Consider matters of musical style, theology, and the individual situation when choosing music for worship services

In a recent article Donald Hustad called for a philosophy of church music that is more than “a matter of aesthetics.” Such a philosophy is not easy to achieve. Prejudice must be divorced from taste, and both prejudice and taste must face art. Although art by its very nature is not authoritative, there are still certain time-honored aesthetic judgments that transcend taste. Generation after generation has found them true and has been ennobled through them.

Almost every age since Augustine has tried to establish a valid philosophy of church music. But most of such endeavor has been forgotten, and the need remains for what we may call a working philosophy of church music that will provide some principles for the more effective worship of God.

There are three main elements of such a philosophy: (1) pertinence to the situation in which music speaks; (2) a structure of theology based on the Bible; (3) the basic principles of musical style.

In the first place, church music should be pertinent to the situation in which it speaks. Congregations gather in churches for the worship of Almighty God, for prayer and the preaching and teaching of the Word, and for the celebration of the sacraments. The music used in church ought to be thoughtfully chosen, carefully rehearsed, and viewed as an offering to God. Music should fit its place in the service. The varying moods of worship, not only within the service itself but also from service to service, week in and week out, should be carefully considered. The object must be, not just to sway the congregation emotionally, but to be true to the particular biblical and gospel theme that forms the basis for the service.

At the outset, then, music demands a liturgy. To some evangelicals liturgy means set prayers, cold formality, and uninspired religion. Liturgy may indeed be all of these things. But before hastily condemning it, let us remember that any time Christians gather together to read Scripture, pray, and preach, they have performed a liturgy. Some liturgies are thoughtful and have age-old traditions; some simply grow because the same people say the same things in the same way Sunday after Sunday. Some liturgies are little more than patterns of procedure; yet all such patterns are surely liturgies, and all tend to become mere mouthings of words until they are vitalized by the Spirit.

Liturgy is much more than an order of service. Candles, vestments, acolytes, and multiple choirs singing responses are sometimes confused with liturgy. Liturgy is essentially theological, and every valid worship service should proclaim a theology. This fact may be a stumbling block to the church musician and his listeners. Matters of taste intrude, and music the choir director or the congregations like is sung regardless of what it says. So Calvinists find themselves listening to requiems with prayers for the dead, or to Latin texts calling for the intercession of saints. If the music is beautiful, the text is less binding than when spoken. The most fearful kind of familiarity may be taken with the Most High God, and, if it is done in a pretty manner, no one shudders. If the music is impressive and ennobling, it seems to serve as worship regardless of what the text says.

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It follows that both clergyman and musician should have a clear understanding of the theological intent of every service of worship and that each item of the service should aim at that intent. Many times congregations find themselves moved by familiarity with a great truth and the means chosen to communicate it in a particular service. But sometimes new and unfamiliar means may have to be learned if the witness is to be vital and powerful.

Every church musician who has planned a service with a minister who understands the theological meaning of worship knows what it means for him and his work and the people to be blessed. He sees music adding its voice to a service that can be a powerful avenue for God to communicate to man and man to God. As a spiritual language of praise and adoration, of supplication and invitation, music can become an active agent in proclaiming the Word. Music can fill the moments when late-comers are being seated or when the offering is being received. Although music at such times will be meditative or contemplative, it will not necessarily be soft and sweet.

Not only is liturgy helpful in making music pertinent; sometimes music without it is impertinent. The danger of making an anthem a performance is almost insurmountable without careful planning. Certain styles, often the best in musical art, may become sounding brass and tinkling cymbal without careful consideration of their place in the service. Many services with beautiful but inappropriate music would be better off without any music.

Hymns as well as anthems, responses, and preludes should all be fitting to the service. The music of the congregation as well as that of the choir and organist must be evaluated. And the denomination also should continually evaluate its music. It is encouraging that some major denominations are publishing new hymnals as often as each generation. Hymns included in the denominational books should be selected for their place in the witness of the church, and churches that rely upon their denominational hymnals use hymns best. Theological integrity prevents aberrations based upon individual prejudice or subjective experience.

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The second element to be considered in formulating a philosophy of church music is its theological structure. The authority for theology is not the works of theologians but the Bible. Orders of service should be based upon biblical patterns such as Isaiah 6:1–8 or the passage beginning at Luke 24:13. Scriptural language should be used in many portions of a service. The influence of such language lessens the possibility of man-centered worship. Music skillfully composed so as to enhance and expound a biblical passage brings depth to worship.

