrius on the Inner Ascent 1 is the occasion of the comment. In that post we remarked:
...[L]et us first look at the use of music in liturgical worship. In Evagrius’ time, and earlier, there were still pagans in Alexandria. They used ‘wild music’ as part of their celebrations. In Chapter 71 of The Monk, one of Evagrius’ most important ascetical works,1 Evagrius says this:
On the one hand, demonic songs set our desire in motion and put the soul into shameful fantasies; on the other hand, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs ever bring the mind to a memory of virtue, chilling our burning temper and withering our desires.
We could reflect on this remark in regard to the concept of ‘Christian rock’. Something’s wrong. ‘If it’s got a back beat you can dance to it.’ That is what the pagans were doing in Evagrius’ day and that is what Evagrius is commenting on: such music sets the desire in motion … but psalms and hymns and spiritual songs chill our burning temper and wither our desires.
In an Orthodox monastery, the way the services are done is very important. This includes both the actual type of chant and its manner of execution. All those droning monks have a role to play in the formation of the monk in the monastery: the very music is bringing his mind to a memory of virtue—a memory of God—and cooling his temper and withering his desire. The chant is calming him down, making him more serene....
Because Orthodox Monk doesn’t know everything—well, at least no one is consulting us on Relativity—we are inclined to quote something someone told us Elder Paisios said: ‘Rock Music is demonic; Western Classical Music takes you into a world that doesn’t exist, leaving you just the way you were when it finishes; only Orthodox chant transforms the person.
Apart from this remark of Elder Paisios we do not think that the Orthodox Church has an opinion on Western Classical Music. We will give our own personal comments, although not in a very systematic fashion. Moreover, we’re not musicologists or professional musicians so we haven’t thought through these things systematically or academically. We also may have some of our facts wrong. Sorry.
Western Classical Music is extremely broad. There’s a big difference between Satie’s Gymnopedies and Wagner’s Ring cycle; between Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Violincello; between Shostakovitch’s Leningrad Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; between Mozart’s Magic Flute and Rossini’s William Tell. Where do you begin?
One characteristic of Western Classical Music is that it uses rather few and simple scales, emphasizing not melody but harmony. By contrast, Rock Music emphasizes rhythm, using very simple melody and harmony and sometimes emphasizing volume to go with the rhythm—precisely the road of the demonic. Eastern music, where here we mean both Byzantine Chant and Far Eastern music such as the Indian raga, uses very many complex scales emphasizing melody over harmony.
Western liturgical music (Gregorian Chant) differs from Orthodox liturgical music in that it uses one scale, essentially, from the eight basic scales of Byzantine Chant and interprets that scale in a way consistent with the traditions of Western music: simpler melodies and an emphasis on harmony, at least compared to Byzantine Chant.
As a side note let us point out that Byzantine Chant also uses deeper voices than Gregorian Chant—the Russian bass voice for the deacon’s parts is of course famous—so that Byzantine Chant is going to have a different psychological effect from Gregorian Chant.
In general Gregorian Chant would be a good thing to listen to if you’re tense, agitated or upset. It’s very soothing and calming. We wouldn’t say that Byzantine Chant is as soothing as Gregorian Chant. Is that bad? Well, Byzantine Chant is consistent with Orthodox monasticism.
Here there might be an opening for someone to think about the difference in temperament between Roman Catholic and Orthodox monasticism. We think that this difference in temperament derives from a different psychology of monasticism. In Roman Catholic monasticism there is a very heavy influence of Augustine so that there is less of an emphasis on the cooperative effort of the monk or nun with the Grace of the Holy Spirit than there is in Orthodox monasticism. This Augustinian influence, we think, makes for a monasticism that is more centered on the monastery as a foretaste of Heaven (Gregorian Chant as the song of angels), whereas the Orthodox monastery is more a place of individual spiritual struggle where there is also an emphasis on the role of Eros for God in the ascent to God, so that Byzantine Chant would be more intense.
Also, since Thomas Aquinas there has been a much greater emphasis on sentimentality in Roman Catholic spirituality than in the Orthodox Church. This would be consistent with a sentimental emphasis in the present-day execution of Gregorian Chant: that tranquilizing effect can be seen as an attempt to work on the sentiments or emotions more than Byzantine Chant in the Orthodox Church. Consistent with the remark of Elder Paisios Byzantine Chant would be seen from this point of view as working not on the sentiments or emotions but with the nous or inner spirit of man.
So how can we give a reply to our interlocutor? Clearly, by their fruits you shall know them as regards the effect of music, even Western Classical Music, on people. Is the person calmer afterwards? More agitated? Does he think about God? Is he ready to pick up a gun and start shooting (Apocalypse Now, Ride of the Valkyries on the helicopter gunship)?
There is another issue. While Western Classical Music does not have the same emphasis on improvisation that Classical Indian Music does, still there is the issue of the depth both of the composer and of the conductor or performer. Bach had depth; did Mozart have depth? Does von Karajan have more or less depth than Toscanini for the same piece? We don’t know, but apart from all the other issues, these things play a role in any evaluation of the worth of any particular piece or performance.
There is also another issue. Some Western Classical composers were Christian; some were not. Inevitably there is going to be an influence of the composer’s beliefs on his music, and therefore on his audience. Does this mean that because Satie was a Rosicrucian that we shouldn’t listen to his music? We hope we’re not quite so schematic about things. But a serious and thoughtful person would think about whether there’s a connection. Does the fact that Wagner was beloved by Hitler play a role? We don’t listen to Wagner, not being of the bombastic school of music, so we couldn’t say. But a serious and thoughtful person would think about whether there’s a connection. Who knows, maybe Orthodox Monk has just invented a new field of scholarship: the spiritual psychology of music.
1 Évagre Le Pontique. Traité pratique ou Le moine (Practical Treatise or The Monk). Tome I. Introduction. Tome II. Édition critique du texte grec… Antoine Guillaumont et Claire Guillaumont. 1971. Sources chrétiennes, Nos 170 & 171. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.