Posts Tagged 'Service Music'

Abraham Kuyper on Church Music

9780802863935The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) knew how to poke where it hurts when it comes to Reformed church music. But his words are an important reminder for church musicians in a variety of settings and styles:

The congregation had to sing, but in the north of Europe, where Calvinism was especially strong, the people as a rule sing neither in tune nor with accuracy, and neither do they excel in melodious voices.

They tried to correct this shortcoming in two ways–by introducing the organ, and by using a choir or precentor. Of course, it would have been most desirable if they could do without the organ. The pure singing of only human voices is far superior to organ music; the organ comes in to lead only when the singing falters. Leading of congregational singing can also be done by a choir or a precentor with great vocal power. Such precentors, however, can only rarely be found, and should they be found, they often exude their personality too much and thereby become a diversion. A choir is easily assembled, but a choir usually concentrates on the art, seldom on the spirit and contents, and soon the congregation, seduced by the beautiful choir, will keep silent in order to better listen to the singing of the choir. For that reason churches gave preference to organ music . . .

There is nothing objectionable about this organ music, provided that the church council makes sure that the organists do not try to push themselves to the fore. Their task is to lead, support, regulate, and promote the singing; the organ should never assume the right to let itself be heard. It has to serve the singing of the congregation and be dedicated to improve it, to elevate it, to inspire it, and to enter into its spirit. The organ must not overpower the song, but the song must be rendered all the more gloriously because of the organist’s support. When the organist seeks to serve himself and not the congregation and tries to attract attention to himself, the congregation is offended. Our great organists have always been able to avoid this evil; it is only the half-baked organists who, understanding neither the requirements of art nor the sacredness of the worship service, continually try fancy tricks for their own promotion.

Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship (Onze Eeredienst), edited by Harry Boonstra, translated by Harry Boonstra, Henry Baron, Gerrit Sheeres, and Leonard Sweetman (1911; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 56-57.

–MRK

“The Organ Portfolio”

Along with the electronic organ I have in my basement came a file box packed with organ music.  The previous owner of this organ, an accompanist for at least forty years at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church, had been a subscriber to Lorenz’s The Organ Portfolio since 1963.  This bi-monthly magazine contains about a dozen organ arrangements for prelude, offertory, and postlude in each issue.  Needless to say, I probably have enough organ music to last me well into my old age.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten a bit more familiar with the contents of this magazine.  Besides the musical entries, each issue usually includes an article on some aspect of organ playing—from technique to humor.  Especially in the earlier volumes, there are so many helpful tips and tidbits that I could probably find an entire college course in organ performance between its pages.

Since Lorenz is by no means a Reformed music company, the selection of The Organ Portfolio is sometimes weak when it comes to the psalms.  However, our organist made painstaking notes on the front pages of many of the arrangements, in which she marked instances of Psalter Hymnal tunes and included directions for adapting the music to our worship services, along with the dates on which she had played each piece.  On one page I found this formidable assortment (click to enlarge):

As you can plainly see, this is quite an extensive set of notes—and I didn’t even include the pencil marks within the score!  I’m so grateful to have not only this valuable set of organ music, but also the heritage and expertise of a seasoned organist at my disposal.  I’m sure it will not go to waste.

“So,” you might ask, “are you recommending that we all purchase subscriptions to The Organ Portfolio now?”  Perhaps not, but I’d still like to at least mention this resource.

After a bit of research on Lorenz’s website, I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that the quality of their music has generally waned over the past few decades.  From a glance at the 2011 Organ Portfolio index, one can notice that the publication’s selection of hymn tunes is limited and predictable—“Fairest Lord Jesus,” “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” &c.—while the magazine’s editors are fond of including myriads of virtually unknown pieces from modern organ composers.  (I consider this kind of music undesirable for reasons I explained in a previous post, “The Significance of Service Music.”)

On the other hand, if you’re willing to sort through the reams of music The Organ Portfolio entails, it’s entirely likely you’ll find some gems for preludes, offertories, and postludes.  For instance, you could repurpose “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” as “Jehovah Reigns in Majesty” (Psalm 99) and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” as “Within Thy Temple, Lord” (Psalm 48).  Some of the Bach chorales based on psalms or hymns could serve as exquisite “special occasion” service music.  And regardless of their suitability for corporate worship, all of the selections are excellent practice pieces.

My recommendation, then, is simply this: Check your organ bench or the music storage area at your church for back issues of The Organ Portfolio or some of its sibling publications, The Organist and The Sacred Organ Journal.  If you can find a few, you’ll probably be able to mine some valuable treasure from their depths—especially if they’re older issues.  I close with an excerpt from an essay by L. N. Porter in the April, 1965 issue of The Organ Portfolio, entitled “Feeling Versus Technique.”

Music that the members like and understand may be the right kind, but what feelings does it stir up?  If it is aspiration, exaltation, contemplation, or other such notable attitudes that lend themselves to worship, well and good.  If on the other hand, it is earthly sentiment, physical ease, associations with nonreligious experience, then the music is not fulfilling its function as an inspirer of worship.  Yes, this is a very difficult line to define; no wonder that some of our austere denominations frown on any music with ‘feeling’!…

Technique does have its place, and an important one it is!  If our fingers and feet are not well enough trained in organ technique to play correctly service music such as hymns, anthem accompaniments, and organ solos, we shall make mistakes, we shall fumble, and what will be the result?  We shall make the congregation conscious of the music as an end in itself instead of as a means of leading people to worship.  One might go so far as to say that the best church music is that which the congregation never hears, for it has served to elevate their thoughts to heights above our present level, beyond our senses.  Poor technique, with its inevitable mistakes and slovenly style, will keep the congregation earth-bound.

