Thinking Out Loud

August 22, 2017

Church Life: Special Music

In a majority of the middle part of the last century, a feature of Evangelical church services was “the special musical number” or “special music” or if the church didn’t print a bulletin for the entire audience, what the platform party often logged as simply “the special.”

While this wasn’t to imply that the remaining musical elements of the service were not special, it denoted a featured musical selection — often occurring just before the message — that would be sung by

  • a female soloist
  • a male soloist
  • a women’s duet
  • a men’s duet
  • a mixed duet
  • a mixed trio
  • a ladies trio
  • an instrumental number without vocals

etc., though usually it was a female soloist, who, in what would now be seen as an interruption to the flow of the service, would often be introduced by name. “And now Mrs. Faffolfink, the wife our beloved organist Henry, will come to favor us with a special musical number.” This was followed by silence, with the men on the platform party standing as the female soloist made her way to the microphone. (We’ll have to discuss ‘platform party’ another time.)

While the song in question might be anything out of the hymnbook, these were usually taken from a range of suitable songs from the genre called “Sacred Music” designed chiefly for this use, compositions often not possible for the congregation to sing because of (a) vocal range, (b) vocal complexity such as key changes, and (c) interpretive pauses and rhythm breaks. These often required greater skill on the part of the accompanist as well.

A well known example of this might be “The Holy City” which is often sung at Easter, though two out of its three sections seem to owe more to the book of Revelation. “The Stranger of Galilee” and “Master the Tempest is Raging” are two other well-known examples of the type of piece. Sometimes the church choir would join in further into the piece. (The quality of the performance varied depending on the capability of soloists in your congregation.)

By the mid-1970s commercial Christian radio stations were well-established all over the US, and broad exposure to a range of songs gave birth to the Christian music soundtrack industry. More popular songs were often available on cassette from as many as ten different companies. Some were based on the actual recording studio tracks of the original; some were quickly-recorded copies; and some of both kinds were offered in different key signatures (vocal ranges.) Either way, they afforded the singer the possibility of having an entire orchestra at his or her disposal, and later gave way to CDs and even accompaniment DVDs with the soundtrack synchronized to a projected visual background.

Today in the modern Evangelical church, this part of the service has vanished along with the scripture reading and the pastoral prayer. If a megachurch has a featured music item, it’s entirely likely to be borrowed from the Billboard charts of secular hits, performed with the full worship band.

This means there is an entire genre of Christian music which is vanishing with it. This isn’t a loss musically — some of those soloists were simply showing off their skills — as it is lyrically. The three songs named above were narrative, which means they were instructional. They taught us, every bit as much as the sermon did; and were equally rooted in scripture texts. The audience was in a listening mode, more prepared to be receptive. Early church historians will still despair over the passive nature of listening to a solo, but I believe the teaching that was imparted through the songs was worth the 3-4 minutes needed.

My personal belief is that this worship service element will return, albeit in a slightly different form, as congregations grow tired of standing to do little more than listen to pieces they can’t sing anyway because of vocal range or unfamiliarity. This may be taking place already in some churches.

We’ll be better served when that happens.

 

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October 24, 2010

The Grand Diversity of Christian Music Styles

Last night my wife was one of a number of featured artists at community Christian music concert.    Because it was in my best interests — if you get my meaning — not to miss her musical number, I ventured out only to discover the the vast number of participants pretty well guaranteed an equally vast number of audience members.   After circling the block twice, I finally gave up on getting the perfect parking spot and arrived after the first number had already started.

The performances included:

  • two church choirs doing a total of six songs throughout the program
  • a modern worship band doing two songs that I’m sure were only recently assigned their CCLI numbers
  • a preteen girl doing a number from The Prince of Egypt
  • an organ solo of Elgar’s Nimrod (not sure why)
  • a small but talented group of kids ringing handbells on a well known hymn and a more modern Graham Kendrick song
  • my wife’s somewhat jazzy take on a song by Christian artist Rich Mullins
  • a guitar/vocal solo of an original song
  • a group of four young girls doing a hymn arrangement I’m sure was by John Rutter with mandatory British accents
  • a Pentecostal worship band channeling the spirit of David Wilkerson’s church in New York with approx. 40 slides’ worth of non-stop lyrics (they were numbered) to songs only they knew (though the audience was at least clapping at the end)
  • the classical (almost operatic) vocalizing of Albert Malotte’s The Lord’s Prayer by a baritone soloist

Of all the songs, I think the bell-ringers’ choice of Crown Him With Many Crowns was among the best known; otherwise we were charting what was, to me at least, new territory.

Just as political expediency governed my choice in attending the concert versus staying home, so also did some political expediency determine that the choir of the host church would sing a total of four songs; double that of the modern worship band or the other choir, unless you count the sheer length of the Pentecostal worship band’s single medley.

Let me explain here that throughout the evening there were times when the lyrics of the songs were projected at the sides of the auditorium at which point everyone — except for maybe those of us nursing sore throats — was expected to sing along.

For its third of four numbers, the host church choir made what I consider to be a rather odd choice:  The Beatles’ Let it Be.

Question.   Which song do you think the audience sung most wholeheartedly?

Yep.  That one.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Ah, yes!    The concert was billed as a “Celebration of Hope” and there was the hope… “There will be an answer, let it be.”

