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Church Music: an opinion and potential hot potato [Jun. 14th, 2009|07:24 pm]
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I once taught a course on the history of music in our denomination (Episcopal) during which I learned more than I could possibly teach (as usual...)   The roots of Anglicanism are in the western form of orthodoxy, whose roots are in Judaism...and those roots (somewhat to my surprise) include musical roots....including the controversies that have erupted in one or another branch of Christianity about the proper role of music in worship.

Most of us in that entire branch of the religious tree remember David and his harp...know that the "Psalms" of David were (at least in theory) meant to be sung, not just read responsively by half (or whole) verse.  Music has been part of the religious experience from long before that--in every culture, except where (as it is in a few traditions) it's barred completely.   There were competing ideas about music (formal vs. spontaneous, ecstatic v. contemplative) thousands and thousands of years ago.   

As I was growing up, in a very low-church Episcopal parish at the far end of Texas, we understood and experienced several of the modes of music that are common in religious practice:  back then Morning Prayer was the standard service three Sundays of the month (Communion on one) and the Morning Prayer service included the Canticles, which were sung in unison to a chant:  the Te Deum, the Jubilate Deo, the Venite.   (Anglican Chant actually had four-part harmony at the time, but our church didn't let us in on the secret--I found that out at a big urban church decades later.)   We also had hymns, from the 1940 Hymnal (an outstandingly good hymnal, I still think--everything from the simple to the challenging.)   There were six hundred of those; the oldest is a direct theft of a Jewish psalm "O blest creator of the Light..." (and one of my sources said that the earliest church chants were the taken from the Jewish service music..  Our church did not do sung services, so we did not learn any of the other service music.  Every Morning Prayer service at that church (not all) ended with the same brief hymn, sung kneeling "Day by day...dear Lord, of  thee three things I pray...to see thee more clearly...love thee more dearly...follow thee more nearly...day by day." 

And--not in church but at camp--we had "campfire songs" that were the closest representation to what is today called "praise and worship music."   These were similar (in terms of simplicity, ease of learning, etc.) to songs most people sang at various gatherings--Scout meetings, in school, at community gatherings.  Some were rousers and some were sentimental.   Of course we also heard pop music of the time on the radio, plus "gospel" music (usually by quartets) on the radio, and a few other styles occasionally.

All of these, though, were different--intentionally different--from what we heard in church itself.   Church was church--a place intended to redirect us from the everyday, reconnect us to the long and very important (to us) chain of belief and practice that connected us, back through the centuries, to the reason for going to church. 

Because of the way we humans are wired, neurologically, music has physiological effects that include emotional effects.  Church music in our denomination was intended to instruct (with meaningful lyrics) and also arouse those emotions thought to help impress the meaning of the words, and to increase a connection to the divine.   Quite often, that meant lower emotional tone than the music we sang or heard outside the church...quieter, meditative...but not always.  There was a choir, and an organ, to lead the hymns, but (at that church at that time) I don't recall any choir "performances"--no anthems.  The congregation sang (or most of it sang) everything that was sung.  The choir, in vestments, walked in at the beginning, sat in the choir stalls, and walked out at the end.   It was not a performance.  It was the way the service went, the way it had always been done: processing in and recessing out (the term "recess" is no longer used but it was then)  with the crucifer, acolyte or two, and the clergy (then dear old Mr. Stewart) behind the choir.

What did this do for a child who was highly sensitive to music, who lived surrounded by music, not only on the radio but (in those days) people who had pianos and violins or accordians and guitars in their home and played or sang at the drop of a hat? The different music--and especially the less...noisy, is the only word I can think of...music--created an emotional space unlike any other--which let me know that other emotions than the everyday ones existed.   I loved many kinds of music: conjunto, for instance, that intoxicating blend of Mexican and Czech that played in the dance-hall near my grandmother's house when I spent a Saturday night with her.  Classical, which captured me for its many moods and the power of an orchestra in full flight.  The songs my mother and her friends knew--show tunes, movie tunes, from the 20s and 30s and 40s, and the songs in my grandmother's old piano songbook.   They all moved me; I sang as naturally as I talked, and would not have given any of them up. 

When I visited friends' churches--which included Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and the local Jewish synagogue (my mother's best friend was Jewish; Aunt Lil was my "second mother") I found that each had its own special church music, more or less unlike the music of everyday. 

