On the other hand, it was put to me that the Tallis' “Spem in alium” for 40 voices has been described as so beautiful it hurts to listen to it. The pain is not from the sound but from the comparison of other things to the wondrous marriage of text and tonality. The beauty of the Divine Service and its attendant music is just that -- so beautiful that it hurts to hear. It hurts to hear something so profound and so profoundly moving and then have to settle for the muzak of rock, pop, pop gospel, contemporary church music, etc...
Tallis is not alone. He comes from a whole era in which the excellence of voice and harmony were explored in a depth not often seen. It was one of the magic moments in history in which the people and God's time all came together to invent music that stretched the limits of the imagination -- mortal ear has not often heard the magnificent sound of heaven. I know exactly the feeling. But it is not limited to one epoch in history. Bach has the same wonderful effect and Pachelbel and Mendelssohn and Brahms and a whole host of other wonderful composers of churchly music. But we do not only have to mine the ore of history to hear them.
Consider Arvo Part or Morten Lauridsen among other contemporary composers (time contemporary not style contemporary) and you hear the same kind of music, so beautiful that it hurts to hear and it hurts not to hear. I consider Paul Manz and his E'en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come that kind of music you pray will never end and yet it is too beautiful to hear if you have to go back to the same old muzak crapola that too often passes for church music today.
I do not say we are incapable of such music today (composing, singing, or listening) but that we have learned to settle for discardable vehicles of praise -- the kind of music that is forgettable or, so bad that it refuses to leave your memory or your ear. We have grown too comfortable with the things that meant only for a moment and therefore unworthy of that which is eternal. I know that there are people who can compose such music. I know there are folks who want to sing it. I know there are ears who want to hear it. It is a matter of will and choice. But the problem with beauty is that it is hard to settle for sofa sized wall art at$25 when you have seen a Rembrandt. Would that we heard such wonderful music often enough that we went back home to our churches and insisted that we must have nothing less than the best. Would that we were moved by such beauty to demand that no more tossable vehicles of praise be tolerated in the church of God. Would that we were so drawn to the best of the best that we expected the best from preacher and presider, from choir and parish musician, from song and singer!
I am not being a snob here. This is not about culture wars but about the excellence that returns to the Lord our best in response to His best to us and for us (Jesus Christ). God, make it hurt in our ears to hear this and then have to settle for something so trite, banal, and temporary as a substitute for the harder praise of our best for God's glory.