Now, on the one hand, it somewhat warmed my heart because in addition to being involved in Christian music;  I’ve always thought the popularity of the annual Handel’s Messiah singalong — where the audience participates throughout — warranted a “Songs of the 1960s” singalong.   It’s an idea that I’ve been promoting since days long before PowerPoint and video projection; potential copyright issues notwithstanding.   I know people love those songs.   I’m glad to know the singalong thing actually is workable.    And I think the audience was highly predisposed to sing at this point, because the program’s artists had chosen such a high degree of unfamiliar titles.

But on the other hand, out of all the possibilities in that gigantic compendium we once called “sacred music;” it seemed to me somewhat of a “what-were-they-thinking?” kind of moment.   A lapse of judgment.

And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.

Am I being narrow here?   And what Mary is being referred to?   Though the Wikipedia story is quite different — it talks about a dream McCartney had about his mother — at the time the story was that the song was written as a response to a hallucination by a member of the band’s road team and the original lyric was “Mother Malcolm.”    You remember him, right?  Or her?

And when the night is cloudy,
There is still a light that shines on me.
Shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

I just think that there are so many songs that offer so much spiritual richness and depth that to choose an “inspirational” song instead from the pop music market is just to contribute to the ongoing watering down of the Christian message.

If I were a member of that choir, I would have said, “Sorry, I can’t join in on this one.”

October 20, 2010

Wednesday Link List

  • Making the Same Mistake Twice? Department:  Nobody felt the original reached its true potential so there’s going to be a remake of the Left Behind movie.   Guess who’s doing it?  Cloud Ten Pictures, the exact same company that made the first one.   Huh?
  • Truth is Stranger than Fiction Department:  The American who pastor who threatened to burn the Qu’ran and then didn’t is getting a free car just for being a good boy.  “Okay, Terry; you’ve been a good boy and remembered not to play with matches; so here’s the present we promised you…”
  • Personal Inventory Department:  Trey Morgan on the various things people use to gauge their self-worth.  What’s your’s based on?
  • Indie Christian Artist Department:   If you like dance music with bass that thumps while at the same time enjoying strongly Bible-based lyrics, check out the song “Life” by artist Beckah Shae.   Or go here for the YouTube now closing in on 200,000 views.   (Is that someone blowing a shofar in the background?)  Here’s another one:  Here in this Moment is closing in on 300,000 views.
  • Iniquities, Transgressions and Sins, Oh My! Department:  Washington, DC pastor Mark Batterson introduces the Jewish understanding of the three dimensions of sin.
  • Ecclesiology For Fun and Profit Department:  David Paul Door says when you plant a church, you have to think less like a pastor and more like a missionary.
  • You Really Should Read This Department:  A Christianity Today interview with Joni Earekson Tada on suffering, chronic pain, and breast cancer.
  • “I’m a Full Gospel Preacher” Department:   Challies posted this link this week to Erik Raymond, the Irish Calvinist, answering the musical question: Why are some pastors so fat? Except he didn’t bother with the word “some.”
  • Gettin’ Ready to Party Department:  If tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1611 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the KJV, the author of Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible figures we’d better know a little about James Stuart.  Here’s the video trailer for the book which officially released yesterday.
  • Why Can’t We All Just Sing Along? Department:  CNN gets church choirs across North America to join together on a verse and chorus of Andrae Crouch’s classic, “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power;” and then attempts to blend them all as one.
  • Amish Fiction Overload Department:  If you can’t get enough of the Amish through the fiction section of your Christian bookstore, you can learn more about them in the popular blog Amish America.
  • For our cartoon today, we return to the most prolific of the Baptist Press artists, Joe McKeever:

January 25, 2010

Connecting With Our Worship Roots

By and by when the morning comes
When the saints of God are gathered home
We will tell the story of how we’ve overcome
And we’ll understand it better by and by

Last night we caught a concert by the Toronto Mass Choir that was also a fundraiser for Haiti.   It’s the second time we’ve seen them, but only the third time in our lives we’ve been exposed to the volume, the energy and the passion that goes into any kind of mass choir (read: black gospel choir) concert.    This is the music of the redeemed.

Director Karen Burke — who is, no kidding, a Professor of Music at Toronto’s York University with a job description that includes gospel — mentioned an event she’s putting together in Toronto in February titled “The Evolution of Gospel Music.”  This was featured nationally on CBC-Radio many months back, and presented as a one night stage show.   This time they’re doing it for two nights; introducing the birth of the spirituals and artists such as Tommy Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson.

Then she said something profound, to the effect that many people involved in the creation of Christian music today, “don’t know about anything that happened before 1990.”

That’s too bad.   I think it’s incumbent upon anyone who is leading worship today to know something about their roots.     (Here’s my mini-history if you want to catch up in a hurry.)    Frankly, I don’t see how anyone can pretend to do this without knowing where it’s all coming from, anymore than a pastor can lead a church without some minimal knowledge of church history.

I don’t know how much money was raised last night — they never said — but I know that this music is the tonic for tough times.    Haiti was mentioned several times, but the message was clear that God saw the earthquake and its aftermath and He is still sovereign.

This is the kind of music that will lift your spirits on days that minimalistic two-minor-chord worship songs aren’t cutting it.

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