But then, about the time I was in college, ideas about what music in church should be began to change.  I won't detail the whole sequence of events, and it didn't hit our denomination too hard until later, but apparently congregations were suddenly deemed unable to learn real melodies or grasp real theology in lyrics that made sense.   And while the re-introduction of the guitar into churches (which created a huge fuss in some) didn't necessarily dumb down the music, it did tend to bring "campfire" music into what had been a completely different kind of space. 

Meanwhile, being out in the world, I discovered the serious music written for churches for the past five or six hundred years--music I had not known existed.  I began to sing with the choir of a large urban church that wasn't afraid of the label "high."   We sang Bach (there was a book of Bach chorales), Mozart, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, many more.  For someone who had come to love classical music and more and more through the years--natural affection--this was an incredible joy.  Both because it was a bigger, more sophisticated church, and because in the meantime the new Book of  Common Prayer had come in (with its emphasis on Holy Communion as the normative Sunday service) we had both congregational and choral-only music.  Yet the sense of connection to the history of the church was still there.  We sang more Plainsong, for instance, than I ever had.  Psalms were sometimes chanted--we learned how.  The music in the church was still specifically, and intentionally, church music...not the music you hear on the radio, not the music on TV.  As the music outside got louder and more dissonant, the singers howling and screeching words that sounded increasingly angry and hostile and even violent, the music inside showed that unity and harmony and beauty were not really dead...not yet.  "O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands...serve the Lord with gladness...and come before his presence with a song..."  The hymn verses were not just repeats of the same words over and over, but a connected discourse, a homiliy set to music.   "...from love of pleasure, lust of gold, from sins which make the heart grow cold, wean us and train us..." 

I knew that popular music was standard in many (not all) groups that called themselves "evangelicals"  (and sometimes seemed to think they were the only Christians...)   It was in the news; it was on TV.  The idea seemed to be to arouse a sort of trancelike state (with the quieter, more repetitive ones, like the Eightfold Alleluia (my musical imagination evaded the intended (?) trance by making up a different alto part each time the thing was repeated.) or to whip up the kind of mindless enthusiasm seen at rock concerts.   The latter seemed to be gaining ground as the preferred method.  If you didn't want to stand there with your arms in the air, head thrown back eyes closed, and sway from side to side, one music minister told us, it means you had no faith.

I had no faith in that music minister.  What I gained from the experience was some hearing loss due to the extremely loud amplifiers used by the "praise band."  

The largest and richest churches in the city where I sing in a much smaller church are full of expensive audiovisual equipment.   The church where I used to sing has more than it needs (as my hearing loss proves.)  But what is it used for?   Apparently to entertain the congregation with big-screen close-ups of singers, dancers, a fully professional performance of  music that is, theologically, Kool-Whip.  And yes, that's a snarky opinion, but if you compare the lyrics of the average praise-music song to the average hymn in even the 1982 Hymnal...well...Kool-Whip it is.  Most of it barely reaches the level of the "camp meeting songs" we sang decades ago. 

Now the exact balance of performance music to congregational, or the balance of instrumental to voice, and so on, has varied over the millenia.  I understand that.  What I don't understand is music (or for that matter sermons and books) that infantilize adults, that treat them as if all they can understand is "vain repetition" and an hour or so of entertainment, during which there no silence, no quiet harmony, no real encouragement to grow--in all dimensions.   Sure, if the music has a good beat, my foot's tapping.  And if someone in a sequined outfit is jumping around onstage, my eyes are there.  But...where is my heart, my soul?  How is that foot-tapping and that finger-snapping different from the foot-tapping and finger-snapping I might do at a bluegrass concert (or watching one on TV where I can control the volume?)  

And I don't see in any of this, whether it's in one kind of church or another, any signs of spiritual growth coming out of it.   Not in me, when I was trying to convince myself I should conform, or in others.  Dumbing down the music--giving up 2000 years of many many strains of music and lyrics packed with meaning-- to concentrate on  volume and trendiness--hasn't made people better Christians by the standards of anything but televangelists.  

So what did we sing today, besides (with the congregation) four hymns?  A capella, without any amplification, about 20 human voices sang  a  "simple" anthem called "Bright Canaan," a Shaw/Parker arrangement of an old "country" hymn.   What did it offer?   Beauty (because we worked to bring out everything it had; the melody itself is lovely)  and hope (from the lyrics.) 


