Music and Worship In the Church
Austin C. Lovelace and William C. Rice
The Choir’s Music
In the service of worship the anthem is often an element of comedy, sometimes tragedy, and even at times a farce, judging from the bulletins that we review each year. This is more true of the anthems than it is of the organ music listed. Perhaps the fact that the organist pays for his own music, while the church pays for the anthems makes the average director less careful in choosing anthems. Perhaps if he had to buy them with his own money more care would be taken.
One has only to poke his nose into dusty choir room closets stacked with doggerel Victorian anthems and second- and third-rate collections of uninspired anthems spewed out monthly by the pound by musical hacks to get an inkling of the tragic situation in many choir libraries.
In the numerous seasonal brochures received by the writers each year listing choral and organ music, the organ lists reveal an attempt on the part of many organists to perform an extensive cross section of great literature and to keep up with the better new publications. But such is rarely the case with anthems. The choral lists indicate a rut the same old war horses, chestnuts, and tear jerkers used year after year, with very few lists indicating that the director has searched out the treasures of past ages or has sorted the wheat from the chaff in the contemporary harvest.
Why such a disparity? First and foremost we must say that organ teachers have done on the whole a better job than choral teachers and that organ graduates are more thoroughly prepared than choral conductors. Colleges, universities, and conservatories base their organ course of study on the standard literature, beginning with that musical giant, Johann Sebastian Bach. A study of the catalogues of music departments reveals that the course requires acquaintance with a wide variety of the best literature for the instrument. How many choral students have ever seen more than two or three small works of Palestrina? How many know that Monteverdi wrote some beautiful works for the use of the church? To how many are Victoria, Perti, di Lasso names from a textbook only? The absence of such composers from choral lists indicates that our church choir offerings are not up to the level of the organ literature performed. Choral classes in many schools tend to place the major emphasis on conducting patterns and techniques and include only a smattering of anthems for conducting purposes. Survey courses in sacred choral literature tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
A great deal of blame can also be laid to the lack of theological and liturgical training. Too many music schools grant degrees fn church music without requiring any training in liturgy or religion, and their graduates cannot understand that there is a difference between the work of a church choir and a concert choir. Many schools “beef up” their music education course with a course or two in church music and call it a church music degree program; but while public-school music methods are helpful for their methodology, they are inadequate in interpreting the place, purpose, and choice of music for the church.
Perhaps part of the blame for poor anthems can be laid at the door of the multiple choir system. In the desire to get everyone into some choir- from the crier choir to the crypt choir- directors have grasped at any music handy. Youngsters are asked to sing cut down adult anthems or massed choirs are asked to sing “souped-up” versions of old chestnuts, with a tidbit tossed here, now there, until a veritable Brunswick stew is the result. In dragging in the “cherubs”–a name which should be outlawed- except in heaven, where it belongs to be cute and sweet for doting parents, music which is completely unsuitable for worship has been foisted on congregations.
Another reason for poor anthems lies in the fact that the congregation, having arrived late after the prelude and having dashed out for Sunday dinner almost before the sound of the benediction has died, only has contact with the choral music of the service and therefore feels that it has a right to insist on having its fancy tickled. Many directors quail in the face of criticism of anything new or untried and take the line of least resistance giving the congregation “what it wants.” Yet the anthem is not primarily intended to please the congregation, and the use of poor material cannot be defended since music should first of all be a worthy offering to God.
It would seem, then, that the blame eventually falls on the director. Writing in the American Guild of Organists Quarterly, Seth Bingham said:
“Some have blamed the publishers for issuing so much “junk” (and who can deny it?) thereby discouraging serious composers from writing for the church. . . . We are also aware of certain publishers who deliberately traffic in the mediocre, the soporific, the slushy. And how do they manage to stay in business? Where do they get the stuff? Why, from the self-styled “composers” who concoct it. And who are these? Well, we’re sorry, but many of them happen to be organists or choir directors. But who decides what music to buy? Here, friends we’re very close to home. The organist or choirmaster who knowingly buys this trash and wishes it on his choir with the lame excuse “that’s what the congregation wants,” not only cheapens himself but incurs a heavier responsibility than that of the unscrupulous publisher. Neither of them can be legally prosecuted. But he who refuses to buy this pseudo-religious tripe strikes a blow against the “phony” publisher and in favor of the conscientious one.”
