Dances, not dirges

On Saturday I had the pleasure of conducting the <a href=””>London Gallery Quire</a>, not once but twice. We started with a service of Mattins at St John’s, Fulham, and then in the evening made our way to St Peter’s in the Forest for a concert as part of their Flower Festival.

Elsewhere there are conversations going on about music and liturgy, and as usual there is a certain amount of lamenting over organists who refuse to play anything “modern”, the boring drudgery of most hymns, and the problems this causes in making the church seem outdated or old-fashioned among young people.

As an aside I would like to note that, within the Church of England, canon law is quite explicit on the matter. I don’t have the specific reference to hand, but the final responsibility for choice of music lies with the incumbent, not with the organist. Any organist who point-blank refuses to comply with the wishes of the incumbent in this might do well to consider whether the position is right for them. In practice, this can get difficult: the liturgy, the “work of the people”, is collaborative and no one person can easily be held responsible if it just doesn’t work… but that is another discussion. My point is that simply blaming the organist for the overall feel of the liturgy is a cop-out.

That said, organists (and other church musicians) do have a huge impact and  responsibility in worship. Problems with the perception of liturgy as drab or outdated are, in my opinion, usually systemic, but an organist may have more
influence within that system than others.

What does all this have to do with the lovely West Gallery music I was conducting at the weekend? More than you might think. Some of the metrical psalms and non-conformist hymns we were singing are direct precursors to what most people would recognise as “traditional” hymnody. Regular metrical texts with fairly simple (even if lively) rhythms are easy for people to sing together, and that is crucially important for congregational music. The more florid and complex styles which arose out of the West Gallery tradition, while glorious and great fun, weren’t so easily learned or understood by congregations and I think this is a large part of why the Victorians slammed on the brakes. The tension in liturgy between rich complexity and accessibility is not limited to this period, or even to music. But metrical hymns are a very good and versatile compromise.

I believe many of the complaints launched against “traditional” hymns are groundless when those hymns are played and sung appropriately. Understanding their roots in folk melodies and dances (yes, I said dances) is important. The organ is perhaps not the instrument best suited to conveying the rhythmic vitality of this music, but it is not an impossible tool for the job. It is possible to be creative with articulation to imitate a strong pulse without distorting the timing; even doing this for one or two hymns per service would help to counter the impression of a wall of noise with no real beat.

Also important is remembering that congregations do not have an unlimited lung capacity. One December I was somewhat taken aback by the extremely slow speed at which I heard “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” sung, and then even more discouraged when I looked around on YouTube to find a version at a more lively tempo and found dozens which, like the live version I had encountered, were painfully slow. I am not certain whether the habit of playing most things too slowly in parish churches is from trying to imitate cathedral hymnody, where the acoustics often demand a slow tempo, whether it is because so many organists are like me — pianists who have taken up the organ later in life and simply cannot play the pedals that fast — or whether it is simply musical laziness, following the congregation (who are following the organ) so that things get slower and slower. All of these are, in my opinion, bad reasons to play everything slowly. Cathedrals are wonderful but they are not the same as parish churches, and imitating cathedral-style hymnody while disregarding local circumstances is foolish. Pedals are wonderful too but if you can’t play them nimbly, I suggest that discretion may be the better part of valour. Congregations are wonderful but left to their own devices will tend to sing too slowly.

None of this is meant to suggest that no hymns should ever be played slowly; there is some music which works better at a slower pace. My point is merely that if someone thinks all traditional hymns are boring drudgery, the problem might be more to do with how they have heard hymns played and sung than with the century in which the hymns were written.

7 thoughts on “Dances, not dirges

  1. Perhaps this follows from a twitter discussion had the other day.My issue were not just with music. But with a number of other elements of worship, which the congregation seems to demand as of right.Their exclusivity defines them. An elderly congregation in fear of closure, where even the PCC and other active members are all retired. They took the initiative and invited me to particpate along with their congregation in an internal exercise of study and to seek a way forward with all of their issues. The problem was that the agenda was loaded form the outset with their exclusively 'traditiona only' bias.Several younger members attended the previous meeting to the one I found contentious and made some reasonable suggestions about ways forward, particularly communications, style of worship and how to address the insular attitude, which seems to put new people off coming. One comment which I found telling from a newcomer was that 'there was no welcome, nobody spoke to them and that after the service' the cliches talked to each other and they were ignored'. That's why they did not come back.Someone from the existing congregation had suggested a change to the music and hymn selection, to occasionally include some more modern and more easily singable tunes – which was leapt on by the Organist and her spouse, who were quite stern about the need to maintain their traditional approach.I'm afraid that my reaction to this was horror as I just feel that such entrenched views do nothing to help when they are supposed to be looking outwards and just hinders the process of discerning what can be done.I've offered help, but it seems that suspicion of my motives was a bit obvious. I'm regarded as an outsider (I don't live in their parish) although I am a member of another church in our Benefice and worship and am involved in lay ministry across the whole benefice.I actually respect their traditional approach and think that it has its place. But if they wish to attract new, younger members and families to sustain the viability of their congregation they need to be more flexible in attitude and be prepared to try other ways to worship and be church in their community.Being open to God and the influence of the Holy Spirit is something which I felt an absence of here – closed minds make for a closed, dying congregation.

  2. 'Dances not dirges'. Quite. I so agree about the tendency for congregations to sing ever slower unless the organist 'whips them in'. Also, dear old 'Ancient and Modern' used to annotate p, mf & f, which we did our best to obey. I do not know of any modern hymnals with this useful addition, and congregations now 'helpfully' sing every line as fortissimo as they can manage, including on occasion 'Silent Night'.One recent story about speed. A notable organ scholar visited our deanery to play at a special service, for which he had composed one of the hymns. When he began to play more and more slowly until we reached dirge tempo, we inferred that he was not amused to find the 'worship leader' accompanying him in a friendly manner on the electric guitar. The next verse, in contrast, set off with the speed of a tarantella, evidently in the vain hope of throwing his 'rider'.The congregation loved it!

  3. From Canon B 202. Where there is an organist (etc.) … the minister shall pay due heed to his(sic) advice … in the choosing … of the music … but at all times the final … decision … rests with the minister.3. It is the duty of the minister to ensure that only such … are chosen as are appropriate, … and to banish all irreverence in … the performance …

  4. @Artsy – A very good post and I entirely agree with your remarks about tempo. – I once took part in a performance of the St Matthew Passion when the conductor explained that we would be taking it all at a relatively fast tempo, as this would make it easier to sing! – And certainly this is the case for the average congregation, most of whom haven't trained in breathing techniques etc.. @Archdruid – There is some rather unsatisfactory theology in some of the modern stuff too. – And in others there are too many words. (God bless John Bell!) – But I am entirely in favour of the introduction of the didgeridoo. – Nothing irreverent there, in my opinion.

  5. UKViewer,I think that you do have a more systemic problem; I'm not sure what the way forward is. Why is it, do you think, that people in that congregation are so frightened of any change?Lay Anglicana,A good organist with a suitable organ can (and should) vary the volume of hymns, and a sensitive congregation ought to follow suit. There is a time and a place for the guitar. Accompanying the organ is almost never it. Archdruid Eileen,Ah, in the C of E we don't worry about theology in hymns too much. It's too confusing. The rest of the liturgy can take of that bit, in the hymns most people just want to have a good sing. (I don't necessarily agree with this stance, and there are hymns that I avoid because I disagree with them, but it does seem to be common practice to ignore the content of hymns.)DaviGoss — yes, that is the bit of canon law I meant!

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