What fascinates me about contemporary Christian praise music is the weird energy generated from the friction between sensuality and its suppression. A musical style redolent of sex is repurposed for chaste devotion. But if a full confession be made, its prayerful singers would have to admit that piety provides a cover for the sinful delights of pop.
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 inveighed against those musicians “possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure.” Contaminating trusted musical genres with inappropriate imports, these panderers slandered their profession by giving voice to their “unholy lusts.” In the Republic, Plato decried the dangers of womanly song, and made sure to banish effeminate melodies from his ideal state.
From Plato onwards women are taken as the prime culprits in the debasement of song. Near the end of the last millennium Tipper Gore had fits over that androgyne Prince, but Plato would surely have theorized that it was his feminine side that led the late genius to invent the scurrilous “Darlin’ Nikki”— met in a hotel “masturbating to a magazine” according to the lyrics, and thence to Tipper’s moral outrage.
Having enjoyed the pleasures of the body before his conversion, Saint Augustine understood better than anyone the complicated force field created when devout song tries to resist the magnetism of lust. In the Confessions he admits that the mind is “more piously 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.” 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 punishably sinned, and would rather not hear music.”
Not all musicians and writers on music felt compelled to resist these temptations. The counter-Reformation cardinal of Milan, Frederico Borromeo, is one exalted example among many. 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 Fourth Book of Madrigals published in 1603, a central document in the controversy swirling around the composer and the course of modern music at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Monteverdi had been severely criticized for the license he had taken with the received rules of composition. The preface to the Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1605 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 Augustine even while subverting him: the pleasure of voice and harmony would service the words, but the words themselves were all about the body.
“Si ch’io vorrei morire” is full of searing dissonances that are simultaneously painful and pleasurable. There are heated sighs, leaps and resolutions that gloriously violate the hallowed rules of composition, until at last the musical partners achieve the sweet release of the final chord.
The English translation of poet Maurizio Moro’s text is rapturously erotic:
“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 unpersuaded by Augustine’s strictures to the twelve-disc set of Monteverdi’s complete madrigals performed by La Venexiana, released in 2014 on the Glossa label. No vocal ensemble has done them more compellingly, though I will admit to an enduring affection for the superficially more chaste interpretation offered by the Consort of Musicke in the 1980s. Churning beneath more demure surface is a uniquely English brand of eros.
Cardinal Borromeo had his chief musician Aquilino Coppini cleanse his favorite Monteverdi madrigals of Moro’s salacious text and fit them with devotional poetry, re-tooling, for example, “Si, ch’io vorrei morire” as a love song to Jesus, “O Jesu 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—“Ah”—remains to be heard through the incense. Listen to the recording of these alternate texts by Le Poème Harmonique (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9i9ofge1Axk) and hear sounds that are as ravishing in the cathedral as they were in the secular hall of mirrors or the bed chamber.
Can one really imagine that when Borromeo listened to this music in his lavish chapel he was not transported more sensually than spiritually? The imagery of bodies in 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. A decade ago she offered spiritual delights in the form of carnal pleasure in her hit, “Dangerous Prayer.”
Carnali is no Monteverdi, nor even a Borromeo. Her music seethes with rhythmic urgency, though one much different from that of Monteverdi’s madrigal. The opening snap of the drum beat, like the crack of a whip, conjures the disco rather than the nave 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, beginning, as it does, in bed:
“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 not only riddled with cliché, but also highly suggestive:
“Jesus, rain on my parade, Strip me down again, So I’m desperate … for you.”
In the rapturous refrain the carnal voice ascends to its upper register animated by closely entwined harmonies, yearning for climax.
Even the down vest, fall color outro of Carnali’s “God is Good” of last year, a testament to faith in the face of personal tragedy, is only a few producer’s tweaks, a helping of “eyeliner and cigarettes” and leather fetish outfits away from the sex-saturated choruses and sensual epiphanies of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.”
What’s most dangerous about these Christian prayers, as Augustine would certainly tell Carnali as he listens down from his bishop’s throne in heaven, is that pop can’t be purged of carnality. However uplifting the texts, the beat of sin always drops, taking the soul by the hand and leading it towards the boudoir.