Monday, May 01, 2006

Musica Sacra Journal

The new edition of Sacred Music Journal is available for download. This issue is entitled A New Beginning for Sacred Music.
The complete issue is available here:


scribe said...

A quote from the article:
"Music has a principal role, since it expresses that sense of the sacred and sustains it through time."

This is true, but sacred music is supposed to be the dialogue of worship. Where it is not a dialogue, it is in danger of becoming a concert. Too many of the high churches have classical concerts, while the evangelical churches have rock concerts, but neither is forming the dialogue for worship. It somehow distances itself from the whole attitude of worship while worshipping at the altar of aesthetics.

Ray said...

Yes Scribe, that is an excellent point, and as an instrumentalist something I've struggled with for years. When I play my trombone am I merely entertaining or am I adding to the worship? When the choir sings, are they adding to the sense of worship or merely entertaining. And coming from a non-liturgical church that uses neither classical nor rock music, it becomes even grayer.

I guess the conclusion I've come to is that music is a gift from God for our enjoyment and can be used as a communication tool. If I play a familiar hymn as a trombone solo and it directs the congregation's thoughts toward God, then I believe I have risen above mere entertainment. But, the instrumentalist who plays a song including all kinds of ornamentation, double/triple tonguing and fast runs just to show off their technique I believe leans toward the entertainment side.

I believe the determining factor of whether or not music is worship or entertainment is found in the hearts of the congregation and the musicians. If my purpose as a musician is to demonstrate my ability then I am entertaining. If the congregation is wrapped up in the elements of the music, pretty melody, lush harmony, rousing rhythms, then they are being entertained.

My choir has been working an a piece entitled "My Eternal King", text from a 17th C. Latin poem and music by Jane Marshall. It is powerful. It starts off in hushed tones, "My God I love Thee". Then goes on, "Not because I hope for heav'n thereby, Nor yet because who love Thee not Must die eternally". It is excellent literature. At the conclusion of our rehearsal this afternoon we came very close to an A+ performance. The choir actually sang not just notes, but also the words with meaning. And the music is a perfect marriage with the text. The song concludes with, "...Solely because Thou art my God and my Eternal King." Starting mf and swelling to fff on a nice Db chord with Sopranos singing a beautiful high Ab. Usually, when we stop from singing for whatever reason it is a signal for people to chatter; not this time. After a few moments of silence, Pastor commented that the text was powerful. I fought back the tears, and it appeared others did too. I have written earlier that some elements have wanted us to go more contemporary, some of whom are in my choir. This song ably demonstrates what worship music is all about. It is tender, it is moving, it soars to heaven. And it brings us before the face of God. I have waited 30 years to conduct it.

Michael Dodaro said...

Most of the music we do at Trinity is liturgical and in some sense a dialogue between the celebrant and the congregation. On Good Friday we did Requiem by Schutz that was mostly monologue, but the texts were profound and anybody who was following them engaged eternal questions.
Saturday evening I sang for the funeral of a man I didn't know but who had recently died at about 60 of Alzheimer’s disease. We opened the service with Onward Christian Soldiers. Then I sat down to listen to the comments of the family. Their comments put many things in perspective. It was disturbing to listen and then have to sing a song that I didn't know very well and that was in the style of many of the hymns I've sung at Catholic services recently. Maybe you know it: "On Eagles Wings".
The accompaniment was not very well crafted musically. I had trouble with it in the rehearsal just before the service, so my heart was pounding in the interval before I had to sing. I thought about what the song had to say in this context. It must have held some meaning for the family, because had they requested it. It’s a psalm setting and a nice tune, but not profound in the sense of the Schutz requiem or even in the formal dignity of our liturgy. But I thought, this is a hopeful moment in the service, and I felt strong in my own faith at the time and tried to communicate it. "He will raise you up on eagles's wings; bear you on the breath of dawn; make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand." It came off pretty well. I think it communicated hope in a setting that wasn’t feeling very hopeful to that point. Music at a funeral is a strange element, but it often works.
I don’t know if that is what you mean by dialogical Karen, but I’m interested in hearing more about dialogue in worship. I prefer liturgical worship because it puts the emphasis on the elements of the mass instead of on the sermons and whatever else might be thrown in to a church service these days; guys riding in on motorcycles or what ever.
In the articles by William Mahrt, there is a lot about music as a dialogue between the congregation and God.

scribe said...


I have noticed that the whole cycle of Orthodox liturgies is conducted as a dialogue put to music--almost like a classic Greek drama with three actors--God, the priest (who speaks for God and also represents the people of God), and the Choir (the people). The whole thing is interactive.

