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Music in St Augustine’s Confessions

In this extract from his Confessions S. Augustine discusses music and religion.

[XXXIII.]  49.  The delights of the ear, had more firmly entangled and subdued me; but Thou did loosen, and free me.  Now, in those melodies which Thy words breathe soul into, when sung with a sweet and attuned voice, I do a little repose; yet not so as to be held thereby, but that I can disengage myself when I will.  But with the words which are their life and whereby they find admission into me, themselves seek in my affections a place of some estimation, and I can scarcely assign them one suitable.  For at one time I seem to myself  to give them more honour than is seemly, feeling our minds to be more holily and fervently raised unto a flame of devotion, by the holy words themselves when thus sung, than when not; and that the several affections of our spirit, by a sweet variety, have their own proper measures in the voice and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith they are stirred up.  But this contentment of the flesh, to which the soul must not be given over to be enervated, doth oft beguile me, the sense not so waiting upon reason, as patiently to follow her; but having been admitted merely for her sake, it strives even to run before her, and lead her.  Thus in these things I unawares sin, but afterwards am aware of it.

50.  At other times, shunning over-anxiously this very deception, I err in too great strictness; and sometimes to that degree, as to wish the whole melody of sweet music which is used to David’s Psalter, banished from my ears, and the Church’s too; and that mode seems to me safer, which I remember to have been often told me of Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria, who made the reader of the psalm utter it with so slight inflection of voice that it was nearer speaking than singing.  Yet again, when I remember the tears i shed at the Psalmody of  Thy Church, in the beginning of my recovered faith; and how at this time, I am moved, not with the singing, but with the things sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and modulation most suitable, I acknowledge the great use of this institution.  Thus I fluctuate between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness; inclined the rather (though not as pronouncing an irrevocable opinion) to approve of the usage of singing in the church; that so by the delight of the ears, the weaker minds may rise to the feeling of devotion.  Yet when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear music.  See now my state; weep with me, and weep for me, ye, who so regulate your feelings within, as that good action ensues.  For you who do not act, these things touch not you.  But, Thou, O Lord my God, hearken; behold, and see, and have mercy, and heal me, Thou, in whose presence I have become a problem to myself; and that is my infirmity.

Saint Augustine, Confessions of  S. Augustine, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1907, trans. E.B. Pusey, pp. 234-236.

Translation first published in 1838.