MWM: Standards in church music (1)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Other, related posts are here.

In 1978, Harding College hosted a lectureship on the general theme “How Great Thou Art”; most of the lectures dealt in some way with worship.  Included were two opposing-viewpoint speeches on the music of the Church of Christ.

One presentation, by Kenneth Davis, Jr., called Christians to higher standards and depth; the other, by Alton Howard of Howard Publishing, shared alternate views, supporting some newer music that many in the audience then would have judged to be “lower-quality” music.

Although I did not hear those speeches, I do have a printed version.  And I vaguely remember hearing differing views of their relative effectiveness:  one thought it was so clear that the Davis speech won the day, while others, predisposed to gospel songs and Stamps-Baxter music, though Howard was more convincing.  I frankly doubt that either man influenced many people by the power of words or thought.  The feelings and concepts and scruples that resided in people’s heads and hearts when they entered that room were probably still there when they left.

There was once a time that I thought I also could influence sizable segments of Church of Christ populations viz. the their music choices for gatherings.  I was leading worship a lot, making decisions, forming and working with groups, working with teenagers, talking and writing to a lot of people, compiling song book supplements, writing and arranging — doing too many things, really.  I had the feeling that some people were listening and appreciating, but I was probably exaggerating the numbers.

I do have a couple of minor, yet significant, claims to almost-fame in CofC music realms; these could lead one to think that I had at least some basis for my delusions of potential influence.  I am deluded no more.  (Not in that way, at least!)  I think it will be interesting to share someone else’s thoughts, although I seriously doubt these will be very influential now, either.

Now, at this juncture, not wishing to “hold forth” personally on the musical status quo, I’d like instead to offer someone else’s critiques of music standards—particularly those that pertain to a past generation’s “pop” music in church.  (I don’t think I’ll play one of those games in which one quotes something as though it could have been written today, but then it turns out to have been written decades or centuries prior.  On the other hand, it is intriguing that some of these things could well have been written at other times!)  This author, Erik Routley, was a musicologist and English minister with whose many published works I am not acquainted.  I recently pulled his book Twentieth-Century Church Music off my shelves, though. . . .

The point here to be made is that it was [“pop”] music which first caused persons of cultivated taste to observe that there was such a thing as “good” and “bad” church music:  that on principle certain kinds of music were to be regarded as inferior.

. . .

[Certain music gets dropped out of use] because it is dull, cretinlously edited, or feebly sentimental.

. . .

The basis of the (“pop”) style is an extreme naivety of rhythm, harmony, and melody.  It is “folk” music in being music which the industrial peasantry of the new age could immediately receive, join in, and take comfort from.  There is no kind of sophistication in it; all the tunes are virtually the same tune, and the vocabulary they use is really a small collection of clichés whose repetition gave no kind of offense to its simple constituency.  The same is true of the words, and indeed of the preaching that they expressed.  Little was demanded, little was given, but that little, often and doggedly.

– from “Evangelistic ‘Pop,'” pp. 196-209, in Erik Routley, Twentieth-Century Church Music, Oxford University Press, 1964.

[ To be continued next Monday . . . ]

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