I am just now sorting out a mountain of papers on my desk and have come across an order of service from a eucharist I attended during October. It has fallen open at the hymn, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Coincidentally we sung the same hymn at Peterhouse chapel this morning, where I am on placement as part of my vicar training. The hymn (which is really one of the best ones to sing to organ accompaniment) twists around in D minor, the singers instructing each other to observe with awe the fearful nearness and love of God, and to respond with a solemn but full-hearted ‘alleluia’.
It would be melodramatic and untrue to say that I find sacred music written in minor keys so compelling because my life has been unduly difficult and/or my disposition is naturally depressive. I have a healthy enough dose of melancholy in me, but by and large my life hasn’t been a bowl of tragic gruel, in any Dickensian sense. And I love me some gloomy, angsty Kierkegaard, but sometimes feel that if he were around I would either have punch him or to snog him to knock him out of his moodiness. For the most part, really, I’m a fairly sunny person. So why this undeniably strong appreciation for God-music that reverberates with sadness, or eerieness, or uncomfortable solemnity?
Two things, I think. Firstly – singing minor key songs, for me, is a recognition of the difficulty and distance with which all of us develop in faith. If being a Christian has taught me anything, it is that whenever I think I’ve got Jesus figured out, I really, really haven’t. It helps to remember this in singing songs which by their musical arrangement preserve that sense of hesitant mystery, of being unseated by one’s devotion.
Secondly I think these songs keep us alert to the breadth of brokenness of our lives and in the world. If the song is about an otherwise ‘happy’ topic: the key and the subject matter grate on each other, reminding us that although as Christians we certainly do have things to celebrate, those things do not exhaust what it means to be human or to live fully. If the music and the subject matter are both ‘minor’, their resonance magnifies our awareness of those darknesses in and around us which we’d often rather not admit in a worship setting. Yet they are the most essential things for us to recognise, that God might transform them in and through us.
‘Here endeth the mini-sermon’, I suppose, but it’s one thing to understand why I like minor key songs, and another to sit with them under their temporary canopy of beauty and experience them for yourself. So I will leave you with two links for the hymn above, rather than a full stop:
*This is a guest post. Erin Clark writes, wanders, runs and studies theology in Cambridge. She believes in preaching about zombies, random acts of kindness, well-timed profanity and the power of a good hug.