In defense the choir director may plead that it is difficult to see new music since the average local music store carries incomplete stock. Sup-pose the director goes to a music dealer and asks to see some anthems for his choir. When a stack of review material is brought to the counter, practically no screening of good and bad, easy or difficult has been done, and the stack is usually filled with the same old tired daisies which invite the game of “love me, love me not.” Most end up “love me not.” I once looked through some one thousand anthems at a music counter and found only five which deserved further consideration. A few dealers make available examination copies in packet form on approval, with much of the necessary winnowing already accomplished, but these are a minority. Many publishers will send examination copies of new publications on approval, but it is expected that orders will be placed in quantity for some of the anthems. Regardless of the difficulty of the problem, it is the duty of the director to see as much music as is possible if only for the sake of comparing the poor and good and for developing a sense of good taste and good judgment.
What are the qualities of a good anthem? The starting point is consideration of the text, although one would not guess this judging from – texts heard in churches over the country. Many are nothing but maudlin sentimentality. Others are patently unsuited for singing; some are even an affront to religion, A recent publication uses a text which includes Santa Claus and his reindeer in the story of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem. If such secularization continues we may someday expect to hear, “Here comes Peter Cottontail hopping down the resurrection trail.”
Consider also the spate of materials of late which might be called the ding–long school, in which the choir sings “ding-dong” or other related bell sounds. Christmas bulletins each year are cluttered with these tin-tinnabulations, Consider also the anthem with humming instead of text. It is highly questionable whether humming can be defended in an anthem. Tone poems are best left to the organ, which is suited to unworded sound; anthems are strictly vehicles for texts.
Consider, too, such a “classic” as Harry Rowe Shelley’s setting of “Hark, hark! My soul.” Because the music is sweet and sentimental, no one seems to have taken the trouble to look at the words. The impression is that of much singing by the angels, but the vagueness of total meaning is closely related to the greater vagueness of “Beautiful isle of somewhere,” Contrast the sentimentality of such a text as “I walked today where . Jesus walked” with the compelling call of “O Master, let me walk with Thee.” Then too there are many texts of the “In the garden” type, which Henry Sloane Coffin, former president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, classified as blasphemous. Perhaps “My God and I,” with its anthropomorphic presentation of God and its over familiarity (can you really imagine jesting and joking with the God of creation and our salvation?) belongs in this class. From these it is but a small step to the downright degradation of religion inherent in the jukebox songs such as, “Talk to the Man Upstairs,” “He,” “I Believe,” “There Ain’t No Flies on My Jesus,” or “Put Your Snout Under the Spout Where the Gospel Comes Out.”
To protect the sanctity of worship the Episcopal Church has decreed that only such texts may be used as come from the Holy Scriptures, the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal. Such a decision would certainly seem to be safe, and yet there are some` texts in the Bible which do not have too much to say to the present age. There are many passages which are even sub-Christian. The following texts from the psalms, which presumably were for singing, are hardly worth setting as anthems:
O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lion, O Lord. (Ps. 58:6.)
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137:9.)
It is necessary to study the text of every anthem, even if it is scriptural, to determine if it is theologically acceptable, profound in its message, beautiful in its expression, and meaningful to the listener of today.
Nor are all prayers in the Prayer Book of equal quality, some are poor and others are unsuited for singing for reasons of peculiarities in form or language. Neither does inclusion of a text in any hymnal automatically ensure its suitability for an anthem setting.
While there is an element of safety in the rule of the Episcopal Church, there is also the danger that worthy texts of poets writing today may be excluded from use. Certainly the Holy Spirit did not cease to speak to men with the death of King David, or even Martin Luther and Charles Wesley. Poets as well as composers should be encouraged to present the Christian message in new and vital ways, and it is a director’s duty and job to seek out the best new texts and to use them.
Studying the text is only the first step, for there are many ways to set a given text, and the director must decide which is the best. Among the technical considerations the first concerns text accents. Do they coincide with the musical accents? Next consider the rise and fall of the melodic line. Does the melody follow the contour of the words and thought progression so that the climax of each comes together? What about the rhythm? Does it derive naturally from the flow of the words or does it move in spurts and jerks? Does it carry the text along or does it force the text to fit its changeable moods? Does the rhythm have a long line or is it botched by trivial patterns? Is there a relation of text to rhythm and phrase length?
