Thursday, June 30, 2016

Music in worship

The Liturgy site of Bosco Peters has raised the question of music in the Church with this provocative post.

This is such an important topic, I have taken the time to try a fuller response.

I admit my bias. My wife and I both sang in a semi-professional capacity in choirs across Canada, Montreal under Wayne Riddel, Ottawa under Brian Law and others, Toronto under John Tuttle, Calgary under various conductors, and Victoria, under John Washburn, Bruce Pullen, Matthew Larkin, and others. Two of my children teach music professionally, one in England and the other in Regina but now just having finished an 8-day workshop in Perth, Australia, so we are getting the effect of the dateline these days. One is a musician inside the Anglican tradition at its source, the other is outside the church as an orchestral leader, though he occasionally plays in a liturgical context. We have a brain-damaged fourth child whom my daughter calls the best natural musician in the family. Music is what has kept him alive and has taught him what we could not have. Our second child elected not to pursue music. We don't hold it against him.

Music develops the brain. Music develops team work and communications to produce beauty. Music 'in church' is the pulse of the drama and the voice of the body in response to the unfolding love. Music makes us aware of temporal unity in the drama when it is well chosen, practiced and performed. Music deepens active perception (religiously and non-religiously) as we learn it.

One key element of music, either overlooked or over-stressed, is the pulse. Pulse combines moments in time into a single experiential statement without words. There is neither word nor language where its voice is not felt. In a choral work, pulse (gut), sound (ear), and intellect (eye) are all unified. In a musical work without choir, no translation is required for the impact to be known.

The great tradition of Christian choral music is unmatched, and often in a single work, the entire drama of the liturgy is presented. E.g. Bach B Minor Mass, the Clavierubung 3 which can be heard as an exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity, (but is equally fine without explanation), the Beethoven Missal Solemnis, and the Brahms Requiem, just to mention a very few but from various traditions and by both believers and those whose faithfulness in their art belies any thought that they are somehow 'outside' rather than in.

Now, given that too brief background, filled with claims of benefit, I want to look specifically at Liturgical form and the response of the body to the drama of the Eucharist. This is the response that I have begun to perceive as a part of the Anglican tradition for many years (over 60 of them).

Most Anglicans are not aware of the importance of the rhythm of our response as body in the liturgy. It is more than the great Amen, though it is that Amen spread out over the length of the liturgical act from procession, introit, and greeting through Kyrie and Gloria, then the lessons: The lesson from the Hebrew Bible can be sung, but usually isn't. The Psalm is sung, the Epistle not, but Gospel acclamation with a surrounding hymn allows the music to continue its commentary. Following the sermon, the Creed is sung. Often there are sung responses to the intercessions. This is a good practice. Following the confession, the peace is sung and its response.

The choices of hymns are obviously important. Not everyone would agree with my choices, but there are plenty of hymns I would avoid. Not all hymns are musical. Not all words are poetry or edifying. I've done plenty of happy-clappy stuff and it is fortunately transient (most of it).

The Eucharist itself is a full musical expression even if the prayer is mostly said. Training the priest to sing the Sursum Corda can be a difficult job, but must be done and can 95% of the time be quite successful even for the priest with little musical training - but why should such ever be the case! No person should be raised without musical training. In Islamic tradition, the poetry has to be recited to be the word of God. They are right on this point. Music opens the ear. The Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei punctuate and complete the prayer of consecration.  Our priests always pick their note out of the air when they switch from speaking to singing. They get really good at it, even those whose musical training is limited. The Pater Noster completes the music before communion.

Then there are the closing hymns. Many beautiful hymns are available for post-communion. Many of those I grew up with never get chosen these days. And some a little too sentimental for me so creep in. But you win some and you lose some as people learn.

You can see there is plenty of music and plenty of opportunity to respond together in beauty. Also plenty of opportunity to have a choral (proxy) response that the congregation participates in silently.

Generally, the churches I have been part of have done music out of inertia rather than the conscious impulse required for planning a dramatic presentation (which is what the Eucharist is). The leaders in the Christian community have been concerned with correct doctrine or social justice both of which have some place, but often with music as an afterthought. Liturgical training of children must include serious music or there will be no one to continue the work. But the musicians who know why music is in the liturgy are few and those who can plan and pace it all well are few. Why should we ignore what is a vital part of our development and understanding?

As for worship - yes - it is the critical aspect of what we are called to. Certainly it should not be done sloppily or without preparation. Worship is worthy of disciplined effort. It's more than a matter of dropping in for a visit.

There is no mention of entertainment in this post. And the best expression of some gifts should be left to the trained choir. By all means pay them a stipend. Keep the talent in the tradition and make it work from generation to generation. But we are so far behind, and so filled with conflict, of taste or tradition, where and how will we restart?

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