Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Quakers' historic testimony against music and other frivolous entertainments does not apply to singing from the Sacred Harp

While catching up on the blogs while I've been away, I found this one from Martin Kelly discussing Thomas Clarkson's explanation of why early Quakers testified against music.

Martin quotes or paraphrases four reasons cited by Clarkson and correctly comments that the objections are valid concerns:

* People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless.
* Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing (we've really decontextualized: much of the music played at orchestra halls is Masses; much of the music played at folk festival is church spirituals).
* Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening.
* Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion.
The point is that the early Quakers' concerns with music wasn't based on an ideological or theological construct, but was rather observations on concrete, practical effects of music on the spiritual life of individuals and meetings.

I'd reinforce Martin's observation that these concerns are valid and legitimate and that any Quaker involved in music should take them seriously. I'm therefore happy to report that Sacred Harp singing is not susceptible to these criticisms and may therefore be embraced by Quakers without fear for their souls.

* People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless. One beauty of Sacred Harp singing is that it is entirely group-oriented; there is simply no opportunity to show off as a soloist and a very strong social pressure not to do so even if you could. (There are some singers who succumb to the temptation to show off a bit as a leader, but in my experience this is uncommon.) The entire ethos of Sacred Harp singing is to experience the singing as part of the singing community as a whole. Ego satisfaction is therefore of minimal concern and is actively resisted.

* Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing. While there are instances of Sacred Harp singing at folk festivals and other venues as a demonstration, and by formal choruses in a commercial setting, by and large Sacred Harp singers consider singing to be a form of worship (non-sectarian to be sure, but worship nonetheless) and is respected as such. This is especially true of conventions and day-long singings but also for many smaller, weekly and monthly singings.

* Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening. Another of the beauties of Sacred Harp singing is that it does not take a lot of time to learn the rudiments; most people can learn the minimum basic skills with an hour or two of instruction; from then on it's learning by doing. And even less time is spent in "listening" passively to it -- it's meant to be sung, and even singers who may listen to recordings of singings end up singing along. Some singers may be accused of spending more time singing (or writing about singing. . . .) than certain family members may thing they should, but the risk is low and easily remedied.

* Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion. Sacred Harp singers take a kind of ironic satisfaction in the unfashionable nature of our singing. Self-gratification may be a little more of a potential problem -- but again it isn't the individual "self" that is being glorified.

Martin also offers this quote from Clarkson:
Music at [the time of early Quakers] was principally in the hands of those, who made a livelihood of the art. Those who followed it as an accomplishment, or a recreation, were few and those followed it with moderation. But since those days, its progress has been immense. . . . Many of the middle classes, in imitation of the higher, have received it. . . . It is learned now, not as a source of occasional recreation, but as a complicated science, where perfection is insisted upon to make it worth of pursuit. p.76.
The early singing school teachers and shape-note tunebook writers would have agreed with this criticism. Their aim was to demystify the professionalization of music and to return it to the masses and therefore is consistent with the concern expressed in this criticism.

I am therefore more confident than ever that Sacred Harp singing has a place in modern Quakerism; in my personal experience, it has not only not led to the dangers cited by Clarkson but has led me back to Christ and a more authentic Quaker world view. Some of you know I've been "working" on an article discussing the many similarities (and some contrasts) between Quakerism and Sacred Harp singing, and when I finish it, I'll have more to say about it here.

6 comments:

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Paul: great use of Clarkson. I've been fascinated by him because he can help us think through issues like this. It's easy to be a fundamentalist about tradition (17th century or bust) or a loosey goosy whatever-goes (continuing revelation) but finding a way of interacting with the past and respecting it enough but not too much is the trick. I'd agree that Clarkson's Quakers would probably not get too bent out of shape about shape notes!

The real reason I posted that of course, is that this kind of thinking applies to all sorts of interesting issues of manners, including dress, community, etc. Thanks for a real life example of how to model this.

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Linda said...

I love the title, Paul. I kinda want it as a bumper sticker.
I have a perhaps deeper thought that I just can't articulate right now, probably due to over-caffeination and under-sleep. If I sort it out, I'll be back later.

David Carl said...

Paul, this inspires me to start work on my own piece,

"Why Quakers' historic testimony against music and other frivolous entertainments does not apply to playing drums in a rock band."

Wish me luck.

Dave

Jeanne said...

Ditto for Nightingales-style singing (and NOT ditto for noon sings at Gathering, as much as I love them).

:-) Jeanne

Jeremiah said...

Paul - and Martin - Thanks for clarifying this question.

My guess is that Clarkson's Quakers would still have been uneasy with Sacred Harp singing, as with the use of other outward forms in worshipping God, rather than relying on the motions of the Spirit, which cannot be programmed.

But since most Quakers today use music alongside silent waiting in a programmed worship service, this objection is much harder to hold, even for Friends in unprogrammed meetings.

Tradition is an argument extended through the generations, a process of learning from experience what works and what doesn't, what brings life and what kills it off. Rejecting all music was clearly a dead end, but the reasons for rejecting it may still be a valuable guide for us in discerning the place music should have in our lives.

I'm coming to realise how much this question of music has been a block for me to understanding and appreciating the Quaker tradition. I sympathise very much with the 18th century convinced Friend (described by John Punshon in A Portrait in Grey) who couldn't quite bring himself to give up his flute, so got it out once a year and climbed the Monument (a tall column commemorating the great fire of London) to play it out of earshot of the Elders...

Liz Opp said...

It seems to me that there is something of value both in laying aside those forms that have become empty for us--as a corporate body and as an individual--as well as continuing to practice those forms that have Life and become s/Spirit-enriching for us.

It's just that the corporate body may not understand, or even experience, the Life that something like Sacred Harp provides for one Friend (or for a few Friends) among many.

Surely my own heart and mind would be troubled if, say, Paul L. were to come to his monthly meeting or to the elders of the meeting and say, "But my spirit suffers and I die a little bit each day when I do not sing..."

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up