Sep 072012

By William Lloyd, 1902

Young Choir Members SingingAn old Presbyterian elder once said to me, “If the devil cannot get into a church any other way, he always finds a door in the choir gallery.”

Many ministers decline to have anything to do with the matter at all, and relegate it to a music committee, and they, in turn, leave it almost entirely to the organist. Such a course, I think, is unwise. The minister should be conductor of the whole public service.

The music should always harmonize with the thought and spirit which pervades the other part of the service. By the music I mean hymns, anthems and tunes. A class of music that may be eminently fitting and impressive in connection with one form of religious worship may be incongruous and injurious in another. An eminent Roman Catholic clergyman, the music of whose church was acknowledged to be most impressive and artistic, once said, “If I had charge of the music in any Protestant church in the city, I would soon make it as impressive a feature of the service as it is in my own; but I would have scarcely any of the kind that I now use. I would have such music as harmonized with Protestant sentiment and forms of worship. The error made in many of your churches is that you introduce Catholic music into Protestant worship, and it fails to awaken a response in the hearts of the people.” These words are worth pondering.

I remember once entering a cathedral on the Continent, in the early morning, to see the building. While there the silence was broken by a low but gradually increasing sound from the organ. Chord blended with chord in sweet, mournful cadence, and in a few moments I heard the voices of an unseen choir of male voices chanting a Latin hymn.

The effect upon me I shall never forget. I bowed my head in silent ecstasy and the tears welled up into my eyes. I do not know whether it was worship or only aesthetic emotion. The dim light, the massive pillars, the vast, distant roof and the plaintive music were all in perfect keeping. But the same music would have affected me very differently had I heard it in the broad daylight, with Protestant surroundings. Our worship is simple. Its strength lies in its simplicity. The character of its music should therefore be simple, and sweet also.

It is a mistake for a choir to be permitted to choose an opening anthem without first consulting the pastor as to the probable tone of the coming service. I once prepared a sermon under most touching circumstances, hoping to bring comfort to some hearts I knew were smitten sore by sin and sorrow. But the choir opened the service with a jigging hide-and-go-seek anthem in which the words, “March around about Jerusalem,” ran after each other from treble to tenor and alto to bass. The whole service was marred by the incongruity. Never leave the choice of your hymns to the leader of the choir. The thought that pervades the sermon should dominate the hymns, as far as possible. Sometimes a hymn in closing that presents a striking contrast to the sermon may be very effective. I would advise any man who preaches a sermon on hell to sing, in closing, a hymn of heaven. Nothing is more horrible than to hear a congregation sing of others:

Far on the left, with horror standing,
Their fearful doom to meet.

Banish rigorously all fugue tunes; that is, tunes in which the different parts have to catch up the words, as in the old song of “Three blind mice.” I know of but few such tunes that can be sung by any congregation without becoming ludicrous. Old tunes recast, rearranged by new composers, are generally ruined. Mr. Novello rearranged “Old Hundred,” with variations. A stalwart Englishman attempted to join in the doxology, stopped—astounded— looked for a moment amazed at the choir, and then turned to his companion with a charitable explanation, “That choir’s drunk, sir.” No, it was Mr. Novello who had made the stately “Old Hundred” drunk with the new wine of his musical fancies.

Avoid tunes that have well-known associations of a secular character. I am aware that in many of the great operas there are melodies of exquisite beauty which can be easily wedded to sacred words. But it is not often wise to introduce them into our public worship. Those who have been used to hearing them in their own connection will find it difficult to dissociate them therefrom. The music of “The Bohemian Girl” and “La Traviata” has its proper place, and few enjoy it more than I do; but I do not want it in church. So of popular songs. Some very laughable incidents have come to my knowledge in this connection. In a Scotch church not long since the congregation sang to the old Scotch song, “Ye Banks and Braes,” the words, “He Dies; the Friend of Sinners Dies.” The minister was horrified to hear one Scotch lassie in the gallery sing out clear and full:

And my fause lover stole the rose;
But, ah! he left the thorn wi’ me.

Choose as leader of the music, if possible, a Christian man, if not, a man of clear perceptions of spiritual properties. This will go a long way to make the service profitable. Whether you have a choir or a precentor, much difficulty will be avoided by such a selection. Then, whether led by a choir or a single voice, insist upon congregational singing. Let all the people praise Thee, O God; yea, let all the people praise Thee! Whatever tends to prevent this, or hinder the people from taking part in the singing, should be firmly resisted by the proper authorities. This is a monopoly not to be tolerated. Choirs will seek to do this sometimes by choosing tunes the congregation does not know.

WorshipThere will be in every congregation some who cannot join in the simplest melody. Some are too old; some have no voice; others have no ear. But even these enforced listeners get great enjoyment out of singing. Especially do they enjoy congregational music. Who has not seen aged faces light up and aged heads move in sympathy as some old tune wedded to an old hymn — every word of which is redolent with memories of youth and home — is sung by the worshiping assembly? There is no music as effective as this. Says Dr. Lowell Mason: “Go with me to the Nicolai Church, in Leipzig, and look down from the upper gallery upon a congregation of 1500 or 2000 people. See them, with hymn-books open, apparently unconscious of those around; listen to their rough, uncultured voices, in time and tune, or out of time and tune, joining with the loud pealing of the deep diapasons rolling through the arches of the great building and filling the whole with a mighty chorus of sound; mark the moving of your own spirit, and you will not need an answer from another to the question, “Is congregational singing possible and effective?” But we need not go to Leipzig. The question has been solved at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Union Chapel and many others.

Let every minister and every church give earnest attention to the musical part of each service. Then it will be a mighty agent for spiritual instruction, a source of spiritual inspiration and of comfort.

Then, instead of our congregations coming together, as too many do, to be prayed to, preached to and sung to, we shall see the spectacle so cheeringly sung by Watts:

Lord, how delightful ’tis to see
A whole assembly worship Thee!
At once they sing, at once they pray,
They hear of heaven, and learn the way.


 Posted by on 09/07/2012 Joyful Noise, Music ,  Add comments

  2 Responses to “Our Church Music”

  1. Wow this is a great article and very thought provoking. As part of the music in our church I would hope the choir director and others are also praying for the holy spirits direction in the moving and spirit of the service. It is more than just music or playing a few songs. The Holy Spirit is the conductor of the services. It should not necessarily be what we want to hear.

    And looking at this from a different angle I believe the Pastor should have some type of role….or share some form of responsibility in the music selections. No one can interpret what the Holy Spirit wants or how he wishes to move in any given service better than the Pastor. I mean he IS the pastor.
    This will also help both the Pastor and the music help learn too communicate with each other and become that well oiled machine.
    Praise God for this. WE are Gods team.