Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Music in church? Unaccompanied choir, organ, guitars, drums?


One of the problems - and it is a real and permanent problem - about music in church, is that it is divisive: I mean that people have very strongly differing opinions on the matter.

I can't see how it could ever be otherwise: who is indifferent about music?

I am personally one of those fairly highly musical people (something between, say, the 95-98 centile - high in appreciation compared with average, but certainly not among the very highest) who has such strong musical likes and dislikes, that I would rather hear nothing at all than music I dislike: music I dislike can be very painful, very aversive: dysphoric.


So I can never honestly say that I like church music: because most of it I don't.

I find most modern (19th century onward) English church music fussy, prissy, show-offy. I generally dislike most of the the stuff purveyed in English Cathedrals and Oxbridge colleges (e.g. on BBC Radio 3 choral evensong) - dislike it pretty strongly in fact.

Most of it seems to me a display concert for jaded palates - far from the idea of musical worship.


I am even picky about the specific music I like: for example, among English Tudor church music I like most of Thos Tomkins, some of Tallis, Weelkes+,  not so much of Byrd (yes, I know Byrd is supposed to be the best). Although I am always happy with the general sound of this stuff.


In general I do not like church organs to accompany singing - and this goes back to childhood: I find this usage of the organ to be turgid and dreary. (Harmoniums are worse.).

Indeed the miserable droning of church hymns accompanied by organ is my abiding memory of 'Christianity' as a child. I enjoyed singing hymns and carols in school assembly, accompanied by piano - but I remember feeling actually angry (aged about 7) at the sluggish and lifeless singing of these same hymns or carols in church.  

Yet I will happily listen to Buxtehude, Bach or Handel played on solo organ - for hours on end!

(Organs replaced mini string and wind bands in rural English churches during the late 1800s, as described in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree. I'm pretty sure I would have preferred the bands.)


What about 'worship songs' accompanied by guitars, drums, electric piano etc?

Well, I don't like them either!

But perhaps mainly because the words and music are never sublime, but banal.


But I would say that - on the whole - I would regard the piano and electric bass guitar as better instruments for accompanying church singing than the organ: much better.

Indeed the combination of amplified piano and bass would be just what is needed for the purpose: providing reinforcement to melody harmonic infill, rhythm, and a nice comfy bass cushion to sit upon!


+ - Just in case anybody has not come across Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), he wrote the following setting of 'When David Heard' - suffice to say that no greater short piece of music has ever been written by anybody ever.

(Equally great? Yes of course - but none better.)




stephens said...

Being a traditionalist I tend to go to the early service with the older folks. It saves me from the loud band which tends to overpower any vocals in the late service.
Piano does indeed seem best for spanning the generation gap.
Organ is best reserved for Bach's Toccata and possibly weddings!
Music seems less divisive amongst congregations when they put on a show/musical for the public, as the whole range of participants can usually be observed enjoying themselves.

Donald said...

This is why I enjoy the Orthodox approach of no accompaniment. It keeps the songs protected from abuse and proven over time. There are quite a few Protestant hymns of the 17th and 18th cent that hit my fancy, but many can be sung without accompaniment. I also like how it stakes out Sacred music which has a different mode of being than popular/contemporary music. And you never have to put up with the terrible abomination of modern evangelical type rock/pop/rap or feel guilty about listening to and enjoying secular music.

Kristor said...

Weelkes is great, I so agree. If you love that piece, then you should check out Gesualdo. I'm thinking particularly of his Tenebrae service. The Kings Singers have a pellucid recording of it.

Much less chromatic, but to my ears perhaps among the most sublime motets ever written is Ave Maria, by Josquin. The Hilliard Ensemble's recording is itself one of the finest performances of ancient music I have ever heard.

Matthew C. said...

This isn't church music (per se) but I find it profoundly beautiful:


I thought you might like it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - Thanks. We actually have a copy of this CD.