Easter 2024

05 August 2011
virtuosity - a church musician's thoughts on

The level of technical virtuosity of young musicians is, by any measure, absolutely unprecedented. Yet, as our technical proficiency has increased exponentially, our willingness to take bold and principled stands in defense of our art seems to have virtually disappeared. In the interest of maintaining an atmosphere of tolerance, accessibility, and collegiality, we have ceded more and more of our legitimacy to popular culture. So much so, in fact, that it is now we who must justify our right to exist in the court of popular opinion. The loudest voices in defense of classical music are music critics: not professional players of composers but highly-educated connoisseurs.

Crean, David. "Why do we play? Why do we teach?" The View from the Loft

There's something maddening about the technical skill of the musicians that music schools churn out annually and the increasingly cutthroat competition they endure to find gainful employment, or really any employment, afterward.

Nowhere does this find such paradox as in the church. Gifted musicians, primarily organists in this case, are employed by an institution and often find that much of the congregation is at best uninterested or at worst openly hostile to their life's work.

Church musicians, more so than the main body of "classical" musicians, are tossed about on a melting iceberg in a turbulent, tropical sea of ambivalence, hostility and cultural ignorance.

Some of the factors in the church at large are these:

How are church musicians to take a "bold stand" for good music in light of all this? Church musicians, myself included, must actively reclaim their role as educators.

We must proclaim that worship is not and should not try to be evangelism.

"Worship is the language of love and growth between believers and God; evangelism is the language of introduction between those who believe and those who don’t. To confuse the two and put on worship the burden of evangelism robs the people of God of their responsibility to care about the neighbor, defrauds the believers of transforming depth, and steals from God the profound praise of which he is worthy."

Dawn, Marva. A Royal "Waste" of Time, p. 124.

We must educate that worship, and hence the music that we find there is not about us, it's about God.

Q. What is corporate worship?
A. In corporate worship, we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God's Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.

The Prayer Book catechism never mentions music, but it does mention acknowledging the holiness of God. I think we must honestly address what it means to be "satisfied" by Sunday morning liturgy. The Prayer Book does say that worship is our duty, but it does not say that it's supposed to address our musical tastes.

We must teach that this "problem" of how to acknowledge the holiness of God is one that has been addressed by musicians writing for liturgy throughout time and space, and that the best of this music is worth employing in our own time.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is our duty to seek out the best that has been written and to offer it in liturgy. It has never been so freely available. I mean, have you been to lately?

To get stuck in music solely of our own time, or even to prefer it, is to become what G.K. Chesterton called "the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around."

Where are the "highly-educated connoisseurs" of church music? Often in the organ loft and the choir stalls. The more we are content to water down (Marva Dawn would say "dumb down") the liturgy with campy, first-person praise choruses, the more we cede our legitimacy to popular culture. And the danger here is far greater than at your local Orchestra Hall, which can thrive on pops concerts and still offer a dimly-burning sanctuary lamp of "classical" subscription concerts for the cognoscenti. If we are to adequately fulfill our obligation to worship, as defined by the our catechism, we must take a bold stand.

We must take a bold stand against the long shadow of Vatican II which still insists its vernacular of unrelenting simplicity (which makes little sense to the educated church musician -- why do I have a masters degree if all you need are three chords? -- there's a serious disconnect that we need to address) strangely juxtaposed with near impossible syncopation and asymmetric syllabification. Coupled with the poor state of music education in the United States, and our society's failure/inability to adequately promote music appreciation, this attitude seems to be readily adopted on Sunday mornings when, in fact, it is largely an aberration in the history of church music.

Watered down church music has always been a concession to some kind of scarcity, whether it be that of musician, choir, the ability of each, the availability of repertoire, the liturgical strictures in place, etc.

Now, we see liturgies that can accommodate thoughtfully composed parts of the ordinary of the Mass and a range of anthem, psalms, motets, and other liturgical music. We have more trained musicians than ever before -- and trained at a higher level than ever before.

With the near-instant availability of recorded music we should be able easily show what is worthwhile and what is not.

And yet, collectively -- organists, choirs, clergy, congregations -- we often fall short of our musical potential.

But a bold stand in the church must be a pastoral one: a bold onslaught of education and prayer.

Change comes slowly. With a scarcity of ordained Anglican clergy in the American colonies, Morning Prayer was common as the principal service on Sundays. Two hundred and thirty-five years in to the founding of this nation, there are still vestigial services of Morning Prayer in lieu of Eucharist in many parts of the country, despite their being no shortage of priests and bishops.

How much longer will it take ecclesiastical establishments to remove their scarcity mentality when it comes to musicians?

Will they ever?

Otherwise we can just show up to church and at the time of the Sanctus say: "God, we acknowledge your holiness", but I don't think that really cuts the mustard.



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