Thursday, 6 September 2012

My (big) problem with music in church

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Rant alert...

There are many problems with music in church and at many levels.

The problem arises because I am a pretty 'musical' person by nature; which is to say discriminating about music: I simply cannot help it. I am never neutral about music - if not positive my response will be negative; if I do not like music I find it uncomfortable, painful, sometimes almost unbearable. At any rate I cannot ignore it, much as I often wish to. 

Problems with church music:

1. The music is bad. This is the norm.

2. The music is arbitrary - such as Gregorian chant and the like. i.e. the tune does not fit the words, indeed there is no discernible tune.

3. The music is 'good', but I don't like it (e.g. many old hymns are just depressing).

4. The music is good but the performance is unsatisfactory (for example, listening to a church organ is not really a very pleasant experience; choirs may be bad in bad ways - I'm not so worried about competence and polish, but there are bad ways of being bad like warbling).

5. The music is good, and well played, but showing-off. Egotistical. Un-Christian - this is common in the expert choirs of cathedrals and the like.

6. The music is good, but does not fit the words - in the sense that the feel of the music and the feel of the words clash - like the 'sacred' music of most great classical composers.

7. The music is good but anachronistic to the words. 16th century language and 19th century music especially...
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So what are we left with?

Not much.

Book of Common Prayer (essentially 16th century) words sung to 16th century English music by a sincere and competent choir without an organ...

Pretentious? Moi? 

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21 comments:

dearieme said...

Do you know this? rather fine.

http://www.allmusic.com/album/jazz-at-vespers-mw0000095996

James Higham said...

I don't find Come Thou Almighty King, Jesu Joy, O Come Oh Come Emmuel and others depressing - they can be quite uplifting played well.

bgc said...

@d - I can't get anything to play from that link. I'm sure it would be good music, qua music - but there is a serious anachronism problem wrt the words for me.

@JH - yes, I'm sure if I was allowed to pick my favourite music for church, I would have no problem with it - sadly, nobody asks me what hymns (or, ahem, worship songs) they will be featuring, so my preferences are irrelevant.

Thursday said...

5. The music is good, and well played, but showing-off. Egotistical. Un-Christian - this is common in the expert choirs of cathedrals and the like.

Absolutely. A big problem in African-American gospel, which used to be one of my favourite genres, but which I have a hard time listening to now. Also, a big problem in country/bluegrass gospel.

6. The music is good, but does not fit the words - in the sense that the feel of the music and the feel of the words clash - like the 'sacred' music of most great classical composers.

Mozart's Great Mass, which is lovely, but is mostly about how sexy he can make the soprano sound.

The Crow said...

Nearly all music bothers me, because it wrests calmness from my internal workings and replaces it with noise to the accompaniment of somebody else's rhythm.
It may as well be a car-alarm for all the good it does me. It has a lot in common with torture.

Hence I persuaded myself to part with $400 for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, merely to find peace whenever I leave the peace of my own environment to get things done in the outer world.
Expensive technology to counter technology.
Only humans could do this stuff :)

dearieme said...

Here's George Lewis's style. In modest doses I find it charming.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8_YvP1la6E

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQnkhv-M5gc&feature=related

dearieme said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnjfP5b6FOw&feature=related

Anonymous said...

Professor Charlton,

I agree with your sentiment. As a Lutheran, we don't have the regulative principle of worship. But the somewhat poor quality of our worship music depresses me from time to time.

Perhaps the strict Calvinists who only chant the Pslams have a good point.

Samson J. said...

My big problem with church music is that I have never understood the purpose of it. Well, that is, I love organ music for putting me in a serious/sober/spiritual/"church" kind of mood, but other than that, singing has always struck me as kind of pointless and silly. I genuinely don't know why we do it.

Thursday said...

Samson:

Doing something in unison with other believers, like singing, builds community feeling and can give one a sense of the transcendent coming among us.

Not sure about musical performances though, most of which are not helpful in church, though there have been exceptions.

bgc said...

@Thursday.

True enough. I think the general view is that chanting psalms was the original form of Christian worship.