What about the length of the anthem? Is it long enough to cover the text and to give its fullest meaning? Or does the anthem wander on and on irrespective of the thought? It is at this point that many composers have difficulty. Having been taught various musical forms in instrumental music, they tend to try to force a set pattern on a text whether it fits or not, resulting in needless and senseless repetition of words and phrases for the music’s sake. The musical length should be subservient to the text, and musical and textual development should coincide. There should be an economy and suitability of musical material—-along anthem is not necessarily a good one.
Neither is a, difficult anthem automatically superior to an easier one, for difficulty is not synonymous with excellence, although some directors consistently attempt anthems beyond the ability of their choirs through such a mistaken belief. Perfection of interpretation and presentation is the goal rather than mere performance of difficult music. A simple anthem sensitively sung with unanimity of pitch, diction, tone, and rhythm is no small achievement and is a goal worthy of any choir. If difficult anthems are sung the congregation should not be aware of any problems but should sense only the underlying motive and thought.
Another consideration is the number of voice parts. There is a certain school of thought, often associated with the high-school a cappella choir, which considers eight part music as the ultimate. For many years the market was flooded with padded works in which the duplication of parts was merely designed to give a lush sound. Today the radio and television choir uses much the same idiom with the addition of colorful chords and effects. In most music four voices is sufficient, but a careful study of the Golden Age of Polyphony and the nineteenth century Russian school will reveal how to use extra voices effectively. The problem of voice lines raises the larger question of the harmonic structure of an anthem. It is a far cry from the incidental harmonic points of Palestrina to the involved chords of Sowerby, and yet each age has produced its own harmonic idioms, each with value. When an idiom is overworked into a harmonic cliche it loses freshness and value. Tin Pan Alley, which has recently invaded the field of religion and music for obviously commercial reasons, has made the added sixth unacceptable and has built its commercial success on harmonic clich�s too many of which have been borrowed by non-discriminating composers.
In the area of melody there are also many clich’s-chromatic swipes, leaps of a sixth, and others which are seen too frequently in the flood of anthems streaming from the presses. Composers would do well to return to a study of the modes of the Church and to a study of the wealth of melodic ideas in Gregorian chant.
The art of rhythm and the flexibility of plainsong seem to have been lost to many composers. Instead we find the rhythmic clich’s of the dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth, the accompanimental chord repeated in triplets,”The Palms” by Jean-Baptiste Faure, an example, is, unfortunately, widely used annually, or the deadly monotony of even note values. Great choral works have always been built on vital rhythm, beauty of melody, and soundness of harmony.
There are three further tests to be made in choosing the choir’s music. The first is suitability. Music used for sacred purposes is partially defined and limited by its appropriateness to special needs. A composition may be excellent music and fine for the concert hall but entirely unfit for church. Some works, such as Dubois’ “Seven Last Words,” Verdi’s “Requiem,” and Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” while based on texts of the Church, are totally unsuited because of their operatic style. In none of them is the listener directed more to the words than to the music or more to the spiritual content than to the technique of the singers. In the appendix to Church Music: Illusion and Reality 2 Archibald T. Davison illustrates the difference in suitability of several settings of the “Kyrie eleison,” ranging from plainsong to the opera utterances of the nineteenth century. His book is a fruitful study of the qualities which separate appropriate from inappropriate, and every church musician will benefit from a study of his discussion and examples.
Suitability also refers one to a study of the acoustics of the church sanctuary. Organists as a rule are fairly sensitive to the acoustical properties of an auditorium and its effect upon organ tone. An edifice which has been acoustically mistreated with absorbent materials and buried alive under tons of draperies, carpets, and pew cushions offers problems to the organist, but it also offers serious problems to the choir. The glorious style of the sixteenth century is peculiarly ineffective and in-appropriate in such a setting, for the masters of that century wrote long flowing lines which call for a cathedral setting in which the tones float and intertwine with one another. Without a “live” building an anthem of the polyphonic school is generally ineffective.
Suitability of the organ is also a consideration in the case of accompanied anthems. To attempt Gustav Hoist’s “Short Festival Te Deum” (Stainer and Bell) accompanied by most electronics is sheer folly, for the brilliance and support required are not available. Some excellent anthems must be laid on the shelf if the organ, or the organist, is not capable of carrying the load.
