The ancient Greeks understood something about music, particularly sacred music, which we have completely lost: Melodies convey ideas. Raw melody, without any lyrics, carries meaning.
There are tunes that are martial in character; jazz, having been birthed in the dance halls and saloons of the South, was not written to inspire chastity; some melodies plumb the deepest caverns of grief and despair, others of joy; and there is a type of music, rarely heard today, that is so pure it creates an atmosphere of profound reverence. Early Christian fathers felt that religious music ought to give the congregation the feeling that they were absorbed in a choir of angels.
This may sound hyperbolic, but that’s because no one hears this type of music in church anymore. Today our churches have completely tossed out the above concept of what is appropriate in a house of worship (where, by the way, the composer and the performers were hidden and anonymous so as not to attract attention to themselves), and have allowed the idol, Celebrity-Star, to be worshipped instead. The mike, the mixer, the amplifier, the electronic keyboards have allowed everybody, regardless of ability, to be stage center on Sunday morning. The sanctuaries bristle with sacred groves of mikes and the floors writhe like snakes with sound equipment cables. Hugging the microphone tenderly, the morning’s Star wannabe croons something mawkish and sensual like “I See Jesus in Your Eyes,” or the “praise team” emotes to a cacophonous, excruciatingly amplified, tuneless melody in which one phrase is endlessly repeated. They may be saying, “We love you Lord,” but if the amplified electric guitar is booming out a bump-and-grind accompaniment, souls aren’t losing themselves in a choir of angels.
Actually, women seem to go for this mawkish, sentimental, romantic religious music more than men who generally hate it. I watch on Sundays and men don’t sing praise hymns. A pastor’s teen-age son told me once that he hated praise music because is was “like Jesus is your girl-friend or something.”
This brings me to the music of Roman Hurko, a young Canadian composer of Ukrainian descent whose sacred music is extraordinary in my opinion. Mr. Hurko has written several sacred works in the Orthodox-Byzantine Catholic style and they are glorious in the grand tradition of great, reverent church music.
Some principal sacred works are Vespers, Requiem for Victims of Chornobyl, [sic], Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. All of these are sung in church Slavonic but you’ll understand every word because it is the music by itself that shoulders the message and carries the beautiful spirit of reverence and respect for God.
You can learn more about Roman Hurko and hear some of his music at his website