But if this is to be done by all, then the chant needs to be on one note, I would have thought (so one can focus on the words - and anyway a monotone chant sounds better than the apparently rambling meanderings of 'Gregorian' chant).

bgc said...

I should note that, in general, the Eastern Orthodox chant or sing everything in the liturgy (except the 'sermon' - but I think traditionally there would not be a sermon unless a Bishop was present, as only Bishops have authority to teach).

For reasons presumably of my own corruption, I find this hard to take. Also (and especially) the machine-gun-rapid Orthodox delivery of the words of the liturgy (which is perhaps itself a modern corruption, to try and keep the services down to a length acceptable to the modern churchgoer).

All I can say is that if you have not yourself experienced a fully spoken Anglican service (with responses) using either the Book of Common Prayer or 'Traditional Language' - delivered with the measured care for language typically (although not, of course, invariably) exhibited by traditionalist Anglican clergy...

well, you may not have experienced what a spoken liturgy can do and can be.

And that is to say something so moving, so overwhelming, that you wonder why other denominations and most Anglicans can bear to deprive themselves of such a blessing.

stephens said...

Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere", especially the 1965? Choir of Kings College, Cambridge recording, is very uplifting/spiritual.
Pity it is too technical to be performed in most Churches.

bgc said...

@stephens - it is of course a gorgeous piece of music, qua music, and I thought so long before I was a Christian. I was really considering how music is used in ordinary churches in the normal liturgy - rather than in special performances by experts.

My focus is Christianity rather than art - it is very easy (e.g. somewhere like King's College Cambridge) for the art to take over, and make a service into a concert - make a Christian experience into a 'spiritual' experience (not the same) - or convert worship into aesthetics.

Ariston said...

You should read Stravinsky's Poetics of Music; it gives a very good argument for why your second complaint (especially that the music does not fit the words) is a positive thing. (Stravinsky reacts against the idea that music should be, essentially, pathetic, but does so through a discussion of the perception of time.)

bgc said...

@Ariston - I would regard Stravinsky as one of the prime destroyers of Western classical music - and so would be surprised to agree with him on anything of importance.

This is what I am talking about:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1jXT8k7zWU

Word painting beyond words.

Samson J. said...

@Thursday:

Not sure about musical performances though, most of which are not helpful in church

Well, I disagree - I find listening to sacred music to be very spiritually uplifting. Admittedly there isn't much Palestrina or Gregorian chant going on these days, but even my wife's choir does great things for me.

By contrast, I don't get anything out of singing the same dumb songs as everyone else and wondering why we're all doing it. Anyway, it doesn't really matter, 'cause it ain't changing anytime soon, certainly not on my account...

Ariston said...

I strongly disagree with your statement, unless, by "Western classical music" you mean simply that as it developed after the 17th c. Even then, if Stravinsky was a chief destroyer, he was a nearly un–followed builder of something old & new.

Stravinsky was not a "modern" composer in the way we now think of them; we do not like "modern" poetry, but the consummate modernists in English—Pound & Eliot—are willingly admitted into the canon by artistic conservatives.

Stravinsky is misunderstood because of his association with later musicians and composers who claimed him as an influence while showing little of it musically and absolutely none intellectually. Stravinsky, rather than being a destroyer of the Western tradition, was rather trying to return it something not simply pre–Romantic (though he had a lot of hatred for Wagner), but even pre–Classical— he was such a firm reactionary, he felt Haydn and Mozart were far too emotional. As he aged, he came closer & closer to forming what—in many ways—sounds like a direct successor of medieval music; this is especially noticeable in his few church compositions: http://youtu.be/qIOO_4qejzw

(The irony here is that, in Russian Orthodoxy, atheistic composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are still celebrated, but Stravinsky is barely noticed!)

The only composer who I would say has taken Stravinsky's lessons (and then, improved upon them) is Arvo Pärt, who makes sublime music: http://youtu.be/f1CNNf9iU9Y

The best innovators of the 20th Century worked to recover pre–modern art and bring it into our world; Tolkien was the chief, of course.

