Jan 21, 2017

Why some religions, like the Mormons, sing

Mormon Tabernacle Choir
The Economist
January 19, 2017
BY H.G. AND ERASMUS | SALT LAKE CITY

IF YOU know anything at all about the Mormons, you probably know that they sing and play great, homely American music. So in Donald Trump’s gradual self-transformation from noisy outsider to comfortable dweller in the corridors of supreme power, getting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform at his swearing-in was an important milestone. They are an august national institution. They helped to usher in Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981, moistening his eyes. Their thundering tones were also heard at the inaugural events for Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and both Bushes. The choir has featured in weekly broadcasts since 1929, almost since broadcasting began.

Quite a lot of Mormons and at least one choir member, who resigned, were unhappy about the idea of serenading Mr Trump into office. But at a rehearsal last week under the vast domed ceiling of the Tabernacle, their base in Salt Lake City, the choir’s mood seemed upbeat. Sandwiched between a giant organ and a full orchestra, and holding identical black books of sheet music, the singers followed the conductor’s fluid baton with intense concentration as they gave a lusty rendering of a well-known spiritual: “I’ve got peace like a river.”

Religions have a mixed relationship with music; within both Christianity and Islam, you can find strains that eschew all human compositions as a distraction from the divine, as well as robust musical traditions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (to use the Mormons’ official name) has leaned firmly to the latter side since its foundation nearly two centuries ago. Among the revelations claimed by their founder Joseph Smith was God’s affirmation that “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me”—in other words, the faithful could and positively should sing as well as speak to their Maker. The faith’s choral and orchestral talents were soon reinforced by an influx of converts from Victorian England, some of whom were Methodists and bearers of that faith’s strong musical heritage.

As Markus Rathey, a professor of music history at Yale University puts it, some faiths hold that “the use of music transports you into a state in which you’re open for the divine.” And the Latter-day Saints have always been of that persuasion.

Sects and denominations reveal a lot about themselves in the way they treat music, as is pointed out by Stephen Marini, a professor of religion at Wellesley College. Among the Reformers who transformed the Christian scene 500 years ago, Martin Luther and his followers mixed popular melodies with rich harmonies to give Germany a powerful, confident tradition of sacred melody; John Calvin accepted holy music but preferred it solemn and constrained; Huydrich Zwingli, another Swiss reformer, was an accomplished musician himself but banned both instrumental music and priestly chanting.

Philip Barlow, a Mormon scholar who directs religious studies at Utah State University, says these differing attitudes partly reflect contrasting views of God’s relationship with the world. Some strains of religion see God as very remote: they correspondingly doubt whether any humanly fashioned artistic creation, the product of an incorrigibly sinful species, can be worthy of the Deity’s attention. Other faiths view the chasm between God and humanity as bridgeable, and see music as one way of travelling that distance.

Clearly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whose members must be in good standing with their local community and bishop, exemplifies that latter belief. But it remains to be seen what effect their soaring harmonies will have on Mr Trump’s soul.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2017/01/mormons-and-music

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