MWM: Standards in church music (3)

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 may be found here.

No longer feeling that I should “hold forth” personally on the status quo in Christian music, because I’m not spending as much time with it anymore, I’ll offer instead this last installment in a brief series from someone else’s critiques of music standards—particularly those that pertain to a past generation’s “pop” church music.  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, and decided not to discard it just yet.

There is no need to insist on dignity, solemnity, or any other secondary quality as being inseparable from the church’s musical speech.

. . .

The composer will bore his listener if he is irrational (as any rational talker does), and if he has no repertory except vocabulary and ideas of others.

. . .

Good music, whatever its texture, its associations, or its purpose, is not music that is morally uplifting—for there is no such thing.  It is music which can catch and hold the attention of a cultivated musician.  It may have all the qualities that enable it to catch and hold the attention of the uncultivated—attractive melody, rhythm, harmony, ease in singing, effectiveness in performance.  It need not frown at anybody.  It need not be taciturn.  But that goodness that is musical is that which the musician can recognize.  (emph. mine  -bc)

I affirm with Routley that musical quality is not primarily a matter of taste but is, rather, perceptible by those trained in a musical discipline (or, perhaps, a related discipline such as art or literature).  I also agree with him that an austere mood of solemnity, while more appropriate than some contemporary, happy go-lucky idealists would admit, is not inextricably related to quality or even to dignity or reverence.

Some contemporary musical styles are nicely low-key and reserved, by the way . . . while some older styles are ridiculously mismatched to the topics they purport to support.  (Have you ever sung “He Bore It All“?  Check out the linked video, if you dare.  What an embarrassment to the faith.  Can anyone imagine Peter or John grinning along with that song, given what they had witnessed in Gethsemane and at the cross?)

Next:  commentary on musical style (I guess I’ll “hold forth” a little on the state of things, after all)


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