I would like to share a musical work by Handel that is not as well-known as his oratorio, Messiah, but arguably just as powerful and skillfully wrought. I’m referring to his Dettingen Te Deum, a musical setting of an early (3rd-4th c.) hymn of praise, similar to the Gloria text that we sing in church. I have a few comments to make before I share a link to just one movement of this work.
It may seem odd to us that a musical piece could be thought of as an encouraging word for us as Christians. One reason, perhaps, is that in modern life, music is all around us as a never-ending soundtrack in the background to the activity that we’re really doing. If you’re like me, you probably don’t find yourself tuning in, in a focused way, to the background music in a grocery store, let alone allowing it to be encouraging or edifying in any way. Even when we ourselves put the music on, I’m guessing it’s more often as a backdrop to some other activity: reading, working, exercising, etc.
But for many theologians (and many composers, of course!), music, though never to be confused with the Word of God, nonetheless shares a place of honor that is noteworthy. Here are a few random quotes along these lines:
“My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.” (Martin Luther)
“Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
“Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.” (Johann Sebastian Bach)
“Now among the other things which are proper for recreating man and giving him pleasure, music is either the first, or one of the principal; and it is necessary for us to think that it is a gift of God deputed for that use. Moreover, because of this, we ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it, converting [it to] our condemnation, where it was dedicated to our profit and use…And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another….(John Calvin)
“The devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God….Music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity, and other devices.” (Luther)
The phrase that stands out the most to me is in the last quote, “music is a gift and grace of God.” Perhaps the Apostle Paul is getting at something similar in the famous passage in Philippians 4. After telling the church to be anxious for nothing, he goes on to tell them, and us, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things,” – in short, things that God gives us for our good in addition to his Word, the Scriptures.
But how do you listen to music in a way that allows for this kind of blessing? How can a work of music be an encouragement to you, especially if it’s not your favorite style? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer that fits every person, but I’ll offer a few thoughts. It may be helpful…
- to move out of an “evaluating” mode (“not my style,” etc.), and enter a “receiving” mode, perhaps in conjunction with my alone time with God.
- to listen in this way when I’m not trying to do something else at the same time (this is really hard for us doers!).
- to become familiar with a good piece of music through repeated listenings. The piece that I share below is one I have known well since the early 90s, when I conducted it for a church anniversary. The final movement (linked below) is very moving for me every time I hear it, though I have heard it dozens of times. Familiarity is helpful! Great music never wears out.
Handel did not leave us with any pithy quotes like those listed above, but he wrote beautiful music with the same general understanding that comes through in these quotes – that music is a precious gift from God that is to be received for our good. The Dettingen Te Deum was written to commemorate the end of an insignificant European battle. Consisting of 18 movements, most of the work is characterized by “martial” style: trumpet fanfares, much use of timpani and sudden choral outbursts.
The final movement, however, is quite different in feel. It sets the text, “O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.” It opens quietly, with a countertenor singing the melody that will provide the musical material for the rest of the movement. Though there are some loud choral entrances, the material is much more lyrical and flowing than might be expected, compared to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” for example. To me, this movement evokes a quiet but firm confidence in God who can be trusted in all things.
I recommend listening with decent speakers in order to hear the full frequency range of this music. This is the choir of Westminster Abbey, and a Baroque instrumental group called The English Concert. Be encouraged!