Archive for category Congregational Song

Why Do We Like the Music We Do?

Why do we like the music we do? Here’s my story that I think helps me to understand why I like what I like.

The music I like a great deal is classical organ music, but I have also learned to appreciate many other kinds of music. I also like piano music more than ever. And you might find me listening to jazz or blue grass, and many other kinds of music which I have learned to appreciate because I thought it would be a good idea to discover other kinds of music, just as my wife and I have explored many different kinds of food.

But here’s a story of importance to me. The first half dozen years of my life I had never heard a radio; it was war time, and we had no electricity until a year or two after the war was ended. Then we received the gift of a radio, one of the first little radios that Philips made when such things became possible again. My parents received this from a number of Jewish people who had found refuge in our home, or who had moved to safe houses after first arriving at our home. We lived in a fairly large place which housed our home and dad’s bake shop and store, so there was room for people to come to our place while waiting placement elsewhere.

People continued to be poor; but a number of refugees pooled their resources and in due time we get this little radio, if I remember correctly it was in a brown Bakelite case. I was naughty one day soon after we got this little radio, and turned it on. A great miracle happened! Sound came out of it, sound such as I had never heard before. Organ music, a live concert from the “Grote Kerk” in Leeuwarden, Friesland, the Netherlands. I am almost certain the player was George Stam, who eventually became a leader in the world of organ music in the Netherlands. I have a record of his, still.

What I heard had a great, powerful impact on me. I was a boy of perhaps 7 years, and I was hooked. Soon I was taking organ lessons, actually it was on an harmonium. But I learned to read the music, although practicing was not my thing. And before long I also asked the organist of our village church if I could watch him play the organ some Sunday. So one day I also was allowed to go to the organ loft with him.

Now my guess is that most of us will have a moment in our lives, when we are young, when we become aware that we are hearing something we had not noticed before. Music! Whatever music we heard for that first time, so I think, has a key component in our preferred music. The music we hear in our home (or wherever we were when we first really heard) is likely to set what we think is good.

What are people today most likely to hear first of all?  Country and western? Easy listening? Rock? I think it will not likely be any form of classical music, although cartoons kids watch on TV often do have classical music as background music. Or is the music that forms the sound track of games? Clearly the first music in a large majority of people is not any form of classical music, and when people do hear classical music, it is not likely to be organ music.

