A Hunk of Burning Sin

On my road trip from Ithaca, New york to Oberlin yesterday I listened to lots of Christian contemporary music on 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. When these sung prayers and testimonials disappear into the confessional chamber they throw off their vestments and embrace the sinful pleasures of rock ‘n roll.

Fear of musical pleasure is older than 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 fulminated against those musicians “possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure.” These degenerates contaminated decorous 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 prime culprits in the debasement of song and the debauchery of man. Following Plato’s lead, Tipper Gore had fits over that androgyne Prince. Plato would certainly have argued that it was Prince’s feminine side that beguiled him into creating the scurrilous Darlin’ Nikki—met in hotel “masturbating to a magazine” according to the lyrics—and then to ignite Tipper’s outrage.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of the body before his conversion, Augustine understood better than anyone the complicated force field created when prayerful song tries to resist the magnetism of lust. In the Confessions he admits that the mind is “more sacredly and fervently raised unto a flame of devotion by the holy words themselves when sung than when not.”  Yet danger lurks: “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 goes on to chide himself for 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.” Taken to its extreme, fear of music could lead to its complete banishment from communal services and private devotions, thus depriving the believer of the vital tool of faith that is song. 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: ”When it befalls me to be more moved by the voice than the words sung, I confess I had sinned greatly, and would rather not hear music.”

Not all musicians and writers on music felt compelled to resist these supposed temptations. The forebidding counter-Reformation cardinal of Milan, Frederico Borromeo was so enamored of the ravishing madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi that he wrote alternative texts for them 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 a piece that helped set the course of “modern” music at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

At the time Monteverdi was severely criticized for the license he took with the hallowed rules of composition. 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, as he argued, ha dlong been the case.  To express a text with greater force, harmonic and contrapuntal strictures might have to be stretched or even broken.  This argument was both a clever nod to of Augustine and a subversion of the thought of this conflicted Church Father: for Monteverdi, the pleasure of voice and harmony would service the words, but the words themselves were all about the body.

The celebrated 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. The ensemble has 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.

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.
 Jesus, my light, my hope, my heart, Igive 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: “Ah tie me to you in eternity.” Listen to the recording of these alternate texts by Le Poème Harmonique and hear sounds that are as ravishing in the chapel as they were in the ducal 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? It is the imagery of bodies in sensual motion that 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, Dangerous Prayer, which I heard yesterday evening as I slogged along a rainy stretch I-90 near Erie, Pennsylvania.

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. After the breathy opening strains, the snap of the drumbeat, 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: husky and forced, dangerously close to erotic sighing. Right from the start, text refuses to distance itself from such lurid associations:

“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 indulging happily in the kind of cliché favored by many a Christian Rock lyricist:

“Jesus, rain on my parade,
Strip me down again, So I’m desperate … for you.”

In the rapturous refrain the carnal voice arches upward to its highest register, the entwined harmonies yearning 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 contain off erotic desire with a devout text, sin always burns away the Christian shroud.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com