Review: Christian Music | A Global History

Christian Music:  A Global History by Tim Dowley.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 2011

Tim Dowley attempts the perhaps impossible task in writing “a new popular history of Christian music of all eras, all regions, and all varieties.”  But in many ways he succeeds, perhaps because he understands the task is daunting, knows where the pitfalls are, and admits the limitations of the work he creates.  He understands he is writing an overview as do we, and we all are the better for the broad perspective that such an overview allows.

The book addresses music through the history of Christianity and the range of music throughout the world.  In addition to Dr. Dowley, with expertise in the Western/European tradition, he draws on scholars with other expertise:  Revd Sugu Chandy (Church of South India), Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt (eastern and southern Africa), Dr. Mark Evans (Macquarie University, Australia), Dr. Ivan Moody (Greek Orthodox priest and researcher at Universidade Nova, Portugal),  Revd Dr. Michael Nai-Chiu Puon (Trinity Theological College, Singapore), Pablo Sosa (Buenos Aires, Brazil), Dr. Angela C.C. Tam (Alliance Bible Seminary, Hong Kong), Mike Wheeler (Derby, England).

The content is presented chronologically, and any undergraduate music student will recognize large parts of their required music history course sequence in narrative.  But what is refreshing is the focus on Christian music, starting with the first sixteen centuries of Jewish instrumental music and singing of Psalms to the late Renaissance, including discussion of the origins of chant and polyphony.  Music of the Reformation and the Anglican tradition are explored along with the Catholic Baroque, with Bach and Handel singled out for emphasis in the Protestant Baroque.  An entire chapter is devoted to the development of hymns and canticles, their origins and several important hymn writers.  The Viennese tradition with combination of liturgical and non-liturgical sacred music is explored, along with the music of the Orthodox Church in Russia, as well as sacred music in the age of Romanticism.  A chapter on the development of congregational song in England, especially the origin of carols, is fascinating.  The music of camp meetings and revivals, spirituals and blues, popular music in the 20th century, gospel music, the contemporary Christian music industry—all are covered, along with chapters on Christian music in Africa, Latin America , southeast Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Australia/New Zealand, and China.

Perhaps one of the nicest features of the book is its presentation, illustrated with almost two hundred photographs and illustrations, particularly helpful when discussing the Old Testament  and other-than-European instruments and traditions of music-making.  The book is beautifully printed, colorful and inviting to the reader.  It will be helpful to the music or clergy professional who rarely is offered so broad a view of their field, and to lay persons who are interested in a context for the music of their faith.

Dr. Charlotte Kroeker, Executive Director, Church Music Institute

February, 2014