Ariston said...

Like nearly anyone reacting to an abuse, Stravinsky was often too bombastic in his attack on the modern tradition in music; he was more willing to retain "the best" in a conscious matter later in his career— part of the problem with his legacy is that we often stop with the "The Rite of Spring" and the story of the "riot" that accompanied its premiere.

Stravinsky on what we more commonly think of modern arts:

‘It is the transcendent (or 'abstract' or 'self-contained') nature of music that the new so called concretism—Pop Art, eighteen-hour slices-of-reality films, musique concrete—opposes. But instead of bringing art and reality closer together, the new movement merely thins out the distinction.’ (Emphasis mine.)

I find this statement of his to be a fairly perfect expression of "the model" of music— that is, the angelic music sung before God:

‘Music's exclusive function is to structure the flow of time and keep order in it.’

That is, music has a fundamental relation to the nature of Creation.

bgc said...

@Ariston - well, since this is my blog, I am not in any way obliged to defer to the standard or canonical view on things!

"Stravinsky was not a "modern" composer in the way we now think of them;"

But of course he was! He and Schoenberg are the main innovators/ destroyers of the 20th century.

" we do not like "modern" poetry, but the consummate modernists in English—Pound & Eliot—are willingly admitted into the canon by artistic conservatives."

Nonsense! - real reactionaries, like CS Lewis, regard them as destroyers, not conservatives. 'Conservatives' are merely slowed-up radicals.

"Stravinsky is misunderstood because of his association with later musicians and composers who claimed him as an influence while showing little of it musically and absolutely none intellectually."

They took his spirit, accurately.

"Stravinsky, rather than being a destroyer of the Western tradition, was rather trying to return it something not simply pre–Romantic (though he had a lot of hatred for Wagner), but even pre–Classical— he was such a firm reactionary, he felt Haydn and Mozart were far too emotional."

But that is nuts. Stravinsky replaced emotion by cynicism; he subverted the baroque, soured it, twisted it.

"As he aged, he came closer & closer to forming what—in many ways—sounds like a direct successor of medieval music; this is especially noticeable in his few church compositions"

I had the experience of trying to sing some of Stravinsky's sacred music - it was beyond my ability, firstly because it was impossible to predict (by musical logic) what the next note was or who far one needed to move to reach it, so one needed to be a perfect sight reader with perfect pitch.

Secondly I never knew whether I was singing it correctly because it sounded equally awful either way.

I got away with it for a few weeks because I was sitting next to an ex Cambridge choral scholar, but when he missed a week and I was left isolated to try and do the tenor line I realized I had just been copying him, lagging a little, and so had to quit.

Ariston said...

Lewis was hardly a reactionary; his theological books, for example, are thoroughly a product of post–19th c. Protestantism. The most reactionary view of Lewis's was his neoplatonism, but that is a trend of the Renaissance which was vital to the modern condition. If you wish to talk about rewinders, that's probably the extreme. (In any case, I do not believe one can "go home again"; Tolkien—for example—may have been trying to recover something lost, but he was an innovator in the motion of doing it.)

I have sang Stravinsky's music as well, and found nothing terribly difficult about it compared to—let's say—Gregorian or (especially) Byzantine chant. Chant is more about the structure of time & space than it is about the expression of the text, what we now think of as "musical logic" is the bag of chord progression tricks connected to the feeling of pieces that we have grown used to. (As an instructor in church music I know says, "ah! that minor third! it gets me!")

I love some classical music (Mozart's "Great Mass in C Minor" and "Don Giovanni" are my particular favorites in that tradition), but I do not believe it makes up the core of the Western tradition; it was a late outgrowth that worked largely within the realm of genius. It is enormously hard to write and perform in a musical manner within that tradition, which is why it was so easily destroyed; the various cacophonists of the 20th c were taking the Romantic/late–Classical trend to its logical conclusion: Sheer bombast, feeling, and ego.

There is a tie between modern (as in post–renaissance) art and modern politics— just as there is between modern science or philosophy and modern politics. If one seeks to question one, I believe they'd best question the others.