It only took me a few liturgies to see that the whole liturgical process is a dialogue, but it has taken many liturgies for me to begin to hear how deep this dialogue can go. The words are very often rich in symbolism where it takes a Bible passage and interprets it, very poetic (even in the clumsy English translations) and it becomes a perfect devotional blend with the music, which is always ethereal. The music direction must follow the tenor of the words, that is, the mood the music sets must be sensitive to the import of the words--hushed for humble and prayerful, triumphant and joyful when God triumphs, etc. I've heard it said by choir directors that Orthodox music must be directed much differently from Western Christian music. Orthodox music (in its proper setting) must never be conducted as a concert, but as a prayer.

The 17th century Latin poem set to music I would really like to hear. I'm very fond of the settings by Ralph Vaughn Williams of George Herbert's poems. The poems of the Metaphysical Poets of the 16th century are very beautiful literature and several English composers have set them to music. You can find most of them on the EMI label. They make great devotional music.

But even these lovely poems/hymns/anthems are still not the dialogues I hear in Orthodox music. Perhaps it's because when I hear them I'm only hearing one half of the dialogue, the part that represents the devotion of the believer.

scribe said...


After your choir sang that 17th century poem, did any change their way of thinking about worship music? Are they re-thinking the issue of bringing CCM in your church as worship music now that they've heard what worship music can really sound like?

I will give some more thought about this business about dialogue in worship. I saw on Turner Classic Movies last week "the Jazz Singer" with Al Jolsen. If you remember it was the first talkie The story was about a young Jewish man who wanted to be a jazz singer instead of a cantor in his father's synagogue. The film was mostly a silent film with several interludes of synchronized sounds when there was singing. There was one scene that was very striking when the father and the congregation is singing in the synagogue--it was a beautiful scene and to me it showed a dialogic form of worship.

I think Al Jolsen gave up too much by becoming a jazz singer.

Ray said...

Scribe, are you familiar with the Herbert poem, The Call, that Williams set to music? I love it. I play it all the time on my trombone continually working on the nuances of the music tying in with the text.

Ray said...

Scribe, I realized I didn't answer your one question. We actually have been working on that piece off and on since last fall. Back then, the reaction was negative, some thought it was too boring. The most vocal member, an alto - can't trust them altos, quit the choir soon afterward. Since then, the choir has found that when sung well, the music is full of emotion and meaning. A little digression, rock music has primarily an emotional appeal to people. What I try to emphasize is that music like this also has a strong emotional appeal, only in the proper context. It is very satisfying seeing the lights come on in people's heads when they discover something new, at least new to them. Apparently one of the big concerns was the tempi the pastor used when leading congregational singing on Sunday mornings. He tends to select stately hymns and would lead them in a slow tempo as befitting the nature of the text and the music. I've visited churches where they sing hymns at a very quick tempo - an alla breve toe tapping tempo - that comes all out all garbled, the music goes by so quickly no one has a clue what they are singing. Our pastor was trying to emphasize the understanding of what we sing. Some thought his tempos were so slow that it was boring. Stop and think about that for a minute - the music was boring because it was sung too slowly; obviously, there focus was on the emotional appeal of the music and not on the meaning of the text. Instead of the music being supportive of the text, it became the focal point in their view. They wanted our pastor to lead the songs in a fast, rousing, toe tapping, hand clapping tempo, one that would have a stronger emotional appeal and thus make church more entertaining.

I haven't heard any complaints in months.

scribe said...


I believe I have heard "The Call", but I'm not sure. Who was the composer?

Regarding tempo, if one of our less competent choir leaders leads the choir in singing, often they go too slow. Most Orthodox music is slow anyway, so if we're dragging, we're really dragging. Feels like we're caught in a time warp where everything is elongated.

Our chanting of kontakia and troparia tends to be fast, mainly because we're chanting in English music texts that were written for Greek or Slavonic. English tends to be very cluttered with prepositions and articles, so it makes our chanting sound jumpy when it's not meant to be so. What we need are new English translations and/or some adjustment to the chant music to accomodate English.

Sounds like your church has prefers a diet of happy-clappy music. It's good that you got them to consider something else--too bad that alto wasn't willing to learn.

Ray said...

The music to The Call was written by Ralph Vaugh Williams. I also play "Silent Noon" quite often.

There was just a small contigent led by this alto who were complaining and wanted livelier music. A thought just struck me, well written music can be complex is structure and therefore requires more effort to learn. Simple happy music = easy believism. Complex music = expended effort on the part of the believer.