So, I still urge you to work to improve your technique, for it is when these routines are mastered that we can best fulfill our function as a church organist—the all-important function of leading the congregation to worship.

–MRK

The Significance of Service Music

“I really enjoyed your prelude this morning.”  For a church musician, there’s seldom a more encouraging comment than this one.  Unfortunately, such statements are often followed by a disturbing question: “What was it?”

What happens when the accompanist’s selections for service music are unknown to the rest of the congregation?  And how can preludes, offertories, and postludes be chosen with care so that God is glorified and his people are edified?  I’ll attempt to address both of these questions, but in order to do so, we must first consider the fundamental role of service music.

The purpose of service music

Background filler?  Virtuosic showpiece?  Thoughtful meditation?  Whatever you expect from a prelude, that’s what you’ll get.  A prelude that functions merely as background music will have little bearing on the worship service, quietly asking to be ignored amidst the hubbub before the start of worship.  On the other end of the spectrum, a showy solo will only distract the congregation from the rest of the service.  Instead, I would submit to you that there is only one valid purpose of the prelude: to prepare the church for worship.

During a conference on Biblical worship (which I’ve previously referenced here on URC Psalmody), Rev. Spencer Aalsburg of the Sioux Falls URC explained the role of the prelude this way:

The prelude is a time to sit and meditate on what’s about to take place in the worship of God, and we prepare for what is going to be the most important hour and a half of the week.…It’s going to involve continued preparation.…This isn’t a time of elevator music, but it’s a work of preparing, meditating on what’s going to happen.  It’s not an opportunity to talk to those around you; we’ll have plenty of time to do that after the service.  This is the time to prepare yourself to meet with the living God who made heaven and earth—this thrice-holy God who has revealed himself in his Word.

As a rule, offertories, postludes, and other service music, though arguably less significant than the prelude, should serve the same general function: complementing the rest of the service.  How, then, should this philosophy of worship affect an accompanist’s musical choices?

Planning service music

If you’ve ever been a regular congregational accompanist, you’ve probably shared this experience: Faced with the need for a last-minute substitution, a sudden alteration in the order of worship, or an unexpectedly late starting time for the service, you’ve been forced to throw together a desperate bunch of music for a prelude.  It’s probably happened to all of us, and it’s something that simply can’t be avoided.

But what happens under the normal circumstances of accompanying worship?  Is our service music just as last-minute, just as disjointed, just as unhelpful to the congregation?  I would contend that in order to help the church prepare for worship properly, all service music must be approached with thought, care, and a good ear.

An extremely important (but often overlooked) implication of this principle is that our service music must be intelligible to the congregation.  One of the Reformation’s most dramatic departures from the Roman Catholic tradition was its rendering of psalms and hymns into the common tongue for the first time in centuries.  Why?  The Reformers realized that church music could only edify the congregation when the listeners realized its true meaning.  In his preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1543, John Calvin states:

As it is a thing much required in Christianity, and one of the most necessary, that every one of the faithful observe and uphold the communion of the Church in his neighborhood, frequenting the assemblies which are held both on Sunday and other days to honor and serve God: so also it is expedient and reasonable that all should know and hear that which is said and done in the temple, thus receiving fruit and edification.

How then can we select service music that is intelligible to our church members?  There are several implications of this teaching, but most importantly, the music we choose should possess clear, definitively Christian lyrics (even if it is not sung), or at the very least an unequivocal Christian significance.

Does this rule proscribe compositions by the great masters, like Bach or Handel, as prelude selections?  I leave that question in your judgment (feel free to respond with your own thoughts on the matter below), but I would submit that in today’s American Reformed worship, the best choices for service music are simple arrangements of psalms and hymns.  This is such an important point that I’ll emphasize it again:

In the worship tradition of the United Reformed Churches in North America, the music that is most intelligible and edifying to congregations is found in the psalm and hymn arrangements of the Psalter Hymnal.

Such a statement may seem counter-intuitive.  How could something as simple as a psalm tune be the most fitting piece for a prelude?  How could the last stanza of number 95 be perfectly sufficient for an offertory?  How could the best postlude consist of something as ordinary as number 36?  The answer, in short, is that when the congregation shares in the significance of the service music, they are edified and God is glorified.

Preparing service music

Of course, we shouldn’t veer too far in the other direction by offering only bland renditions of randomly chosen Psalter Hymnal tunes.  The music should be selected carefully to match the theme of the service and sermon, and played beautifully and musically with thoughtful attention to the words.  By far, these are the most significant steps towards truly God-glorifying service music.

There is, however, one pitfall that can’t always be avoided: Not every congregant will be familiar with every tune in the Psalter Hymnal.  To some, the Genevan tune of Psalm 84 might be just as meaningless as a Beethoven sonata.  Thus, I’d like to conclude this article by sharing a surprisingly simple solution we’ve developed here at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.

We call it “Musical Notes.”  It’s nothing more than a weekly bulletin insert.  What it contains are the lyrics to each of the songs the musicians have selected for prelude, offertory, and postlude, along with an explanation of how they relate to the sermon text.  (I’ve uploaded a sample insert which you can view here.)  As the service music is played, the congregation can follow along and quietly meditate on the texts in their bulletins.  While an innovation like this requires a bit of extra work on the musicians’ part, it’s well worth the added significance it lends to the service music.  Have you discovered similar methods to draw your church’s attention to the selections being played?

The service music in your church may slowly travel a path of minor adjustments and small improvements, but don’t lose heart.  As you work towards this goal, comments like “I really enjoyed your prelude this morning” will begin to take on a new meaning, for each step towards the greater edification of your congregation is one step further in the glorification of God.

–MRK


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