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[User Picture]From: jgaleckas
2009-06-15 02:52 am (UTC)
I have to agree with you. Much of the music our church sings is a repetition of the same lyric over and over. We don't sing near enough of the old hymns with a good solid message. And the currrent stuff is not even necessarily theologically correct. I have complained to our music director a couple of times about a song that repeats (over and over) "there is no God LIKE Jehovah", which implies that there are other gods to which Jehovah can be compared. Change LIKE to BUT, and then I can deal with it.
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[User Picture]From: damedini
2009-06-15 03:18 am (UTC)
I find your experiences interesting. I grew up in a United Methodist church which was unusual for its denomination and time (70s). It had a glorious Casavant organand an organist/choir director who could really play it. There were 3 choirs (adult, teen, and children) and later several bell choirs. The organ also had bell stops and we later bought it trumpet stops. We sang 3-5 hymns every service, as well as the Doxology and Gloria Patri (sorry, this was 20+ years ago and I can't precisely recall the latter). The choir(s) sang processing and recessing as well as several songs and leading the hymns. The senior minister was an intellectual and his sermons were incredibly thinky. I adored that time and church, for the music especially. The whole place would come alive and vibrate with song and music. For choir practices the organist would get to the organ (or piano or harpsichord if that was what he was using) and goof off, starting with (for example) Toccata in D and improvising on the theme with trumpets and whatever.
I no longer participate in organized religious practice, but I do miss that music!
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-15 03:40 am (UTC)
Sounds like a church I could live with.

Where I sing now is pretty much straight-up Episcopal--which means there's intellectual content, standard liturgy, observance of the church year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.,etc..) The music department is outstanding. There are an auditioned adult choir, an unauditioned adult choir, and an auditioned a capella choir that does much older music on Sunday nights. Plus children's choirs, bell choir, and the musicians for the less traditional services in the other sanctuary. The range of music we sing--well, two Sundays ago it was all Mozart (including an all-Mozart Evensong with small orchestra and organ), last Sunday a Schubert anthem, this Sunday the Shaw/Parker, and in two Sundays, Benjamin Britten's "Jubilate Deo." David, the music director, is sensitive to both theology and music, and besides stretching our choir's skills and educating us on the reasons to do what he demands, he marries the music to the meaning with great skill.

The auditioned adult singers join other singers he's directed in the past (anyone who's sung with him wants to again, I suspect) to do major pieces with orchestra--including, in the past few years, the Austin Symphony. (Year before last, Bach's "Magnificat" and last year we were the choir for "Messiah".) But with other orchestras, and sometimes joining with another church choir, we've done the Mozart "Requiem," Durufle "Requiem," Britten's "St. Nicholas," French baroque pieces (the names are escaping me...), various Bach cantatas. Oh, Campra and Desmarest. We had to learn to trill. Even those of us who thought we would never learn. So now, he writes in trills on things where he thinks it will improve the effect...and so we don't forget how to.

He's very demanding, but you don't want to sing great music badly...as you know.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-15 03:53 am (UTC)
Yeah, the music for my funeral will come out of that, plus (if I can lay enough aside for it) one of the movements of the Mozart Requiem.

424, second tune. (That's the Tallis tune for "I heard the voice of Jesus say...")

446 Passion Chorale ("Commit thou all that grieves thee...")

281. Beethoven by way of Wesley..."Joyful, joyful..."

268, only the Deirdre section
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[User Picture]From: catlinye_maker
2009-06-15 03:57 am (UTC)
Thank you! I attend the 'traditional' service at my local UMC church, which means it uses the hymnal, versus the 'modern' service with the power point slides and praise songs. I thought I was the only one lamenting the dumbing down of church music..
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[User Picture]From: jryson
2009-06-15 03:42 pm (UTC)
Ugh. Power point. Dumbs down everything. Sorry to hear about it at church.
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From: deborahjross
2009-06-15 04:02 am (UTC)
I used to attend Episcopal services with Dave when we first met. I loved singing the Psalms, but when it came to hymns, tended to be like the joke about why Unitarians make poor choir members -- they're always reading ahead to see if they agree with the words. Fortunately, I'd learned solfege (do-re-mi) when my kids were studying piano, so I could always ignore them. Now our shared faith community is the local Quaker meeting, so the whole issue is moot. (Unless, of course, someone is spirit-led to burst out in song, which happened this morning.)

One of the loveliest uses of music in Jewish worship is called niggun. A niggun is a simple wordless melody used to focus the mind and spirit. There are thousands of them, some widely known, others unique to a teacher or congregation. Some are very old, others recently composed. We also use them to focus our intention (kavanah) before meditation or study. This reminds me these are all valuable spiritual pathways.
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[User Picture]From: nerinedorman
2009-06-15 04:34 am (UTC)
My first contact with the old, good stuff was singing in a chamber choir during high school. We did Bach but then we also explored the old madrigals, which I enjoyed.

