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The Role of Church Music on Social Wellbeing in the 1720’s - the Case of Missa Maria Assumpta

Hamish J Hollis-Hill MISM holds a Master of Arts degree in music, an LRSM in clarinet performance as well as an ALCM in music composition.

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This article has been adapted from a previous research paper written by Hamish Hollis-Hill during the completion of the degree of Master of Arts.

In the modern world, music is regarded as causing positive change in people’s health, especially in mental health and social and emotional wellbeing, as seen in the examples of the rise of music therapy and community music programmes. This would also be true of music performed in the Baroque era, as nearly all human cultures are known to have made music and that emotional expression through music was approached in a similar way now as it was in other eras – therefore would naturally cater to similar a need.

Using the example of the religious work Missa Maria Assumpta by J A J Faber (1692 – 1759), this article aims to explain some of the ways music for wellbeing was attempted in the Baroque period, as well as evaluating how likely the music had the effect intended on those who were listening.

A key piece of information showing insight into some of the intentions of Baroque composers comes in the form of the ‘doctrine of affects’, a theory used by Baroque composers to guide their composition process with the intention to change the way an audience felt during and after a performance of their music. Many Baroque composers, including Bach, had likely heard of and knew the principles behind this theory, including the widely unheard of priest, Faber, who wrote the work Missa Maria Assumpta, which incorporates and develops the principles of the doctrine.

As heard in the recording by Terra Nova Collective (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zXvZL-VXvc), over a series of movements the work highlights the main narrative of the bible as written in Latin and uses a wide range of musical techniques to contribute to the dissemination of Christian messages.

Faber uses the doctrine of affects throughout the work, such as writing slow, descending melodies with close-together intervals in a minor key for parts of the story where an audience is expected to feel more negative emotions such as sadness, and conversely when writing faster, ascending melodies with wider intervals in a major key to represent more positive moments in the story. An example of this is the main clarinet theme in the movement Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi, where the C clarinet part is written in the key of D minor and uses mostly conjunct melodic patterns (intervals within the range of a perfect 5th) and uses longer note lengths, as seen in the use of minims and semibreves. Additionally, timbral qualities of the instrumentation contributes to the decidedly depressive qualities to the movement, as it describes ‘He, who took away the sins of the world’. This timbral usage is supported by relatively recent studies (such as this: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/p/pod/dod-idx/musical-timbre-and-emotion-the-identification-of-salient.pdf?c=icmc;idno=bbp2372.2014.144;format=pdf) which looks into the emotional perception of isolated timbres by a variety of listeners.

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But how does this musical analysis support the idea that the music actually promotes wellbeing in its intended context?

Studies (such as: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1022978831589) show how in many instances religion provides an important role in the emotional wellbeing of Christian parishioners. Christian symbology can elicit empathetic responses from worshippers, particularly when likening biblical struggles to the struggles faced by worshippers themselves. The relationship between worshippers and the biblical narratives they learnt helped them to balance their emotions during unstable times in their lives. Therefore, combining a religious narrative with the clear emotional expression of Faber’s music would enable the intended audiences to construct a stronger sense of emotion and cognition relating to their beliefs and would allow them comfort and a sense of closer connection, therefore affording them a stronger sense of emotional control in times of particular distress.

Of course, this is only one of the many different ways music was likely used to benefit the wellbeing of 18th century communities, as participating in dances and playing music in an amateur capacity were also highly important for the people of that time. Music that accompanied narratives outside of a biblical context were also used to suit a similar purpose, emotionally, socially and politically. All are examples of the undeniable intrinsic value music has on personal and social development and contribute to the ongoing debate of a very natural human need for the arts.

© 2022 Hamish J Hollis-Hill

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