At first only scriptural texts were used in the music of worship. But very early, hymns such as the Te Deum found their way in. Later, the ceremony of the medieval church introduced non-scriptural sequences. The Reformation redressed the balance and brought a return to music based on scriptural texts. In recent days many varied texts have again appeared—some of them rich in biblical allusion, others with only a tenuous connection with Scripture, and still others with no connection at all.

Denominations have tried to control the use of hymns by publishing collections for their services. These are generally compendiums of Christian hymnody including Greek, Latin, German, French, and English hymns, and some from more recently evangelized areas of the world. In selecting tunes, denominational leaders need keen musical judgment to be able to sift true piety from mere sentiment. Long ago Augustine warned against becoming so engrossed in a tune that one ceases to hear the text.

Much of the best church music is based on biblical texts. Through the years the Church has been given many great musical settings of Scripture. The canticles used in the offices of morning and evening prayer have been set to music by many great composers. Some of these settings, such as Bach’s Magnificat, are too elaborate for ordinary worship, but others, such as Gustav Holst’s Short Te Deum, are suitable. One of the greatest composers upon biblical texts was Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), whose music is useful in small parishes. Schütz wrote for the small choirs available in churches whose members were involved in the Thirty Years’ War. Many of his biblical scenes (available today from various publishers) are masterly sermons in sound.

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Age is no respecter of art. Thus some great scriptural music is old and some contemporary. Some typical examples are as follows:

1. “Call to Remembrance” (Ps. 25:5, 6), by Richard Farrant (1530–1580).

2. “Who Shall Separate Us?” (Rom. 8:35–39), by Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672).

3. “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn” (Lam. 1:4, 5, 11, 12, 15, 16), by Michael Wise (1648–1687).

4. “Rejoice in the Lord Alway” (Phil. 4:4–7), by Henry Purcell (1658–1695).

5. “The Lord Will Not Suffer Thy Foot To Be Moved” (Ps. 121:3, 4), by J. S. Bach (1685–1750).

6. “O Taste and See How Gracious the Lord Is” (Ps. 34:8–10), by John Goss (1800–1880).

7. “Psalm 150” (“O Praise Ye the Lord”), by César Franck (1822–1890).

8. “Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars” (Amos 5:7, 8), by James H. Rogers (1857–1940).

9. “O How Amiable” (Ps. 84:1–4; Ps. 90:17), by Ralph Vaughn-Williams (1872–1958).

10. “As Many as Are Led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14, 17a; 1 Cor. 15:58; and Rom. 11:33, 36), by David McK. Williams (1887).

11. “Psalm 122” (“I Was Glad When They Said”), by Leo Sowerby (1895).

12. “Psalm 103” (“Bless the Lord, O My Soul”), by Isadore Freed (1900–1960).

13. “Psalm 126” (“When the Lord Turned Again”), by Ernst Krenek (1900).

14. “The Beatitudes” (Matt. 5:3–16), by Richard Gore (1909).

15. “Two Motets” (“O Lord God,” Ps. 94:1, 2; and “Why Art Thou Cast Down?,” Ps. 42:11), by Daniel Pinkham (1923).

One’s whole being is edified in praising God through the imaginative art of music as represented in these anthems. The main theme of “Call to Remembrance” seems almost to knock on the door for God’s attention. The childlike simplicity with which height and depth are represented in “Who Shall Separate Us?” and the bubbling joy of “When the Lord Turned Again” graphically illustrate the biblical words. The indignation against the proud and the marvelous musical description of pride in Daniel Pinkham’s first motet are vivid. In the face of such artistry, it is discouraging to hear people complain that the sound is not pleasing to their ears.

Not every church choir can sing all this music. Some of it is difficult. Yet several of these anthems are within reach of any four-part choir willing to make the effort to learn them. Moreover, very many other pieces of music equally beautiful and equally scriptural are available. With such riches to choose from, church musicians can always use the Bible as the basis of the anthems they present. “Back to the Bible” is a slogan quite capable of realization in the music of worship.

