“Better Sung Than Said”

Giles Fraser thinks “the best theologians are musicians”:

Christianity is always better sung than said. To the extent that all religion exists to make raids into what is unsayable, the musicians penetrate further than most. When Mendelssohn takes the words of Psalm 55 and transforms them into the almost unbearably moving Hear My Prayer [above], he is not offering up some theological argument that can be batted about, agreed with, disagreed with. It’s not propositional. It’s a cry from the depths of his being. Longing, joy, hope, hopelessness, the call for justice – all these get expressed by religious music in ways that religious words can only partially capture.

As the voices of the choir bounce around the pillars of the cathedral, they carry with them the various petitions and often inchoate yearnings of those gathered in the pews: a death, a broken love affair, a new child, a desire for the world to be a different place. Tallis, Bach, Handel, Mozart, even contemporary musicians like the recently deceased John Tavener, they have the capacity take our patchy, confused and half-worked-through feelings and translate them aesthetically into something approaching coherence and worthy of wonder.