Sacred Music

I’ve recently been following the BBC4 series on sacred music, presented by Simon Russell Beale. The series, whilst not quite being a ‘history’ as such, spent time on Perotin, Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis and Bach. Russell Beale presented most engagingly, with an enthusiasm hard to resist, and the performances from The Sixteen were splendid, as usual.
The series has been trenchantly criticised by Peter Phillips in the Spectator, and many of his criticisms of it are justified, although, with a later letter writer (23rd April, not on the website), I rather doubt the appeal of his proposed TV music history, with lots of straight-to-camera discussion of musicological detail from a group of experts, after Ken Burns.
Most interesting for me was the near-constant urge, never quite indulged, to say something theological about the music itself. In many places the music was described as ‘spiritual’ (whatever that means, really), and the final sign-off was (quoting from memory) to the effect that when this music is performed “it’s as if someone is listening.” It is symptomatic of the general vagueness in our public discussion about the nature of sacred music, and testament to the degree to which most theological discussion of the problem has never really been communicated outside the academy.

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