BITS OF USELESS INFORMATION
I have to stand on my soap box for this blog post. Something has bugged me for more years than I can count & I’ve never had a chance to vent.
By the time I took a church music course at university I already had quite a few notches in my belt playing in various churches. I was exposed to music from high Anglican psalmody and standard United church hymns to gospel tunes with lots of arpeggios. I didn’t have opportunities to hear the gorgeous music of the Renaissance or some of the lush tunes of the late English Romantics. Saint John wasn’t exactly a mecca of great liturgical music in the final decades of the 20th century. But I did experience choirs, many choirs with all types of abilities.
I was eager to discover and learn about the glorious world of sacred choral music. So I signed up for the church music course at university. It was for an entire year. From September to December we spent our hours examining in great detail the history of early chant. Pérotin and Léonin, two composers who worked and wrote for Notre Dame Cathedral in the late 12th and 13th centuries were my diet for almost three months. We didn’t even look at Hildegard von Bingen. We played drop the needle on LPR. (Long play records for those young pups who have no idea what I am talking about.) So who wrote it? the prof asked. That’s easy! (Duh. only 2 composers to choose from!) Which chant? Not hard either once you memorized the various texts.
Do you want to know how many times I have conducted these composers in church? NONE! I’ve led chant in many churches where I’ve had to read chant notation. I’ve improvised accompaniment for all types of plainsong when choristers and congregation needed support or the pitch would descend from d minor into a key that hasn’t been discovered yet. But NEVER did Pérotin and Léonin make it in the church bulletin.
The second half of the course was to be devoted to music from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. I couldn’t wait! Finally, music I could use. Nope! We touched briefly on music by Thomas Tallis, like one tune. I think a piece by William Byrd also made its appearance and that was one movement from one of his masses. Classical church music? Forget that! We talked about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis albeit briefly & Franz Joseph Haydn’s masses got a day. But even these pieces are not really church music that you can programme, except of course in concert. Romantic music got a nod and then 20th century music came up. Don’t get me wrong. The concerts that I go to most often and the music that I love is by living composers. I am interested in what they have to say and how they say it. But the pieces that we studied were not tunes that would ever be sung in any church that I played in or attended. Gorecki, John Tavener, Arvo Part, even Ruth Watson Henderson and Stephen Hatfield etc didn’t make the cut in this course.
I’m still standing on my soap box here people, So a course of church music which I could never use! I was 20 years old. What I wanted to know was repertoire that worked in the church year. What do you do if you gig in an evangelical church? Who are the composers that are bearable with lyrics that aren’t too trite? If you are lucky enough to get a good organ and a choir that really has the chops, what are the pieces that work? What do you do if you have a bass that is tone deaf? An alto that IS deaf? A soprano that is no where near the note but loves to sing? What are pieces that work for kids as young as 3 and as old as 16? How do you work with soloists that are at either end of the spectrum in ability and age? I now know the answers to many of these questions. It was through trial and error, reading, listening, asking questions to those that know much more than I do and attending some workshops. But let’s give our students a bit of help here. Introduce them to good music! Put it in a historical context but also give them tools to survive in the reality of today’s church so they can hopefully flourish and build decent music programmes. For many students, it is their one opportunity to get inspired in a rich repertoire. Teachers, give them a kick-start into their church music journey.
I’ll step down now. Thank you for letting me vent.