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The Congregation Sings

Rev. Allan C. Groen, M.Div., S.T.M.
Some congregations are known for their wonderful congregational singing. They value singing together as profoundly important for their spiritual life, often as important as a sermon, possibly even more so. People who cannot themselves sing, often appreciate being in the presence of a singing congregation.
When people express frustration with the singing, they are talking about something that matters greatly to them, they should be heard, not dismissed out of hand. Chosing music and leading the singing are tasks with profound pastoral dimensions. Do the songs we sing in church give voice to the hopes and dream, the joys and sorrows of the congregation? Perhaps pastors and musicians could ask the members of their congregation about that from time to time. Or you could ask people to suggest songs they would love to sing from time to time.
People can receive the message by different means. For many, the spoken word through preaching works well. For others, private conversations work better, and for still others, they hear the message most powerfully through choirs and singing.
Those who chose the music will sing during our services do so with good intent, if not always so wisely. Someone decides that this particular song is good to sing during this service. It may be a new song, or an old one. I have made mistakes in the songs I have chosen for worship. My fondness for new hymns sometimes got in the way of the familiar which the congregation would have preferred to sing. And from leading worship for nearly 50 years, I have learned that others make that kind of mistake, too. 
There are, as far as I can see, three different categories of religious music that are helpful to bear in mind.
  • There is Christian music written for the concert hall. Concert halls have not been around for so long, perhaps 200 or so years. There has been a good deal of Christian music written for performances that requires resources most congregations do not have. You can listen to a great deal of that music on youtube. Here are a few 20th century composers you might look for: James McMillan, M. Tippet, Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvoskaya.
  • There is music that is written for church use, but mostly for choirs to sing. There is a mountain of music that the average church choir can tackle, but it would be tough for the congregation. Some hymn concertatos have a verse set for the congregation to join the choir, but a good deal of it is for the choir/worship team to sing to the congregation.
  • And then there are the psalms and hymns of the church. In English alone, there are legions of them. In addition, there are numerous hymns in other languages, sometimes in musical styles that fit a particular culture, but just would not work in English language churches in North America. Think of Coptic hymnody, or the song of the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches, or the chant of the Anglican tradition. 
    • Within the category of congregational song, there are two basic categories. Most hymns are in some regular meter, and a small number in the average hymnal will be noted as irregular. The index of hymnals will show us that there are many different meters. Not all hymns in regular meter are easy to sing, but in general, hymns in regular meters are the easiest. Another advantage of regular meter hymns is they can be led by one keyboard player, and in fact they can often be sung without accompaniment.
    • Hymns that have an irregular meter are usually not listed in the index of your hymnal; there wouldn’t be any point, since they all differ from each other. Many of them are easy enough to sing and play, too, but the more irregular they are, the more difficult they are for a congregation to learn. Many hymns in the praise and worship style fall into this category. These work best if you have several musicians providing support, and they really work best if in addition you have a good director or animator of congregational song.
Some congregations have stronger music resources and leadership than others These can obviously tackle more difficult music than others. However, it is far preferable to do easier music well, than to do struggle with more difficult music. 
So here are a few areas where problems arise.
The first mistake is when we ask congregations to sing music that is better sung by a choir than by the congregation. It seems to me that quite a few contemporary songs work OK when a group sings them, but not when the congregation is asked to sing them. Sometimes the last syllable of each line will be very long; sometimes 8 beats, or more. Then there are long rests, where the guitars and keyboard do their thing for several bars. In one song the rests can vary greatly; after one phrase there might be a quaver rest. After the next phrase there might a rest of several bars, with the sing resuming on the off-beat. Since usually the congregation does not have the music, to sing such songs is tough going, and the congregations will sing them hesitantly. Question: is this really a song that can be sung well in our congregation?
Here are a few problem areas, at least so it seems to me. Congregations are sometimes also asked to learn more new songs than they can reasonably be expected to learn. Often we receive only the words, but no music. And we are asked to sing songs that do not have a strong melody lines. Question: are we discouraging congregational singing by asking them to learn too many new songs?
Examine the accompaniment in your congregation. Is the volume loud enough to support the singing? When all is said and done, it is not about the musicians, but about the congregation’s song.  The playing should be loud enough to be heard, but it should not overwhelm.  Question: do you check your sound levels? You could ask some members of the congregation whether they think it is too loud, too soft, just right.
Take a listen to the instruments. If your piano or organ sounds out of tune 30 minutes before the time the worship starts, there is nothing you can do about that. But stringed instruments can easily be tuned in a few minutes. Question: is your instrument as well-tuned as can be reasonably expected?
I offer these few thoughts because congregational singing matters so much to me, and as pastor and as amateur musician, I know what a challenge it can be to participate as accompanist, and how satisfying it is when the music goes really well. And does not our God deserve the best we can bring?

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Sources of Congregational Song

Congregational Song

Allan Groen, Edmonton, AB

In trying to get a handle on what is going on in congregational song today, I want to give a bird’s eye view of the history of congregational singing since the early 16th century. This is a useful starting point for me, because the lives of the three main players at this time overlap: Zwingli (1484-1531), Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564).

The three of these were all competent musicians, but it is thought that Zwingli was the best of the three.

By the 1500’s, there was rarely any congregational singing. The singing was done by the “professionals ” such as priests, nuns and monks. The people in general sang poorly and in any case could not read music or words. For that matter, church attendance was also sporadic.

It may seen difficult for us to imagine it, but for centuries, congregants were forbidden to sin in public worship. The Council of Laodicea forbade all congregational singing to protect the church from the Arian heresy. The Arians promoted their faith by putting their heretical teachings into cheerful songs which they sang on the streets. This anti-Arian decision was also the beginning of a movement to move the church back to the Old Testament worship pattern that depended on priests, vestments, sacrifices, candles and choirs composed exclusively on clergy. (In: Lawrence C. Roff, Let Us Sing).

More than a millennium after the Council of Laodicea, the Council of Constance, 1415, decided: “If laymen are forbidden to preach and interpret the Scriptures, much more are they forbidden to sing publicly in the churches.” (Roff).

The attitude of Zwingli can be described this way. As a musician who could play several instruments, one would think that he would love to have great music in all Zwinglian churches, but this was not the case. In fact, Zwingli  was so impressed with the emotional power of music that it frightened him, and for  this reason he banned music and singing from worship. Later,  some of his followers went so far as to destroy organs.

Luther and Calvin both were instrumental in bringing singing back into worship. Luther seems to have had fewer misgivings about this then Calvin did, but each in the end made his own very significant contribution to congregational song.

Luther ‘s contribution revolves around the famous chorals. The words always have biblical themes, and the purpose often seems to have been to teach the congregation in a way that was easy to remember. Luther ‘s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” was intended to be a song of consolation, written for a parishioner who was terminally  ill.

