Excursus: The song of angels
How do angels sing? – angels? Those androgynous humanoids in white robes with a pair of wings sprouting out of their shoulders who, when the going gets tough, carry divine messages to man? The chubby infants that cluster around the edges of baroque altars? Yes, those are the ones I’m talking about. And the others, the Seraphim who are completely covered by the feathers of their six wings and who fly about crying to each other: "Holy, holy, holy, is YHWH of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory." In the book of Job, rejoicing to god after he created the world is the domain of the “sons of god”– a problematic description for later interpreters who then swiftly demoted them to angels. The evangelist Luke provides entire celestial hosts to announce the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds in the fields. But just how did it sound, this angel song? How do angels sing? What kind of question is that? Angels can’t sing because they don’t exist – so say today’s joyless rationalists. Better than most of what passes for singing today say those who lean towards romanticism infused with a dash of religion and who are somewhere along the spectrum between petty bourgeois and philistine. Although both answers address a number of aspects worth discussing, neither is entirely satisfying. Angels do exist. Their presence, to a greater or lesser extent, has accompanied the cultural history of the western world for thousands of years. After a long phase of niche existence during which the sciences asserted the undisputed sovereignty of their world view, more recently feathered and feather-free angels are enjoying growing popularity in popular theology, the self-help genre and television. With their help, increasing profits in the field of insurance advertising and films with titles like “A heavenly gamble” reduce these heavenly beings to deceased but still all-too human beings – a misconception that, although theologically indefensible, has enjoyed a resurgence in the residue of what were referred to in less secular times as ‘popular beliefs’. Other examples populate our daily life with guardian angels in the form of a beloved partner or child but also as angels of death who through murder and assassination bring death and suffering down on man. But this new version of heavenly being cannot sing, although singing the praises of god used to be one of the most important of an angel’s tasks. The last angel in (German) popular culture confronted with this form of song and who failed spectacularly was “Ein Münchner im Himmel” … zifix! H´luja, sog i!
At the purely physical level, a naturalistic understanding of the question of how song could be produced by angels has always been avoided in sermons and tracts. Generally speaking, angels do not normally have bodies that bear any comparison to human bodies. Given the lack of larynx, tongue, lips and vocal cords, the idea of a singing angel takes on a puzzling aspect. And these heavenly beings were apparently capable of much more than innocent song in praise of god. According to Genesis (6,1-4), after the creation of the world a particularly wild band of these “sons of god” had their way with a group of defenceless women with the result that a new species of giant came into the world. And all of this without physical bodies? And even if the physical process of angel song was never discussed in detail or clearly explained and any witnesses are sadly unavailable, the old texts leave no doubt that angels can sing. The question how has more to do with the musical style in which their voices are raised. Do they sing in the style of Bach, Hildegard von Bingen, or perhaps in the style of a Gregorian chant? Why not in the style of Stockhausen? If angels are regarded as purely spiritual beings then perhaps they particularly like the music of Schönberg and Webern. The strange absurdity associated as much with the second question as with that of the physical aspect takes us to the point where we can bring the relationship between man and angel into play. We find ourselves close to a possible culturally intrinsic speech on aspects of this culture. In our culture angels act as beings that appear and take action without actually belonging to this culture. They stand beyond the world of humans and mediate between it and the sphere of the divine. They stand outside of human culture, yet are a part of it but as outsiders. They stand beyond history but influence it. Just think of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. This outsider position is due to the fact that on the one hand we think nothing of accepting stories in which angels come into contact with humans and can make themselves understood, while at the same time, as soon as we question “how” they manage to do so, we run the risk of spiralling down into the absurd, regardless of the manner in which this “how” is interpreted. This has, however, never stopped people from maintaining bilateral relationships with these kindred spirits from the upper spheres and attributing to them a caring, supportive or even destructive influence on earthly relations. The angel – as a role model – has been extraordinarily important to western song and therefore on the local development of music as a whole.
Already in the second century before Christ, the aprocryphal Book of Enoch underlined an aspect that would characterise how Christian angels are presented: their unceasing songs to the glory of the Lord. These songs of praise would become the angels’ most important task. In a later version of the same book penned around 70 years after Christ, this aspect is even more clearly present. Singing is also the way the angels fulfil other tasks such as monitoring the course of celestial bodies and maintaining order on earth. Through their song, angels bring all of heavenly life in harmony: “so wonderful and marvellous is the singing of those angels, and I was delighted listening to it.” For the Christian church the obvious step was to take the choirs of angels as the role model for the praises sung by man. And that is what subsequently took place. To the Christian understanding, the liturgical song during mass is the participation of man in the angels’ songs of praise. Mortal and immortal beings join in one choir in that man adds his voice to the song of angels. And not only in liturgical song, the idea of music at all becomes a gift made by winged beings to us mortals. According to Hildegard von Bingen, the world was created from words that resound and human music from the choirs of angels. Similarly, Martin Luther is also familiar with the idea that music was brought to man by the angels:
“He who chooses music has won a heavenly treasure, as its source is heaven and the dear angels themselves
A number of legends tell how saints were taught certain songs by angels. Parts of the Catholic liturgy such as the Sanctus and the Gloria are traced directly back to the angels. Monks’ chants emulate the songs of angels. Monastic life in general was initially understood as the human equivalent to the angels’ ministry and certain sources state that, when singing, the monks sounded like angels.
