“Special music”

Communal worship, despite my differences in taste, is so valuable to me.  It can be an incredible experience to be surrounded by hundreds of people singing together.  And this is largely the accepted idea, in terms of corporate worship as a church body, but what about music as art?  Music where we ask the congregation to sit and just listen?  Is there a place for that in the reformed church?  I agree, the modern church ought to be communal; we eat the bread and drink the wine together, we sing together, we pray together, but should we also listen to music together in the same way we listen to a sermon together?

In a few weeks we’ll be starting up the choir at Santa Barbara Community Church in preparation for holy week service of Good Friday.  I always look forward to working with this enthusiastic group of singers.  For many, the church choir is the only time they get to make music outside of normal Sunday worship.

In selecting music to share with the congregation at the service, one of the issues that came up is the language.  Simply put, I believe that to limit our repertoire to only our native language would eliminate 90% of choral repertoire.  As wonderful as they are, we must share more than the sounds of Britten, Vaugh Williams, and Billings.  And since choral music stems from a tradition of latin chant and polyphony, it makes sense to begin there.

I selected two of Victorias Tenebrae responsories, as I have sung (read: fallen in love with) them a few times, have a managble range, realistic division (SATB throughout), and not to mention, are BEAUTIFUL.  The first issue that came up with the our worship pastor, is the question of language.  Can the congregation easily connect with this music even though they do not know what the text means?  The simple solution here is to put on our projection the text allongside the translation.  But even so, will the process of reading a text and translation while simultaneously listening to the music create an unneccisary barrier in experiencing the divine?  Or on the contrary, might it actually encourage deeper thought and understanding?

I’m currently in the camp that agrees with the latter.  We ought to give our congregation more intellectual credit.  The latin language is beautiful, and anyone who has studied a latin based language might be able to decipher some of it themselves: Moritur (latin) ~ mourir (french) ~ to die (english).  At the same time the mental process of reading a foreign language works a different part of our brain.  We’re thinking harder, and I think that’s a good thing.  Though congregational music should be easily singable, but that doesn’t mean all music in church should be “easy.”

Then there’s the question of polyphony.  I could explain why I think its great, but why not use the power of the internet to direct you here.  For centuries the church has debated use of polyphony so I’ll refrain from discussing it here, but I sincerely hope that the choir at Santa Barbara Community Church can not only sing their notes beautifully, but also get an idea of the incredible contrapuntal fabric that Victoria has created.  Even if just one person gets it, I’ll have done my job.

Author: adamkurihara

Minister of Worship Arts at NSCBC in Beverly, MA

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