Suitability should also be thought of in terms of local visages and liturgical requirements. Even though an anthem be excellent, it still must be related to its use and placement in the service of worship. Is it appropriate to the season of the church year? Is it correlated with the sermon topic or general theme of the service? Does the text clash with nearby prayers or hymns? Does it duplicate or approximate too closely other texts in the service? Is its message clear and comprehensible? Is it worth singing? Across the country various denominations use all sorts and conditions of liturgies, some with strict requirements, but all with some definite pattern. Here the musician must follow the lead of the minister, but he should also make it a point to know as much about all liturgies as possible. Church music should be liturgically correct, but it should avoid the narrow confines and stifling quality of sectarianism.
Suitability also is partially controlled by the limitations of the choir. It is perhaps dangerous to mention this limitation, for all too many choir directors hide behind this excuse, knowingly or not. Many an excellent anthem is left untried, not because the choir is really incapable of singing it, but because the director is afraid to tackle it with the choir. Many works reveal themselves to be less difficult than they appear on the surface if one takes the trouble to analyze individual voice lines and balance problems. One should also face facts and not attempt works beyond the choir such as an anthem with divided tenor parts when the section consists of one high baritone.
Suitability also involves the congregation. How often one hears the complaint, “But my congregation won’t like that anthem.” Before berating the congregation too quickly, consider the following facts: an anthem which takes three minutes to sing may be in preparation for months before it is sung. The director spends hours studying the anthem to discover the composer’s intentions. Then the choir may rehearse weekly for six or eight weeks before its presentation. The congregation is expected to absorb, to understand, to appreciate, and to accept on a fleeting hearing of three minutes what took months to prepare! This is patently impossible and unfair. The solution does not lie in bowing to any unfavorable reaction, but in repeating the anthem frequently. While too many new works a season can founder a congregation, a few new things repeated fairly often will do much to educate a congregation and to guide their growth in understanding and appreciation.
Percy Buck in The Scope of Music suggests that there are three levels of appreciation. The first is crude appreciation in which chiefly the senses are concerned. This level is in evidence when members of the congregation either purr or growl at the anthem. The second is intelligent appreciation, and involves an element of comparison; the listener begins to prefer one anthem over another, and a choice is made on some basis of judgment. The third level is that of critical appreciation and calls for the maximum use of our powers of perception and discrimination. This level is not a plateau on which one can stop, however, for there is always something which leads us on from appreciation of something fine to something finer. Percy Buck said:
“Only a fool will ever think the end of the road has been reached, for there is no end, and only conceit will allow anyone to think he has gone as far as he might have gone. And the going a Iittle farther, which is possible to all of us, will not only result in an increase of our own enjoyment of life, but will also prevent that atrophy of our power of enjoyment which, as Darwin so pathetically lamented, may make our later years emotionless and grey.”
So while we must consider the congregation in our thinking and planning we cannot let them be the final arbiter of decisions or choices. Yet any anthem should eventually communicate to the man in the pew.
Next, consider the quality of durability; an anthem should wear well with frequent repetition. One is often chagrined to discover that an anthem which seemed attractive at first glance loses its freshness after the first rehearsal. There must be many an anthem gathering dust in choir libraries because it never got past the first rehearsal successfully. Of course durability is not necessarily related either to newness or oldness. Sir Walford Davies in Music and Worship expressed it thus: “Music in aid of worship must be original in the two distinct senses of being some-thing quite new and something so old that it has been there from the beginning.”
Closely related to durability is the element of imagination. An excel-lent anthem always elicits an enthusiastic response from choir members as its secrets are revealed to them, for they constantly find new beauty in it each time it is sung. A technical problem to be overcome, a new sense of the structure of the music, imaginative use of material, a breath-taking chord–these are but a few of the elements of a masterpiece.
Some people consider music only as entertainment, but they thereby relegate art to a place of relative unimportance. Great music is not an embellishment of life but a spiritual enrichment of it. It is a vital factor of expression, just as religion is a central, not a peripheral, matter. Alvin Schutmaat said:
“We need the arts for stimulating and cultivating our religious imagination. The ability to see harmonies and relationships among people, things and events is surely God-given. There can be no love of one’s neighbor without imagination, nor any love of God. How can a man grasp for himself the reality of Christ without a lively imagination? Pastors and teachers often fail to raise us to the heights of imagination which the gospel demands and prefer to reduce the gospel message [and we would add parenthetically, many anthems] to prosaic formulas. That is why we are often considered a people without visions, mysteries or dreams.”
