How the Choir Converted the World

by Mike Aquilina, Emmaus Road, £15

Music is almost universally recognised as one of the greatest gifts God has given us, and one of the greatest gifts we can give to God in return. And it is not only the symphonies and Masses of Mozart, Palestrina, Beethoven and Berlioz that sing God’s praises with angelic voices – even the solo cantor at the country church, or the individual singing O Sacred Head while washing the dishes joins with the choirs of angels.

Mike Aquilina expertly explores how music affected the worship and daily lives of the Israelites, as well as of the early Christians. Taking a close look at this development, Aquilina goes back to the descendants of Cain who are supposed to have invented “all instruments of bronze and iron” that the Israelites used, through to Ambrose of Milan and Guido d’Arezzo, the medieval music theorist who gave us modern musical notation.

This book is more than a historical treatise, or glorified timeline. The titular question “how” is what drives this book. In one chapter in particular, called “The Milano Moment”, Aquilina explains just how music really did save the world in the time of St Ambrose. The Bishop of Milan was a prolific hymn writer who wrote hymns “because he needed them as weapons. They were his swords in the battle against Arianism.”

In at least one instance, these musical swords played a strategic role in a battle of sorts. Ambrose and his congregation sang his hymns in defiance of the emperor, who was trying to turn Ambrose’s basilica into an Arian place of worship. In singing the hymns, the soldiers were repelled, no attack came and the emperor even rescinded his order. Heresy was held at bay by the singing of Ambrose’s hymns.

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