e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

Church Music: an opinion and potential hot potato

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.) 

Tags: music, religion
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