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I’ve taken to listening to so-called Christian contemporary music on in my car radio. What fascinates me is the friction between sensuality and its suppression that gives sacred pop its weird energy. A musical style redolent of sex is repurposed for chaste devotion. But when they disappear into the confessional chamber, these sung prayers and testimonials have to admit that love still basks in the sinful pleasures of rock ‘n roll.
Fear of musical pleasure is older than even the first writings about music. Plato was a great one for preaching against the lascivious tendencies of the wrong kind of song. In the Protagoras he preached against those musicians “possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure.” These types contaminated valued musical genres with imports from inappropriate sources. Such panderers slandered their profession through their “unholy lusts.” In the Republic, Plato decried the dangers of womanly song, and made sure to banish effeminate music from his ideal state: from Plato onwards women are often taken as the worst prime culprits in the debasement of song, though Tipper Gore had fits over that androgyne Prince; Plato might have theorized that it was his feminine side that led to the scurrilous Darlin’ Nikki— met in hotel “masturbating to a magazine” according to the lyrics—and then to Tipper’s outrage.
Having enjoyed the pleasures of the body before his conversion, Augustine understood better than anyone the complicated force field created with prayerful song and tries to resist the magnetism of lust. In the Confessions he admits that the mind is “more holily and fervently raised unto a flame of devotion by the holy words themselves when sung than when not.” Yet danger lurks there: “This contentment of the flesh, to which the soul must not be given over to be enervated, doth oft beguile me, the sense not waiting upon reason, and patiently following her; but having been admitted merely for her sake, it strives even to run before her, and lead her.” Sin seduces the soul through song.
But Augustine then rejects his own overreaction to these dangers, when “erring in too great strictness” he seeks to banish “the sweet music of David’s Psalter from my ears and the Church’s too.” The right kind of singing is the best: when liturgical texts are “sung with clear voice and proper modulation; they are of great use to the church.” But one must always be on guard against the libidinous ways of music: ”When it befalls me to be more moved by the voice than the words sung, I confess I had sinned penally, and would rather not hear music.”
Not all musicians and writers on music felt compelled to resist these supposed temptations. The counter-Reformation cardinal of Milan, Frederico Borromeo, is my favorite among countless possible examples. So enamored was he of the ravishing madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi that he wrote alternative texts so that he could smuggle this music into the church. One of the most vivid of these is the famous “Si, ch’io vorrei morire” from Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1605, a central document in the controversy swirling around the composer and the course of modern music at the beginning of the 17th century.
Monteverdi had been severely criticized for the license he had taken with the received rules of composition in his earlier work. The preface to the Fifth Book defended these liberties by arguing that the composer was articulating an alternative, “second practice” of music in which the words should hold sway over the harmony, and not the other way around. To express a text with greater force, rules might have to be broken. In its way, this argument was a clever nod to of Augustine even while subverting him: the pleasure of voice and harmony would service the words, but the words themselves were all about the body.
The famous madrigal from that Fifth Book, “Si ch’io vorrei morire,” is one such piece full of searing dissonances that are simultaneously painful and pleasurable. It disports itself between the sheets with heated sighs, leaps and resolutions that gloriously violate the hallowed rules of composition — all of these liberties taken in the service of depicting sex until, at least, the sweet release of the final chord.
The English translation of poet Maurizio Moro’s text runs as follows: Yes, I would like to die now that I’m kissing, sweetheart, the luscious lips of my darling beloved. Ah! dear, dainty tongue, give me so much of your liquid that I die of delight on your breast! Ay, my love, ah, crush me to this white breast until I faint! Ah mouth, ah kisses, ah tongue, I say again: Yes, I would like to die!
I direct those non-Augustinians out there towards the intoxicating libation that is the recording of this seminal book of madrigals by the Italian group, La Venexiana; they’ve done all of Monteverdi’s madrigals by now, confronting love and war and many things in between. None have done them better in the age of recorded sound, though I will admit to an enduring affection for the superficially more chaste interpretation from a few decades back by the Consort of Musicke. Churning beneath its more demure surface is a uniquely English brand of eros.
The above-mentioned Cardinal Borromeo re-wrote Moro’s salacious text and fitted his own devotional poetry to Monteverdi’s music, re-tooling the madrigal as a love song to Jesus: “O Jesus mea vita”:
O Jesus, my life, in whom is true salvation.
O light of glory, dear Jesus, O Precious beauty;
Grant me your gentle sweetness, Sweetness to be tasted.
O my life, O glory of heaven;
Ah, tie me to you in eternity.
O Jesus, my light, my hope, my heart,
I give myself to you, O Jesus my life.
One notes the eruption of sensuality here, too, in that frequent form of sublimation, taste. Nor have the gasps of pleasure been fully erased: one last erotic sigh remains to be heard. Listen to the recording of these alternate texts by Le Poème Harmonique and here sounds that as ravishing in the chapel as they were in the secular hall of mirrors.
If celibacy must be obeyed this is the necessary soundtrack. Can one really imagine that when Borromeo listened to this music in his lavish chapel he was not transported more erotically than spiritually? The imagery of bodies in sensual motion, of volcanic desire, is bound to this madrigal’s music in eternity.
Which brings us back to the paradox of Christian Rock and the aptly named Kathleen Carnali: she offers spiritual delights in the form of carnal pleasure in her hit of 2008, Dangerous Prayer, which I heard in the car some days ago. You can pull it up on YouTube if the spirit moves you.
Carnali is no Monteverdi, nor even a Borromeo. Her music seethes with rhythmic urgency, though one much different from that of the lustful variety of Monteverdi’s madrigal. The opening snap of the drum beat, like the crack of a whip, conjures the disco rather than the well-lighted hall of praise. Augustine would have been disturbed by Carnali’s voice, which pursues the favored modulation of modern pop: breathy and forced, alarmingly close to erotic sighing. The text does not go out of its way to distance itself from such lurid associations.
The poet begins her song in the sack:
Lying here awake? Or am I still dreaming?
Have I made a mistake? Or can I trust what I am feeling?
The metaphors of the chorus are highly suggestive, while also indulging happily with the kind of cliché that I’ve now become expert at appreciating in Christian Rock lyrics:
Jesus, rain on my parade,
Strip me down again,
So I’m desperate … for you.
In the rapturous refrain the carnal voice is unleashed to the upper register animated by closely entwined harmonies and yearns for climax. What’s most dangerous about this prayer, as Augustine would gladly tell her as he listens down from his bishop’s throne in heaven, is that Rock ‘n Roll will always be about sex: try as one might to cleanse with uplifting texts, sin always shines through, taking the soul by the hand and leading it towards the boudoir.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org