The Dutch Reformed church I grew up in went the praise and worship route before services and it did do something for the old stiff folks, forcing them to stand up and get a bit more energetic (a good thing, mind you).

Sadly, when I brought a guitar into the children's Sunday school the mothers complained that it was "unbiblical" but while it was going, the kids loved it. The piano was so boring and you couldn't interact with them as well as you could with the guitar (because you faced them).
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[User Picture]From: freyaw
2009-06-15 04:54 am (UTC)
Given that the piano evolved to a recognisable version of its current form in the 17th and 18th centuries, I have no idea what they were complaining about. If a guitar is 'unbiblical', so is a piano :P
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[User Picture]From: ann_mcn
2009-06-15 10:04 am (UTC)
At my old church (Episcopalian), we had an unauditioned adult choir, a bell choir, and an on and off children's choir. Our choir director took the title "Minister of Music" seriously, and stretched us musically. We didn't have the depth to do the works your choir does, but we did a variety of musical genres (straight up Anglican to Sacred Harp to Russian Orthodox). I miss working with him, but I live too far away now.

I fret over the trend to printing the entire service, including the music, in the bulletin. Besides wasting paper, it takes away the opportunity to read the words (John Donne needs to be savored) and chase down authors or composers.
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[User Picture]From: liz_gregory
2009-06-16 07:01 pm (UTC)
That is one thing that distresses me about our church - the service is printed. Of course, when you're pulling liturgy from the Anglican Church of New Zealand, it's not going to be in the book in the backs of our pews, so in some cases it is justified. But I do miss the Great Thanksgiving "which can be found on page 333 in the book of common prayer."
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From: sizztheseed
2009-06-15 12:28 pm (UTC)
Strangely enough, music was a force to drive someone out of the church in my experience. My parents were staunchly Episcopal until the guitar showed up. For people who considered themselves artists and open-minded liberals, for some reason the guitar in the church was just unacceptable in the extreme. Never did understand that.

But another friend's experience was much more understandable. After Vatican II when all the great high mass music was banned, he, an accomplished bassoonist, Fan of Verdi, composer, and music professor swiftly converted to Greek Orthodox and never looked back. He tells me many of his generation did the same.

There is power in those notes, enough to shake foundations.

For me, one of the treasured experiences was wandering into the Milan Cathedral when there was a power failure and, by coincidence, a master organist was tuning the organ. Once he was completed, he tested his work with Toccata and Fuge in D minor while I stood next to the organ (placed centrally). To be suspended in darkness, hearing Bach's mathematics ripple and permutate along the lines of the stained-glass windows was an experience like no other. Hair is rising on the back of my neck just thinking about it.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-15 02:28 pm (UTC)
I can imagine: the hair on my arms (not quite the neck) stood up at the thought! I'm convinced that when mountains talk to each other, they speak Bach organ toccatas and fugues.

I happened to be in York in 2005 at the time of a church music festival, and got to hear that music played in the kind of architecture for which it was written for the first time. Incredible doesn't come close.

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[User Picture]From: groblek
2009-06-15 01:33 pm (UTC)
I tend to agree with you - I'm fortunate enough to attend a church where we've got a good mix of the older & newer more meaningful hymns, and where the projection screen is used just for the lyrics, for people who have trouble reading the hymnal. Still, more than once, I've been the one on a planning committee to point out that when trying to attract us younger folks (20s-30s), not all of us are interested in the praise music stuff. For whatever reason, it's hard for some people to believe that younger people can like the older hymns.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-15 02:36 pm (UTC)
Yes...there's a pervasive belief that young people are musically all of one mind. And yet--supposedly I'm of the generation that brought rock music (and later "folk masses") to the fore, but I remember being bored by the first rock music I heard...it didn't worked for me. (Individual pieces occasionally *almost* made it, but not the genre.) Almost immediately there were older people sure that I must be as crazy for it as "everybody else" but I wasn't-nor were many of the young people I knew.

No generation is homogenous.

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[User Picture]From: shanna_s
2009-06-15 03:12 pm (UTC)
Amen, and preach it, sister!