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Finally, consider some of the elements of musical style particularly suitable to church music. Any real aesthetics for church music must be in the music itself. Good church music is good music. Time teaches this, for some music lives and some dies. The surviving music we call good, and the dead, for the most part, we call bad. Various terms have been used to describe the quality that gives life to music. In an essay entitled “Church Music and Theology,” Eric Routley speaks of “newness” as a constant factor in all good music. Every time one hears it, he hears it as if for the first time. This imaginative and original element in music is essential; and when coupled with a biblical text, such music makes a new song unto the Lord whenever it is sung.

Yet this does not mean that only time-honored music should be sung in church. We have an obligation to use the music of today for the praise of God. As we come to know music of various styles and various ages, we learn to make judgments about music, judgments based upon a knowledge of styles and not only upon taste. In fact, even present-day music after one or two hearings may be criticized on the basis of whether it has a continuing “newness.”

Music has certain principles of composition that have served for a thousand years. Styles and forms have changed, but these principles remain unchanged. They belong to all styles; lasting musical art seems always to employ them. Among them are the contrapuntal devices that some good church music employs.

The use of church modes is sometimes considered a criterion for good church music. The beauties of plain song, the polyphonic art of the fifteenth century and much sixteenth-century music, the Reformation hymns of Lutheran and Calvinist, the folk carols over several hundred years, the folk hymns in Europe and in Asia, as well as the rich heritage from Negro and white in the mountain areas of our own country, are all modal. The rich writing of many complex musical structures is also essentially modal. Most of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century music that glows with intemperate emotion and sophisticated affectation is in the major mode (which is not in the church mode tradition). Interestingly enough, the great bulk of what Robert Stevenson has called “bargain basement” music is also major. Since the major mode is used in so much bad music, it should probably be used with care.

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The question of rhythm is more knotty. Some writers (Archibald Davison, for example) feel that such devices of rhythm as dotted notes and complex rhythmic patterns should be avoided in sacred music. Churches deeply rooted in ecclesiastical tradition, such as the Roman church and to some extent the Anglican church, have developed a musical art that emphasizes the unworldly. The best music in these traditions is essentially impersonal, and one important element in this lack of personality is a lack of conscious rhythm. On the other hand, Lutheran and Reformed churches emphasize the exposition of Scripture, and the thrust of their services is to make the Bible real. Hence their anthems are more personal and dramatic. In the hands of Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach, imaginative rhythmic device or rhythmic association is a strong factor in proclaiming the Gospel. Schütz’s setting of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican is a fine example of dramatic writing using rhythmic devices. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is full of rhythmic passages, and the lovely dance to which Christe eleison is set in the Mass in B minor is weighted with profound theological truth.

Excess is sin in music as in any other area. So some “Catholic” music becomes ascetic and irrelevant, and some “Protestant” music becomes so centered in Christian experience that it is all personal in its approach. In Schütz and Bach, even though the music with its strong rhythmic pulse is highly dramatic, the rhythmic patterns are determined by the accents of the text, and the rhythmic devices are inherent in the words themselves. With such a treasure as the Bible, why should we stray into poor music?

Sound itself is another criterion for good church music. It should be clear, precise, free, and full. William Scheide in an article in Theology Today (“What Should A Congregation Sing?,” July, 1963) suggests that the sound of the baroque organ is duplicated in the voices of the people. Whether voices imitate the organ or the baroque organ imitates voices is beside the point. A certain clear, free sound is necessary for the execution of the music of worship we have described. The sound must be clear and precise enough to distinguish the various voices in a polyphonic pattern. Many churches are quite resonant, and this kind of sound makes good use of such buildings. If the composer has done his job well, the music will sound best in such a setting.

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The height of emotionalism and sensationalism in the nineteenth century is characterized by mere bigness of sound. Alfred Einstein in Music in the Romantic Era suggests that the one element that ties all the diverse music of romanticism together is its big sound. The romantic voice using all the tricks of the musical stage for music with religious texts confuses church music.

In suggesting a theological approach, a use of biblical texts, and certain musical criteria as the basis of an aesthetic for church music, mere matters of taste have been avoided. Many styles can be approved under these criteria, and music from many centuries of the Christian era can be used in the worship of God. But the Spirit must move in the congregation to produce true worship. In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul exhorted the people to sing with melody in their hearts unto the Lord. This is the kind of vitality our Christian music needs. Our judgment needs to be discriminating to keep our music pure.

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