On Saturday I had the pleasure of conducting the <a href=”http://www.lgq.org.uk”>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to play anything “modern”, the boring drudgery of most hymns, and the problems this causes in making the church seem outdated or old-fashioned among young people.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 Problems with the perception of liturgy as drab or outdated are, in my opinion, usually systemic, but an organist may have more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.