A third characteristic of a good anthem is simplicity. This does not mean that a great anthem will necessarily be simple, but the motive back of it will be simplicity itself. The “Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah has complexities in the various voice lines, yet the fundamental material is not complicated, and the motive of rejoicing and adoration is simply and effectively projected. Simplicity has to do, then, with form and purpose.
Finally, is it too much to ask that an anthem have beauty? C. E. M. Joad expressed the divinity of beauty well when he suggested that goodness, beauty, and truth are three ways in which God reveals himself to man. Beauty is a gift of God, and a work of art is a presentation in form of feeling that which the artist has experienced or received from God. In the best sense it is a presentation of his own catharsis. While there are many arguments as to what is beautiful, we are obliged to make an attempt to understand what the artist felt and is trying to express if we are to see the vision of beauty he experienced, For art always reaches our feelings through the understanding. Art is not an appeal to the under-standing but aims at a goal whose only approach is through comprehension. Therefore the awareness of beauty in an anthem depends upon the inspiration of the composer, the insight of the conductor, the devotion of the choir to perfection, and the sympathetic understanding of the congregation.
The purpose of the anthem, then, is much more than entertainment or background music. In an article in The Christian Century8 Warren H. Deem points out the dangers of using music as a vague background of noise, particularly in church, where much music today is pleasant but little more. Leonard Raver said:
“Such music exists only on the most basic level: music to dance to, to read by, to eat with, and to talk to (or in spite of). It does not occupy us, it does not command the full attention of the mind and spirit of man.”
Worthy texts which can inspire the soul, enlighten the mind, and express the finest emotions of the congregation are the basis for the choir’s music. To these texts must be added worthy musical settings in which melody, rhythm, harmony, and form serve to highlight, delineate, undergird, and set aglow the words. Any anthem used must be suitable for the purposes of worship, to the acoustics of the sanctuary, to the limitations of the choir and organ, to the liturgical requirements, and to the understanding and appreciation of the congregation. The best anthems will be durable, simple in motive, beautiful and worshipful, and will help us to return to the function of music which Martin Luther stated as putting music upon the living and holy Word of God, therewith to sing, praise and honor the same, so that the beautiful ornament of music, brought back to its right use, may serve its blessed Maker and His Christian people.
Hymns Arranged as Anthems
The hymnal offers one of the richest and most inexpensive sources of anthem material. A hymn used as an anthem is an effective way of presenting it to the congregation with the view of having them sing the hymn at a later time. The following devices may be used to vary stanzas; the ways in which a hymn may be arranged are limited only by the imagination and musicianship of the director, the organist, and the choir. Certainly many commercial versions are less effective than arrangements made to fit a particular combination of voices.
1. SATB, with accompaniment either duplicating the voices or slightly embellished
2. SATB, without accompaniment
3. Other combinations (such as SAT, SAB, SSA) without accompaniment
4. All voices unison, with or without accompaniment
5. Men’s voices in unison
6. Women’s voices in unison
7. ATE sing the melody with S on a descant
8. SATB with S and T exchanging parts
9. SA or ST in duet form, using other voices to accompany or with instrumental accompaniment only
10. Unison with free organ accompaniment
11. Unison, with organ playing a hymn or choral prelude
12. SA, SAT, or SATB with solo voices for small ensemble effect B. Various voice combinations with instrumental descant (flute, violin, trumpet)
14. Various voice combinations with organ descant (flute 4′, flute 8′, trumpet, oboe)
15. Antiphonal effects
16. Use of a canon, or round (Such tunes as “orafenburg,” “Tanis’ Canon,” “Lasst Uns Erf reuen,” “Foundation”)
17. Congregation joining on selected stanzas, usually the last
18. Children’s choirs on melody or descant, or singing the soprano part in combination with adult voices (SA or ST)
19. Organ interludes and key changes for variety
This article is excerpted from Music and Worship in the Church written by Austin C. Lovelace and William C. Rice.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat, throw away the bones.”