It is worth noting that Martin Luther was by no means the first to write hymns or spiritual songs. Think of Ambrose as an early example, and a few centuries later we have the Gregorian Chants. When Luther also wrote hymns that are not strictly paraphrases of  Bible passages, it becomes like a permission for anyone else to write hymns, too. If Luther could do it, why can’t others, too?

With Calvin the atmosphere is different again. Calvin also wanted the congregations to sing. But when Calvin began to reflect on what the people should sing, it seemed logical enough to begin with the psalms and a few Biblical canticles. Some scholars argue that Calvin wanted to use only paraphrases of Bible songs. Some argue that Calvin did not want the congregations to sing anything but psalms and a few canticle. But I wonder if instead, Calvin thought that people who knew no church music would be best served with starting by singing the Psalms of David. In any case Calvin enlisted poets and musicians, and the result was the publication of the Genevan Psalter.

During the latter part of the seventeenth century, a new stream of hymnody emerged as part of the Pietist movement. During the 17th Century, both Calvinism and Lutheranism began to undergo the influence of  scholasticism. Notions of a rigid, orthodoxy began to carry the day. The leader of a kind of rebellion against this inflexibility was Jacob Spener. Christians, he felt, needed more of a religion of the heart, and of feeling. Spener and his colleagues did not mean to belittle right doctrine, but to have a better balance between head and heart. And within this movement a new hymnody took shape. Perhaps the most important of these hymnodists was Paul Gerhard, (1607-1676). But the influence of this movement on subsequent church history and music was very great.

I know that in our Reformed (Christelijk Gereformeerd) this influence was felt. I was born in a small village in Friesland, were ths church used used only a few hymns, 29 to be exact, and used them sparingly indeed. Mostly our musical diet consisted of psalm singing. This had been the case for a long time. The Genevan psalms had become available in Dutch translation not so long after they became available in French. Congregations were initially expected to sing them without accompaniment. But in big cities, Sunday services were often held in churches with large and good organs, so eventually people began to wonder if the singing would not be improved if they would be permitted to use organs during worship (organs were usually owned by the city, not the church.) Eventually the city fathers agreed to allow churches to use their organs! So that is how it went for a long time: Genevan psalms were the music of the church. I remember vividly how one family in our congregation would be willing to have one of the hymns, although they would not sing them. If the pastor asked for a second one, they would walk out, something the pastor clearly thought to be hilarious. I mention this because early I learned how controversial the singing in church can be.

However, it is obvious that this tradition of psalm singing mostly, and hymns rarely, preferably never, ultimately did not carry the day. That honour belongs to those who approve of and encourage the use of a wide array of hymns, and huge number of hymns were written over the course of centuries.  Very few hymns have received wide-spread use. Sometimes these hymns did not have any inherent quality to merit survival. Most hymns, words and music alike reflect the cultural/religious situation in which they were written. They filled a need for their time and place, but most do not easily move beyond those limitations to fit in our time and our place.

Whatever the case, virtually everywhere where you can find churches, you will sing hymns and psalms. The use of psalms is in decline, it seems to me, aside  from snippets, out of context, for a praise and worship song.

People want to sing songs beyond psalms, and beyond hymnbooks. It struck me that in the church community in which I was raised, people sang almost exclusively versified psalms with Genevan tunes, but then they would go home after church, gather around their harmoniums and sing for an hour from the widely used book by Johannes de Heer. Most older immigrants will recognize that name immediately. De Heer’s “Zangbundel” is a hodgepodge collection. The dominant them is what we now call “heart songs>’ But this kind of hymn could not be confined to the home, and eventually found its way into Christian Reformed Churches, as readily, if not more so, as into many other churches.

Perhaps these ways of coming to terms with the three kinds of songs mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Here are a few pieces of learning for me:

  • Throughout its history, there has been much singing in churches, and there have always been hymns that went beyond versification of Scripture passages.
  • The hymns people use in specific places and times were chosen because in some way these are the hymns people needed or liked. The music too is mostly not too much different from tunes used in other settings. The disconnect between the songs of the people and the songs of the church cannot be too large.  On walking into our apartment recently, a commercial for coffee was playing; it struck me that this was exactly the style we had just used in choir practice for a praise song the following Sunday.
  • When we are in church, we are with brothers and sisters, and as such we need to be patient with each other. So we participate even when the hymns aren’t exactly our taste, or even when we feel they really do not fit the theology of confession of the church. The time for a discussion on these matters is preferably before we use them in the first place, or, failing this, we may need to talk afterwards. Too often there is no conversation about what hymns to use. When we all sang from the one and some hymnal, that was no problem. Now we conversations and times of discernment, preferably before we use a new song.
  • Still it is true, that not all songs that are OK are worthy of being used in services of worship.  Both the words and the music need careful attention for the glory of God and the edification of the congregation.

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