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.)