Our choir does a variety of music, and every so often the director will throw in something more "praise" style to mollify that demographic (though he cuts the endless repeats), and I've noticed that the "praise" music is actually more difficult to learn and sing than, say, Mozart, because it's undisciplined music. Mozart has a logic to it, so once you catch the pattern, it flows, but the praise music is very random. It looks to me like music written by people who don't actually read music. It's full of random key changes and time signature changes so that it's difficult to sing if you haven't heard it before. I've visited churches that went with a praise format, and they don't even use songbooks or hymnals that show the music, just the words on a screen, which makes following that music even more difficult. It's like you have to be in the know to follow, so it seems to me that it's more exclusive than using traditional hymns that are found with music in a hymnal, so that anyone who happens to be in the church can join in and follow along.
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From: fridayflute
2009-06-15 04:02 pm (UTC)
Ah, sung services. The Episcopal church I attended as a child in Connecticut was semi-high, and much of the service was sung or chanted. I loved it, and was thrilled when my childhood pastor offered to sing most of my wedding service in his marvelous basso.

I recently came back to the church after a 30+ year hiatus and joined a tiny congregation in a wonderful little historic chapel in rural NJ. We're between pastors (though lead by a wonderful interim priest; one of the first generation of women to be ordained by the Episcopal church) and trying to reinvent ourselves and revive our music program. I haven't yet fallen in love with the 1980 hymnal the way I did the 1940 (what comes of being a historian and a musical luddite - my husband courted me by playing Bach on the clavichord his father built for him), but part of that may be due to my shaky sight-singing skills. I find trying to read both the melody and the fourth verse a challenge. We're still a long way from performance music, and have just signed up a tiny group to form a new choir. Our first challenge, and one that I'm looking forward to, will be to build a repertoire of hymns that are both spiritually and musically fulfilling, while appealing to a variety of ages and tastes. I would love to revive chanting the psalms in the old way, even if we cast our nets wider in time and space for hymns and anthems.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying thank-you for your perspective on the evolution of Anglican music.
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From: mrs_redboots
2009-06-15 04:04 pm (UTC)
Oddly enough, this is resonating with something I was thinking yesterday; I attended Evensong at my parents' church, and we chanted the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis - and, indeed, the versicles and responses, which my husband and I haven't done for many, many years and were amused we could remember how. But I was taught the chant at school, and we would sing a psalm in Assembly at least once a week (UK - schools could and did still have religious assemblies in the 1960s). I was wondering whether the young are still taught how to do it, or if you need to be part of a church large enough to have a music director and a choir to teach the congregation how.

Which, alas, I am not; we do not even have a pianist, but must rely on ghastly karaoke-style CDs, which are better than nothing, but not very good. We do sing traditional hymns and some modern worship choruses, although mostly we eschew what one friend referred to as the "Jesus is my boyfriend" stuff.....
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-16 10:12 pm (UTC)
As an alto, I really like to have hymnbooks with the music in four part (at least) harmony.
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From: brashley46
2009-06-16 03:12 am (UTC)
I'm not much for church music any more, Elizabeth, but when I was still a Baptist (and still young) the music was an attractive part of the service. I got my initial choral training singing from the hymnal we used, which was also in use among our Methodist cousins. Lots of good stuff in there, from Old Hundredth to Rock of Ages to a Mighty Fortress. None of the sort of thing you are talking about as "praise music".

I've reacquired an old musical love in the last couple of months, an Appalachian mountain dulcimer. This instrument was much played in church 150 years ago, in poor back-country congregations who'd never afford a bigger instrument like an organ or piano. Church dulcimers were played on a table for greater resonance, but they are not loud, believe me - even my relatively modern Folkcraft needs to be miked in a big hall. My point? Church music in the denominations that are now the centre of Praise Music - Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc., - was simple, quiet, and beautiful.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-16 06:34 pm (UTC)
We have a number of hymnals around the house, from various denominations, and you're right--many of the older ones have really good stuff in them. I happen to think some of them lean too much to one side or the other, but they're all superior to the most recent praise music.
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[User Picture]From: moonsinger
2009-06-16 05:02 pm (UTC)
I haven't been a church going person for years; a lot of reasons. The only part that I ever enjoyed in church was the music, but often times it was depressing more than uplifting. How exciting could it be to hear a bunch of people drone? Your current church choir sounds cool! I definitely do miss musical outlets in my life. I really should get back into playing the piano more.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-06-16 06:32 pm (UTC)
Droning, not so good.

But I don't demand that it all be uplifting or exciting...there's room for far more emotion than that, IMO.

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