Should we listen to Christian music — and if so, how?

By James Inverne, September 28, 2012

Just because it's Christian music, doesn't mean that it isn't kosher.

I like to think that I have a voice. I mean, sure, that impression is magnified when I'm singing in the shower, where I can cover everything from a thunderous basso profundo to a limpid Schubert tenor (even - if I'm honest and making my way methodically through an opera scene while cleansing - the odd soprano moment).

But I've been told by people whom I respect that I have a decent bass-baritone. When I was a child, my teachers at school also thought well enough of my voice to encourage my parents to enrol me in the school choir. But they sang about Jesus most of the time so, without a second thought, I always demurred.

But this touches on an interesting point. It never occurred to me to do anything else but say no. Even in primary school assembly I would hum the lines of any songs that seemed to refer, however obliquely, to the Christian messiah. So I certainly wasn't ever going to sign up for more of the same. But was I right, and is it really that simple?

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's temporary home at the Tel Aviv docks and listening to a mostly transcendent performance of Verdi's Requiem. The conductor was the world's most celebrated Verdi conductor, Riccardo Muti and, as the piece drew to a rapt close, I sat in awe at its unfailing power to move, to terrify and to inspire.

Should we step out for our own assembly?

But it is a Christian liturgy. And the same can be said for Bach's St Matthew Passion, Rossini's Te Deum and a great many other prayerful masterpieces. So, should we as Jews not listen to these? Should we step out and have our own Jewish assembly in the room next door (as used to happen in my senior school), only being called in for the secular and hence non-denominational encores?

Incidentally, a learned colleague told me once about a visit by the great soprano Jessye Norman to Israel. Someone slighted La Norman, I don't know the details and perhaps she was right to take offence. Anyway, when pressed for an encore, she thought for a second - but only a second - and launched into a pointed and full-throated rendition of Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

But back to my theme.

It comes down perhaps to how we are supposed to listen to music. There is, and this makes a different but related point, a lot of talk at the moment about when to applaud (actually there always is, it's a repetitive strain in the music world and always for some reason gets plenty of media play as if it were a new thought). And the role of applause is a fascinating subject. What is it for? Just a hearty slap on the back for performers?

I like to think that it goes deeper, or should, at least with weighty works. When we applaud the conductor as he takes the podium, we're not applauding his performance - he hasn't done anything yet. Nor his reputation, since even unknowns get a big hand. I think it is instead a kind of ritual - we're applauding for our own benefit, creating a doorway of sound through which we ourselves enter.

We leave behind the real world of deadlines and work and screaming children as that first round raises the volume only to lower it again to a hush, in which music, thought and feeling can intermingle. The applause at the end can then be a release, for performers and audience, a cathartic release, and then we are deposited back into our daily lives.

In fact, there is a direct comparison to this in Jewish prayer. We begin the Amidah, one of our holiest meditations, with three steps forward - as if we are entering God's presence. We end it with three steps back, as we gently re-enter life.

But doesn't this make it all the harder to listen to Christian prayers, if we're paying such devout attention? Yes and no. Or do I mean, "no idea"?

Look, all I know is that the Jewish author Chaim Potok had a point when he wrote his great book My Name Is Asher Lev, about a Chasidic boy who paints a crucifixion scene. Just as his central character had to reach outside of Judaism to find an image of enough suffering to recall his own parents' unhappy marriage, it feels to me that if we look for just that - symbols, to trigger our own deep emotions - in Christian masterpieces, we take from them what is of value to our own spiritual reflection.

It's not the same as singing Hark, the herald angels sing. But would I personally sing the great bass part in Verdi's Requiem if asked? Er, when Muti comes calling, ask me again.

Last updated: 11:45am, September 28 2012