Liturgical song encompasses the idea of kinship with the song of angels. Less perfect but still close. There can be no fundamental difference as it would have been a hopeless endeavour to emulate it without an acoustic reference. While it is often said that man is not able to sing well enough to do justice to the object of his praise, namely god, nevertheless he was on the right path. Hildegard von Bingen has left us with the wonderful notion that, in song, the soul is reminded of sounds from its heavenly home. However, in order to give man any chance at all of emulating angelic songs of praise in a recognisable form, first of all the sounds that issue from the heavenly home must be translated into human terms with concrete points of reference in terms of their musical-tonal structure. In the earlier writings of the Old Testament that dealt with acoustic experiences with angels, the audible results could not be called beautiful in any musical sense nor could any individual join in with this song. When the first instances were recorded, the voices of angels, along with every other sound they produced, such as that issuing from their wings, were shattering, terrible, it sounded like a thundering army, the roaring of mighty waters or the boom of a great earthquake. The first angels, those who hadn’t been through the Western program of cultivation, don’t actually sing, they call, cry out, their voices sound like that of a lion. Of music, the gift made later by angels to man, there is not a single trace. With this experience, it is no surprise that angels in the New Testament mostly announce themselves with a “Fear not!” Until then the advent of an angel connoted something terrible that also went far beyond the human scale in acoustic terms. Over time, a friendlier and more moderate note began to characterise the visual and acoustic world of angels throughout Christendom. The unceasing songs of praise remained “indescribable” and the first attempts to place the song of angels into an aesthetic category cannot have been very encouraging to the fallible human singer: perfection, ineffability, sounds that had never been heard before, una voce (with one voice), sine fine (without end), alter ad alterum (dialogical, alternation between two choirs), were the conditions applied to the song of angels and were therefore also applied as an ideal for man to fine singing and songs of praise. “Sweet” as an attribute would soon also follow and is one that would develop to be a consistent characteristic in regard to the song of angels over the centuries.
The aesthetic definition of songs of praise also included disparaging the areas of the human voice that had not contributed to the ideal of fine singing and disputing their suitability for the liturgical art of song and indeed for several centuries for art at all. It resulted in a complete separation of the part of the voice that best suited the world or other-world view: the ugly part of the voice was simply attributed to evil in the form of the devil. When they were consigned to hell, the fallen angels – led by Lucifer, the devil – lost their ability to sing beautifully. In direct contrast to the song of angels with their harmony and purity, the sound of the devil’s voice was all shrieking and dissonance. The howling of the fallen angels is so terrible that it defies description using the human voice. As with everything else, the devil also corrupts music, he cannot sing properly, instead he hisses, howls and cackles; he is incapable of making true music. Hell is filled with deafening noise. One hears coarse animal sounds, from grunting pigs through to roaring lions, and the acoustic space resounds with the rattling of chains and gnashing of teeth. This horrifying pandemonium is reminiscent of those first angels, whose “song” was anything but harmonious and sweet. Before the rupture that split the heavenly hosts into good and evil angels, the messengers of god had every possible sound available to them without anyone defining them as godly or diabolic. What was central, however, was the shattering impression they normally left behind them.
Already in medieval times, descriptions of the devil’s music were likely regarded with greater interest than talk of the sweet song of angels and peace and harmony. The distinction made by the church between good music inspired by the songs of angels and the evil “rasping” that must have been contaminated by the devil was unable to hinder the development of a secular tradition of song and dance to which high art was of little consequence and in which vocal expression could sometimes be given to the coarseness associated with the body and real life. Angelic beauty was less important to the musicians who travelled from place to place singing their songs and cantastoria than real life. The aesthetics of beauty were in conflict with the aesthetic of life and the prevailing aesthetic categories of ritual song that were represented and propagated by the spiritual and artistic elite in medieval western culture could not accommodate a larger dose of real life. But life cannot so easily be stifled. In the niches that escaped the watchful eye and absolute domination of high art, naturalistic song has always found a voice and developed further. The pre-Lenten carnival must surely be the most impressive proof of this strong counter-movement. These colourful singing subcultures of the middle ages could not, however, prevent the idea of a good, precious and beautiful sound as separate from the evil and ugly voice being burnt deep into the collective psyche of the Western world. We know to a relatively precise degree which sounds are acceptable to our fellow men and which are not. This is currently felt to a lesser degree in the public arena as the boundaries separating art from popular culture have relaxed considerably. The conflict between the good and the forbidden voice that was reflected over the centuries in the metamorphosis of the song of angels is played out today principally in the way we deal with our own voice. This is where the forces that want to preserve the beautiful, risk-free voice clash with those that want to enforce the rights of that other voice that did not lose its vitality while underground. The images that illustrate this battle emerge in the dreams of those who seek that voice. When exploring the dark side of the voice, it is not unusual for all the animals, demons and devils whose intention it is to put the integrity of the beautiful voice at risk to appear during the hours of sleep. However, the more success one has in integrating the supposedly dangerous aspects of one’s voice, the more peaceful become the dream beings. Its malicious character turns out not to be the reason why this part of the voice was banished, but, to the contrary, its consequence. The fallen angel is not banished from honourable society because he is evil but becomes a demon because he has been banished. Our efforts to make the entire human voice resonate can be viewed, from the angels’ perspective, as an attempt to erase the division within the world of the angels. The acoustic results of this liberation of the voice bear some similarity to that primal song of angels rather than clinging to the dulcet tones of the angelic choirs after the fall of Lucifer. Beauty is released from its one-sided dependence on harmony and filled with vitality in which all the feelings and sounds have the right of expression.