Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.
Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.
What, then, of classical music in particular? Strictly speaking, “classical music” is the music of a fairly brief era (roughly, the second half of the 18th century), but the term is commonly used to refer to the whole stream of music associated with European concert and operatic culture, emerging around 1600. Sometimes called “art music,” it’s generally regarded as there to be listened to, not just heard. This doesn’t make it superior or more valuable than other music, just different. It asks for your concentrated attention over time, a willingness to stay with it in the belief that it will deliver more with each listening. It means suspending the question, “Do I like it?” and asking instead, “What’s going on here?”
And the Christian can ask a further question: “What might I learn theologically from what’s going on here?”
If you are new to this genre, here are six pieces of music (listen to them on Spotify or Apple Music) that might provide a good “way in.”
1. J. S. Bach (1685–1750), St. Matthew Passion
This is arguably the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era. Vivid, compelling, and emotionally direct, it takes you inside the story of the suffering and death of Christ in a way that perhaps has never been equalled. Bach, a committed Lutheran, was steeped in Scripture, and understood its nuances, subtleties, and ramifications better than most other musicians of his time. You are made to feel responsible for what happened on Good Friday, and made to rethink your entire relation to the One who was crucified. Bear in mind that it lasts almost three hours. It’s best not to listen to it in one sitting, especially if you are new to Bach. Digest it in sections. And it’s wise to use a guide. Try Calvin Stapert’s book My Only Comfort, the best introduction to Bach’s theological world. (See also Bethany Jenkins’s article “Without Luther, There Would Be No Bach.”)
2. G. F. Handel (1685–1759), Messiah
Pity the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to include Messiah at Christmastime, when album sales and downloads of the oratorio escalate. Written at breathtaking speed (in less than a month), it has understandably become a classic. Handel sets to music nothing but biblical texts (the majority are from the Old Testament) in order to show the coherence of Scripture’s story, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ. The result is a drama in three parts, roughly corresponding to Christ’s incarnation, redemptive work, and eternal reign. Again, Calvin Stapert provides the best guide (Handel’s Messiah). The best recording, in my view, is that by Stephen Layton with Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia. Stunningly dramatic.
3. W. A. Mozart (1756–1791), Piano Concerto, No. 21 in C major, K.467, last movement
In his later years, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth used to listen to Mozart’s music every day as a kind of spiritual practice. In it he said he heard the physical world being enabled, by Mozart, to praise God. In other words, Mozart doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t struggle to “say” something, or express his inner self. He simply lets himself become the vehicle of a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah. Listen to the bubbling, joyful abundance of this piece’s third movement for piano and orchestra, and you may end up thinking Barth had a point.
4. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), fourth and fifth movements
Standing at the turn from the “classical” to the “Romantic” era, Beethoven unleashed forms of human expression that permanently changed the course of music history. His massive output mesmerized the 19th-century composers who were unlucky enough to come immediately after him.
Beethoven become well known for his “heroic” style—aspiring, thrusting, and often highly aggressive. This “Pastoral” symphony shows a different side to him—less assertive, far more settled, gracious, and thankful. For him, this work was meant to turn into sound the feelings evoked by the countryside surrounding Vienna, the fields and lanes where he often wandered. The fourth and fifth movements lead you from a fierce storm into “Shepherd’s song: cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” It is one of the great transitions of Western music: The sense of almost childlike gratitude is likely to melt even the hardest of hearts. (Simon Rattle’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is exceptional.)
5. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943), Piano Concerto No. 2, Adagio sostenuto
Never has the longing of the human heart for a distant Home been more eloquently evoked than in the music of Rachmaninov, a composer forced to spend much of his life away from his beloved Russia. Composed as he emerged from severe depression, the second piano concerto is perhaps the best-known piece of classical music ever written, and it deserves its popularity. N. T. Wright has said our world is marked by an “aching beauty”—its splendor is glorious, but it is marred and awaiting fulfillment. Listen to the second movement with that in mind. (Among the plethora of recordings, try Krystian Zimerman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)
6. James MacMillan (1959–), Seven Last Words from the Cross
I began with the cross, and now return to it. Sir James MacMillan may be the most theologically profound Christian composer alive. He manages to give voice to a vibrant hope, but never descends into sentimentality, never allows us to forget that God heals the world by descending into its darkest depths. In seven short movements, the last words of Christ are set to music in a way that is both profoundly true to the Gospels, and disturbingly fresh. Among other things, we are reminded how silence can become the very substance of music. In the last piece, we hear an evocation of Jesus actually dying, taking his last breaths. If you ever need to be convinced of the theological power of music, you could hardly do better than begin here.